Gloria Kisilu’s digital supply chain is turning rural artisans into global entrepreneurs 🇰🇪

Gloria Kisilu’s digital supply chain is turning rural artisans into global entrepreneurs 🇰🇪

#small business
#women
A tribute to her grandmother's basket-weaving legacy is how Gloria Kisilu sees The Shaba, a digital supply chain changing rural artisans' lives by seamlessly blending social impact, design, and tech.

Esther Musembi, bird story agency


When Gloria Kisilu arrived at the Mwende Munyanya Women's Group in Katangi, some 100 kilometres from Nairobi recently, the women engaged in weaving sisal baskets paused their work and broke into song and dance.

 

The women, who Kisilu regards as both friends and business partners, have, thanks in large part to Kisilu, been able to continue a long-standing tradition of weaving baskets, called viondo. The technique they use has been passed down from generation to generation among Kenya's Akamba people.


At 28, Kisilu could be some of the weavers' granddaughter. She has brought a fresh vision to the craft, as the founder and CEO of The Shaba, a digital supply chain built using mobile technology to connect rural artisans to the global market. 


The birth of Kisilu's project, she explained, was inspired by Kisilu's grandmother, who originated from a tradition of communal weaving. Kisilu witnessed her grandmother's struggles up close as she and other hardworking women artisans produced woven baskets that were in demand but failed to make a fair profit.  


“My grandmother used to weave. In this community, weaving is a heritage craft; you learn it from your mother who learnt it from her mother and so on,” Kisilu said.


The project, which uses the Shaba app, is now operational in Kenya's Kilifi, Taita Taveta, Kitui, and Machakos counties and seamlessly blends social impact, design, and tech.

 

Kisilu noted that in her grandmother's time, the baskets were transported to Nairobi and sold at very low prices, resulting in the artisans not being able to reap fair profits. Often, a well-crafted bag would only sell for one dollar.


As a result, the craft began to lose its value, and the women did not feel like they were benefiting from the craft.

 

To honour her grandmother and turn the situation around, Kisilu founded The Shaba in 2019, with official operations commencing in 2021, as a digital supply chain utilising mobile technology to connect rural artisans to the global market. This not only helped to preserve the heritage craft but also ensured that the artisans could earn a fair income.

 

According to a 2022 report by Grand View Research, the global handicrafts market was valued at approximately US$678 billion. Experts predict that it will continue to grow at an average rate of 4.7% each year from 2023 to 2030. 


In Kenya, exports from the wider creative industry generate earnings of over $40 million per year. Handicrafts, however, are still often sold for a pittance.


“If you go to the communities that are not beside highways and major roads, those that are in interior places, the prices in which they are selling the baskets are extremely low. They don’t have access to markets and lack resources such as training,” Kisilu explained.

 

Another factor contributing to the poor profit margins, according to Kisilu, was the lack of quality control so the women would be hard-pressed to sell at very low prices.

 

Kisilu trained the women to make different types of viondos. The measurements and the intricate style were very different from the older traditional bags that incorporated thick yarn into the craftsmanship.

 

“Shaba bags are entirely made of fine sisal thread, the absence of yarn eliminates the constant cleaning needed for the older bags. They are also much smaller; the consumer can wear them like a handbag hence more stylish and functional. It also has a detachable cloth lining which makes it easier to repurpose with fine leather finishing and straps,” said Kisilu.

 

“I was very specific because I knew the market that I wanted to tap into. It had to be something unique that would appeal to Kenyans and also tourists, a huge target for the Shaba as I am looking to go global,” she added.

 

Through the Shaba app, artisans access a broader market via a digital supply chain, eliminating middlemen and maximising profits.  They receive orders directly from the Shaba portal, connected by tablets, and even sell to tourist-centric hotels. 


Kisilu's vision transforms tradition into empowerment, shaping a future where rural artisans thrive globally and tapping a market in which buyers are looking for sustainable handmade products because they want to make eco-friendly and socially responsible choices. This has led to a high demand for sustainable handmade products, which are often created using renewable or recycled materials. 


Handling everyone from sisal harvesters to retailers on the virtual platform, the Shaba promotes products that use eco-friendly production methods and promote the conservation of resources. This growing interest in sustainability is expected to boost the market for handmade products in the future.

 

“We used to sell our viondos at very low prices. We were hardly making profits commensurate with the work that we put in. The middleman would really exploit us. But when the Shaba came, things were much better,” Peninah Mackenzie, the leader of the women's group in Katangi, explained. 


“They buy our products at very good prices and it’s even much better as we can also see the prices and orders for ourselves. Gloria trained us on using the app, and it’s much better as it's in Kiswahili,” she added. 

 

Mackenzie formed the Mwende Munyanya Women Group, in 2015. Its name translates to ‘love your friend’. Mackenzie started training other women in the craft and thanks to kiondo, they were able to pay for health insurance, school fees for their kids and to venture into other income-generating activities, like goat rearing, liquid and bar soap making.


“Our table banking has also improved since the Shaba came into the picture. They pay good money and we put that into our savings. For example, last December, some members even went home with 30,000 shillings (US$204). A big improvement since our early days,” she added.

 

The market is booming because more people are travelling and discovering traditional crafts from different places. The increase in building homes and businesses has also led to a trend in redecorating, with people wanting unique and artistic handicrafts. This means there will likely be a steady demand for handicraft products in the coming years.

 

“I have no husband and I have eight children. I can confidently say I have raised and educated my kids and grandchildren through kiondo weaving,” Dorothy Nzisa, 70, says, the co-founder of the women’s group and also the oldest.

 

“Before we founded the group, we used to burn charcoal, do odd jobs, but it wasn’t sustainable. With the Shaba, we have really upscaled. Money is flowing in and I do not have to heavily depend on my kids. I can put the income I make through the Shaba app into other income-generating activities like farming,” she added.

 

Apart from market linkage, Shaba has helped women diversify in terms of training, access to microloans, and improved table banking which has improved their lives considerably.

 

“When I was looking for women groups to work with, I was very particular in that they needed to have systems. And one important aspect is that they needed to have table banking which translates to financial inclusion which would make it easier for them to access micro-loans and health coverage through the Shaba app,” Kisilu explained.

 

Through the Shaba, the women have been able to purchase a piece of land, where they meet on designated days, and hope to build a commercial building where they can collect rent. To some of the newer members, this is welcome news as it signifies growth and financial capability.

 

“I just used to stay at home with nothing to do. Here I am busy with weaving and hoping to perfect like the rest of the women,” Irene Syombua, the newest and youngest member, 28, said. “I have sold one so far and it made me so happy as I was able to buy things for my family. I want to perfect so I can earn more.”

 

One of the key challenges Kisilu faces is distance and location, especially when it comes to training.

 

“You can’t keep on going to the communities every single time and that’s why tech was, is, important to us. We wanted something that’s easy to understand and that’s why the Shaba App is in Swahili. We needed infrastructure, a community centre, where everything is in one place," Kisilu said. 

 

The Shaba app makes it easier for Kisilu to train women when she can’t be physically there and facilitates other functions such as payment.

 

“Investment in infrastructure such as broadband internet at accessible rates and reliable electricity is needed. This lays the foundation for businesses to thrive online and facilitates seamless supply chain operations,” Chebet Mutai, founder and creative director, Wazawazi, says on policymakers supporting digital marketplaces and supply chains.

 

“They should also establish clear and favourable regulatory frameworks to foster innovation and trust in the digital marketplace,” she adds.

 

She is also keen for the government's help in investing in education and training programs to enhance digital literacy and skills among the artisan community as they often have to train people on the job at their own costs.

 

With wins such as the Africa Youth Innovation Award, Kisilu hopes to scale up and take the Shaba to the global stage.

 

“Even with the challenges, these women’s skills deserve to be celebrated and I hope people get to know and appreciate these skills. I am also working to put the women, and craft, on the global market.”

 

bird story agency


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