Producers | Bombolulu

Who makes our stuff?

Who makes our stuff?

Bombolulu, Kenya

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Bombolulu’s disabled workshops employ 160 people from all over Kenya. They are members of WFTO (World Fair Trade Organisation).

Founded in 1969 as a rehabilitation centre, they were largely supported by the Association for the Physically Disabled of Kenya. Now, they are working towards social and financial independence. They deserve to earn a decent living from their wonderful skills.

They make a range of lovely jewellery, carved wood and leather goods. Jewellery is made from mixed materials, including beads which the Masai and Turkana use, semi-precious stones, silver plate, brass, bone, soapstone, and recycled materials (for example safety pin and telephone wire and drinks cans).
Their beautiful carvings - masks, bowls and salad servers, are handpainted with colours and patterns that reflect their environment. Batik bone is also used. Wood, including mahogany and neem for salad servers, comes from sustainable farm forest - branches are harvested and so this avoids cutting the trees down. Leather products include belts and bags.

Most of Bombolulu’s workers have sheltered housing on site. There is a nursery for the workers’ children and a big playing field which the older kids use for football. Their mobility workshop makes wheelchairs and other aids for those who need them. Security of employment is an enormous help to disabled workers as the Kenyan government doesn’t provide any social benefits. As one worker, Alice Mumbua, said, “Without Bombolulu, I’d probably be begging on the streets.”

Barbara Wilson, lovethatstuff director, visits Bombolulu

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• Bombolulu shop and cultural centre

The journey by bus from Nairobi to Mombasa takes about seven hours, through immense dusty grassland plains dotted with acacia. Then there are rich red earth hills with smallholdings and after, on to vast, dry plains again with the curious upside down looking baobab trees. And finally, we reach the lusher, greener outskirts of Mombasa. I spend the whole seven hours with my nose glued to the window, watching the panoramas unfold, while most of the rest of the bus sleep, eat and read. I guess they've seen it all before.

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• Bombolulu jewellery designer

The sun is going down as we reach the main Mombasa bus stop and there is John, one of Bombolulu's drivers, with the mini-bus. We are around an hour late because of the horrendous traffic in Nairobi and, boy, am I really happy to see him. On the way to Bombolulu he tells me about his wife and four children, and that, although primary school is now free, school uniforms aren't and these have to be new and are expensive.

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• Elizabeth, admin

Why is there no secondhand school uniform scheme? This seems quite perverse, especially since almost all the rest of the clothes people wear are secondhand, brought in from the waste created by the excesses of the US clothing market mainly, and sold in market stalls by Kenyans. Home produced clothing with African cotton is comparatively too expensive for most people.

Elizabeth is there to meet me when we arrive. She is tall and lovely with a beautiful smile and gentle voice. She takes me to the guesthouse, which is spacious and comfortable. Very kindly, the restaurant have prepared dinner for me - vegetable stew and bread - mmm, very good. I am pretty tired by the journey so Elizabeth and I agree to meet at 8.30 the next morning. Bombolulu has four workshops employing 160 people and is part of APDK (Association of Physically Disabled of Kenya).
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• Mobility workshops

The Kenyan government doesn't provideany money for the disabled so it's up to NGO's (non-govermental organisations) like APDK to practically support people with disabilities. On that first morning, Hubert Siefert, the executive director, explains to me that times are tough because Bombolulu is being hit hard by the drop in tourist numbers after the recent political unrest in the Rift Valley.

Their export sales usually account for 45% of income, and tourist revenue 55%. Disastrously, the tourist revenue has dropped by 92% but fortunately, their export partners have rallied to increase their sales, helping Bombolulu Workshops through a difficult time. The coming months will prove a challenge since export customers have already ordered for Christmas so there will be a lull before spring. Bombolulu hope tourists will return this winter - there are no safety nets here - no sales, no income.
As always when I've visited producer groups, I am inspired by their talent and courage, and humbled by their tenacity in the face of huge odds.
Barbara Wilson

Happily though, Bombolulu are well set up for tourists. They have a beautifully designed shop in stone, wood and grass, and similarly designed restaurant and cultural centre. Here visitors can eat, listen to music, watch traditional dance, and join in too. You can visit traditional bomas or houses from some of Kenya's 42 different ethnic groups.

Bombolulu also have good working conditions. I visit all four of the workshops: jewellery, leather, carving and fabric. I meet, talk to and exchange ideas with many delightful, talented artisans. We explore potential new designs and decide to develop wallets, belts, sandals, more jewellery and some clothing. Many of the workers live on site in single storey blocks of houses. The mobility workshop make their own wheelchairs and other aids for the disabled. They have a nursery school for the young children and a football pitch for the older ones.

It is wonderful to meet everyone and put faces to names, including Marcia, the export manager, who I'd emailed regularly, and to speak in depth to Peter and Alice about the difference Bombolulu makes to their lives (see below for their stories).

As always when I've visited producer groups, I am inspired by their talent and courage, and humbled by their tenacity in the face of huge odds. We have had time to laugh together and to exchange ideas. Everyone has been immensely friendly and they have looked after me incredibly well. I have felt very easy in their company with the occasional silences being natural rather than awkward. There's a huge wealth of talent, from the individual artisan, right through to the admin and executive staff, and all are working together for a better future for Bombolulu workers and the disabled in Kenya.

So if you've read this far, please look at their lovely products and choose something for you or a friend. Their livelihood depends on sales and every sale helps. Thank you so much for your support.
  • Alice Mumbua’s Story
  • Peter Ouma’s Story
Tab 1
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Alice Mumbua has worked at Bombolulu for 22 years - she started in 1993. Working at Bombolulu has helped her to move on in life and be more independent and in fact without this work she could be on the streets begging. The Kenyan government does not provide any money for the disabled so it's up to places like Bombolulu to help the disabled earn a living.

Bombolulu decide which workshop is best for people according to their disability. Most of the permanent staff are blind, one-handed or have a serious medical condition. The deaf mostly work in the tailoring or mobility workshops. When she first arrived, Alice got six months' training in making jewellery and was so nervous that her work wouldn't be up to standard that she couldn't stop her hands shaking, but she worked hard and her confidence grew.

Now she feels very good and at home with her fellow workers. She lives on site with two adopted girls - the youngest is in standard 1 and the oldest has been in secondary school since 2004. She was given custody of her daughters by her family so that she would feel like everyone else.

The working day starts at 7.30am and lunchtime is at 12.45pm. The afternoon starts at 2pm and finishes at 5pm so it's a full eight hours. Workers can also do overtime if orders are good. The money Alice earns is regular and means she can manage - she eats meat about once a week and her kids will have porridge with some fresh milk for breakfast. Milk is comparatively very expensive in Kenya so it's good she can buy this.
Tab 2
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Peter is 34 and has worked at Bombolulu as an artisan for more than 22 years in the design section of the jewellery workshop. He makes some of the prototypes which wholesale customers will choose to buy in bulk and by Kenyan standards he earns a good living. He is very positive about his work and pleased that he chose jewellery.

Peter had polio as a child because there was no vaccine available. He uses a wheelchair as he cannot walk but his upper body is strong and it's easy to see he must be a talented basketball player. Basketball is his passion and his dream is to be one of the best wheelchair basketball players in the world. Apparently, a local hotel, the Whitesands, lets the basketball team use their court to practise.

When Peter finished school, he went to Nairobi to train in shoe making and later APDK (Association for the Physically Disabled of Kenya) gave him work as an apprentice to a jewellery artisan.

He found he much preferred jewellery to shoe making. Last year he got married to Immaculate, who also works at Bombolulu. They have a small house on site and now have a very bonny nine month old son, Walter.

Peter is developing some new designs for Lovethatstuff. I really enjoyed his company and working with him. He radiates optimism. It's wonderful and infectious. Go to it Peter, it was a great pleasure and privilege to meet and spend time with you, and I hope we sell loads of your jewellery! Thanks. Barb.
Please remember folks that neither Bombolulu nor lovethatstuff can wave a magic wand and provide work without sales. So, please choose something from the website or come to one of our markets. Alternatively, if you're planning a holiday, why not go to Kenya? It's very beautiful and you could visit the Bombolulu shop while you're there - see our photo gallery for some of the sights.