Jenny Nuccio visited Mtepeni, a rural village in Kilifi County, and taught women how to sew.
In the village most of the middle-aged women had never set foot in a school and were selling fruits in the street markets.
Later when she opened a gift shop and workshop in Old Town, Mombasa, she invited the women and Imani collectives was born.
Their mantra is you can teach a woman how to sew and feed a community. In 2013 when the sewing started there were 16 women, the numbers grew and now provides earnings to more than 50 artisans including men who produce the homewares.
Their handmade throw pillows, clutches, bracelets, tote bags, rugs, journals and blankets have been sold in the US, Nairobi, the Netherlands and Israel.
They also enjoy walk-in clients who are mostly vacationers touring the ancient town. In order to make more sales a branch company has also opened doors in Dallas, Texas.
Imani collective sells hand crafted gifts and targets modern day décor with their uniquely designed and handmade souvenirs. Currently their wares are priced between Sh250 and Sh56,000.
“Our shop is very different from most souvenir shops in Old town. We try to keep it African using kitenge with some items but in terms of the products we mostly make we are targeting a modern-day woman who wants neutral colours, which blend well with whatever you have in the house,” said Imani collective Kenya Country Director Femida Otieno.
At the shop there are pillows made using recycled threads, rugs made from sheep’s wool sourced from Kijabe and cotton woven blankets.
Animal pillows are made for children in different patterns and forms including giraffes, llamas and slouths.
Journals made of paper from Lake Victoria hyacinth and leather from Limuru are sold for Sh2,000.
Pillow cases are embroidered with the owner’s name or small love message, and so are the signages.
“We started in a village area then moved to Old Town. It was really small where Jenny started with one woman who was disabled,” she said.
During a visit to the workshop 30-year-old Deborah Nzisa was making a table runner using the macramé art which entails crafting decoration materials using threads in an ornamental knotting forms.
The beautiful table runner made from cotton cords hangs beautifully on the knotting board as she did some final touches to the decorative piece. It has taken her three days.
Years ago Ms Nzisa, who is physically handicapped, was unemployed and desperately looking for a job.
“Some of the organisations never responded to my applications. I was disappointed. My friend told me that Imani Collective was offering a job opportunity in crocheting, because I had the skill, I took the job,” she said.
Ms Nzisa started with crocheting scarfs, weaving and now she does macramé art. She wants to learn basic computer skills and would love to go back to college.
John Muriithi who has been at the centre for three years is specialised in making shawls.
“In a day I can make six to seven,” he added.
Mr Muriithi uses a wooden machine to make the fabric. He also knows how to make and repair the machine because of his vast experience of 35 years working with it.
A group of women also spend most of their time weaving mats and rugs. Joyce Njeri dyes and makes mats.
“The smaller one can take three days while the bigger ones even two weeks because they are hand-woven,” Njeri said.
According to Ms Otieno the group of people who are equipped with artisanal skills may have not had formal education and therefore find it hard to secure a job.
She says the array of custom-made souvenirs and gift are sold to benefit the empowerment centre, keep the women working and helping them earn a reasonable income.
Exhibitions and artisans markets have helped them get more local customers.
“At first we were targeting the USA market because we export but we also realised that our market in Nairobi and Mombasa is growing. We also rely on social media platforms such as Instagram where we have more than 10,000 followers,” said Ms Otieno.
The process of transforming women from makers of personal wares to sewing and weaving at a professional standard for economic gain has not been easy.
Jenny Nuccio, the founder of Imani Collective Ltd, says she had to teach some of the members English among other vital skills including how to save money and invest.
They also have to keep up with international standards.
“We travelled to the states and the people said Africans have good things but are not consistent with what they produce and if they make good things today tomorrow they will be of a low quality. We want to break the notion that Africa cannot produce consistently good handmade items,” said Ms Otieno.
The art of sewing and weaving has also been ignored by the young people and locally sourced materials are sometimes inadequate.
As the demand goes up and the clientele grows, there is a plan to buy spinning machines and carders to prepare wool for use as textile.
Ms Otieno says they also want to preserve weaving skills.
“We are able to offer employment and teach young girls. I have employed today young girls who will get the skills as we realised the skill is slowing dying. Young people do not know how to weave,” Ms Otieno told Business Daily.
They also want to offer employment to as many people as possible and grow into a global brand.
“Our Dallas branch [in the US] is more about making sales. In Kenya, it is mostly programme-oriented and we deal with the woman. We want to employ more people as it is all about empowering women and fight poverty,” she said.
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