Africa China Economy

After Travelling to Kenya Three Times, a Chinese High School Student Started a New Business with a Group of Massai Women

By Guo Yue from China Africa Project

I am a high school student in China. I have come to Kenya twice for field researches related to community development. This July, I went to Kenya again to do something different.

Kenya is not a major destination for most of my classmates, who are more likely to spend their vacations in America, Australia, and England on travel or summer camps. In contrast, I think Kenya is never as bad as we thought after I had my first life-changing experience in Kenya two years ago.

At first, I went to Kenya to learn community development and wildlife conservation. During the ten days, I had discussions with different wildlife conservation NGOs in Nairobi. Moreover, I patrolled with rangers and visited a community near Tsavo National Park. Tap-water was not available in the village, so local people need to walk miles away to fetch river water for drinking and cooking. The food there was very basic, just beans and potatoes. What was the most difficult for me to believe was that there were so many women still suffering from Female genital mutilation (FGM), a harmful practice for girls and forbidden by Kenyan law in 2011. After this trip, I felt the desire to learn more about women’s situation in Kenya, so I could try to help them in the future.

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Local Massai women teach Yue how to weave a basket during her first trip to Kenya.

I spent my second summer vacation in Kenya learning about women’s empowerment. That was an eye-opening experience, during which I talked with women who were suffering from FGM, visited social enterprises working on improving the living standard for women and NGOs striving to raise people’s awareness of women’s rights. I found that a large amount of NGOs and social enterprises were supporting local women to make handicrafts and sell them abroad; however, China was not among the main export markets. Therefore, I decided to open an online shop with my teammates and sell the handicrafts to Chinese customers. It turned out to be quite a success as a start because we managed to sell all the products we brought and donate the revenue back to the women. Nevertheless, after the second trip, I wished to move a step further and think about helping them to make benefits sustainably.

Yue with her three teammates

Via a Chinese social enterprise called China House, I got connected with Massai Girls Life Time Dream Foundation based on Oloitokitok, Kenya. They had saved five girls aging from 12 to 17 out of FGM and provided support for their study and accommodation. As a grassroots NGO suffering from the lack of funding, the girls were trained to make Massai handicrafts as a way to generate necessary income. Unfortunately, they did not have the right sales channels for their handmade crafts.

After a half-day road trip, I arrived at Oloitokitok town. It was at the border between Kenya and Tanzania and the home of Massai people, one of the most famous nomadic tribes of East Africa. According to Daniel, manager of the Divinity rescue center, FGM practices were rare in Oloitokitok town now. However, if we went further in remote areas, circumcisions were still happening frequently, and local people even did the operation across the border to escape from Kenyan police. The old generation’s attitudes towards FGM remained anchored in the tradition of Massai. A Massai woman replied when asked about circumcision that: “This is to ensure the loyalty of women. When a girl is circumcised means that she is ready to be married.”

After visiting various anti-FGM NGOs in Oloitokitok, I found there was support from America, German, Norway, and England; nevertheless, the help from China was scarcely any. Out of curiosity, I asked residents whether they have heard of Chinese in Kenya. “Yes, of course, they built a road not far from here.” Some villagers mentioned. I realized that it was not because China didn’t do anything; however, China always preferred cooperating with the government. Even though an increasing number of Chinese coming to Kenya as volunteers, the projects are mostly short-term without sustainability. Therefore, I planned to start from small and run the project sustainably with Massai Girls Life Time Dream Foundation.

Yue makes a bag together with a Massai girl in Oloitokitok

Considering that my advantage is the understanding of the Chinese market and background of the art design, I decided to establish a handicraft project with Massai Girls Life Time Dream Foundation by helping them to adjust the product design and open Chinese tourist markets. Massai handicrafts are world-famous for their color schemes and relatively rough manufacture. On the contrary, Chinese tourists are more likely to buy good quality art products such as dark wood carvings and sapphires. So I thought about making bags since people have to use cloth bags after the plastic prohibition in Kenya. After buying fabric from Nairobi downtown, I designed the bags with the manager of the Massai Girls Life Time Dream Foundation. Then, with the assistance of China House, I contacted one of the most famous Chinse souvenir shops in Nairobi. Luckily, they expressed significant interest in our products and were willing to sell the products together.

Yue’s handmade bags with Massai beads

To test the product and get more suggestions for improvement, I decided to sell my bags on the streets in Nairobi, where there were many Chinese people. However, I regretted it immediately after I started my selling because this work was not as simple as I thought at all. It required a lot of courage when you stood in front of strangers and took the initiative to speak to guests. I found that sometimes I was so nervous that I could not even express myself clearly and persuade people to buy the bags.

Even though this special experience frustrated me, I collected many valuable suggestions from customers and realized that public speaking was what I need to learn and improve. At last, I managed to sell 15 bags and launched my bag project in the Chinese souvenir shop in Nairobi.

Yue is selling her bags to prospective Chinese customers

Now I am improving the quality of the bags and designing more products with Massai Girls Life Time Dream Foundation, hoping that we can make various products and create more revenue for the girls in Oloitokitok. I understand that what I did may sound trivial, but I feel honored that I created value with the girls rather than just gave them a donation.

People think Africa countries are backward and not worth visiting, but I can overthrow all these paradoxes with my own experience. If you don’t see them, feel them, talk to them, you will never know the truth behind the words.

Guo Yue is a Student Fellow at China House, a social enterprise that brings young Chinese to the global south for research, conservation activities and development projects.

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