This article is part of our series on small companies with a big mission in five areas: women, kids, community, planet, and hope. Click here for more articles in the series.
It’s not every walk home from school that carries the potential to completely re-fashion a life — much less sixteen lives and counting. But for Jenny Nuccio, those after-school walks in Kenya were the genesis of a holistic lifestyle brand designed to lift up women in every area of their lives.
Back in 2013, at a local church service in Texas, Jenny had learned about an NGO that was starting a school near the port city of Mombasa. Jumping at the chance to help develop a child sponsorship program, she arrived in Kenya and got to know each student while fulfilling her daily responsibility of walking them to their homes.
As she tried to best determine each child’s individual needs, Jenny frequently struck up conversations with their moms at the door. It wasn’t difficult to trace a generational connection: The same kids she saw floundering at school belonged to women who struggled to provide for their families at home.
In the Mombasa region, about 84% of girls enroll in primary school, but nearly one-third drop out before completing the 8th grade. With 46% of Kenyans living on less than $1.90 per day, many families struggle to finance schoolbooks and uniforms, leaving their children with little opportunity for learning a trade that could provide income above hawking fruit for pennies a day.
When Jenny first tried to address this cycle of poverty by teaching 16 women how to sew, she never dreamed it would grow into the Imani Collective, an artisan enterprise that handcrafts organic, family-oriented home décor, including wall banners, pillows, and rugs.
Kids & Modern Mamas
Despite a contribution of only 0.6% to the country’s total GDP, Kenya has high hopes for developing its textile and clothing industry, both locally and for the export market. To date, over 75,000 micro and small businesses operate in some part of the textile value chain, so it’s no wonder that the Ministry of Industrialization views the sector as a “potential gateway” to economic diversification.
That’s not to say bolstering the larger Kenyan economy was at the forefront of Jenny’s mind, as she laid out a pattern while hosting her first sewing class. “She knew that any skill, and not just sewing, in particular, could help,” Carly Oosten, Imani’s Director of Partnerships and Community Engagement, told us.
“Jenny had some basic sewing knowledge from her grandmother and other women in her family; she was using what she knew.”
But in that first class, as Jenny looked around the room at the women’s blank faces, she realized that many of them couldn’t read the measuring tape. “From that point, she knew Imani Collective had to be more than just teaching a skill,” Carly says.
Imani Collective has evolved over several years into a price-competitive lifestyle brand catering to kids and their modern mamas. Today, you’ll find eighty-some women artisans creating canvas banners and plush pillows, among a selection of woven goods.
Of the myriad artisan brands in the ethical lifestyle market, Imani is the first to offer a product line that’s decidedly kid-friendly — a fairly recent development in the collective’s history, when they rebranded in 2017.
“Imani has always been a holistic empowerment program, before a lifestyle brand- at the end of the day, all decisions about what products to bring to market are made in the interest of what would best sustain the program, so our artisans can thrive holistically,” says Carly
Collective & Community
Strategies to facilitate holistic personal improvement go well beyond vocational training. Imani’s artisans have collectively participated in over 400 hours of financial literacy instruction, termed “dream management.”
Take Selina C., who came to work for Imani after her husband died in a tragic accident. She says Imani’s tight-knit sense of community empowers her to be a confident mother to her two children. She’s also planning for the future, growing her own tailoring business so she can employ other women and help them get on their feet, sharing her newfound hope.
Beyond the collective itself, Imani’s impact reverberates through the broader community. For every blanket woven and pillow sewn, a number of local businesses are supported. “We provide a pretty significant, consistent income to our fabric supplier every month,” says Carly, not to mention the man who prepares the wood dowels for canvas banners and the farmers who raise sheep for wool.
The freshly shorn fleeces come direct from farm to collective, where Imani’s woolworkers receive and process them. In an intentional effort to rejuvenate a dying art, Imani makes space for master weavers to practice their craft and train up apprentices: Despite Kenya’s rich textile heritage, only a few people today know how to weave on either a foot loom or a set loom.
“It’s an attraction even for locals,” Carly noted. “People walk into our workshop in Mombasa’s Old Town and are amazed to see a foot loom in action.”
When Women Succeed
Equally amazing is that many of Imani’s woven products are sold within the country at a reasonable price-point. Imani’s product lines differ a little depending on their final destination, but the company believes artisans and the local population should enjoy the same handmade, high-value goods as customers in the West.
True to Jenny’s original concern for children, Imani offers a free in-house program: Currently, 24 of the artisans’ littlest ones receive daily care and enrichment, preparing them to take entrance exams for school once they’re old enough.
The support doesn’t stop there. After a woman meets tenure requirements with the collective, Imani will sponsor tuition costs for one of her children. With all their fees covered, 50 kids now have a chance to complete their education and become changemakers in their community.
“We’re focused not just on our women, but on their influence in their communities and on their children,” explains Carly. “When women succeed, and their children succeed, the community succeeds.”
“Looking at the whole person is the art of what we do. Education is a huge component to better understanding the world, and ultimately, having opportunities in life.”
Spend for good: Visit the online shop at Imani Collective to browse dozens of handcrafted textile items for your home and nursery. Not finding exactly what you need? You can request a quote a fully customized creation. And don’t leave the site without meeting the artisans who create each piece by hand — you can even send a personal note of thanks or encouragement.
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