Producers | Undugu

Who makes our stuff?

Who makes our stuff?

Undugu, Kenya

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Undugu or ‘brotherhood’ support street children, their families and other marginalised people in three main areas of Kenya: Nairobi, Mombasa and Kisii. Their specialism is soapstone carving, and they make a beautiful variety of soapstone bowls, boxes, jewellery and carvings, including chess sets. Soapstone comes from the Kisii district and the patterns are carved with great skill by the craftsmen. Undugu’s producers also make sisal kiondos and clay bead jewellery.

Undugu is one of the oldest fair trade groups in Africa. It was established in 1973 by the late Father Arnold Grol, a Dutch Catholic priest belonging to the Missionaries of Africa. At that time there were 100,000 kids out of school in slum areas. Father Grol wanted the children to feel a sense of comradeship with each other and so founded a youth club.
Undugu helps street children (and their families, if they have any), out of dire poverty, and back into either education or skills training, depending on their age.

In 2008 the unemployment rate in Kenya was 50%. The social premium from the sale of the products funds education and training, for both young people and their families. Projects include classes in mechanical and electrical engineering as well as lessons in self-worth and how to cut drug dependency.

Many of the street children sniff glue and take other drugs so Undugu help them feel valued, helping them to give up. They learn a practical skill if they are 16 or over or attend school if younger so they will eventually find a job. Education helps to rehabilitate street kids or prevent them from starting on a life on the street.

Barbara Wilson, lovethatstuff director, visits Undugu

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• Rose’s jewellery workshop
The journey to Nairobi from Heathrow is around eight hours and, as we were delayed by an hour, it was already morning when I eventually got through immigration. Fred Masinde, General Manager of Undugu, was waiting for me as I came out and I was really happy to see his infectious grin. We drove to the Ivrea Sisters' hostel, where I was staying, which is run by Catholic nuns, and Fred and I easily fell into conversation about things fair trade and life in general in Kenya.

On Monday morning we decided to visit some of the jewellery producers. Turning off the main road in Dandora, a Nairobi suburb, we followed a red earth track for a short distance and arrived at Rose's workshop. Made of wood and measuring roughly 12' x 10' it had two work benches with eight artisans at work. The artisans were smartly dressed, which I thought a really nice touch, and looked happy in their work. Rose was the boss. She thought up the designs and colours, and paid the workers a good piece rate.
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• Kisii Soapstone Arts & Craft
It's impossible to guarantee continuous employment at the moment since the group rely on both tourist and export orders coming in. We looked at the magazines and examples I'd brought and agreed that lovethatstuff would fund a week's development time for Rose to see if she could come up with designs to suit white skin. We had a good laugh about how many more colours looked better on her skin than mine.

Early on Tuesday Fred and I left Nairobi and headed south east to meet the South Yatta Women's Group who produce kiondos. The road to Machakos was dusty and pitted. For long stretches it was like driving over cobblestones as there was lots of new road surfacing going on.

We reached Katangi, some way outside Machakos, around 2pm and I was overjoyed to be in the countryside and see some flowers, trees and birds. It hadn't rained for several months but nevertheless it was beautiful.
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• South Yatta Women’s Group
Patricia, who ran the South Yatta Women's Group, was stylishly dressed in pink and white. We looked at lots of kiondos (natural sisal fibre, handwoven bags) in various shapes and sizes and, along with Monica, the designer, mused over different combinations of colours and types of leather handles etc.

Between the three of us we narrowed down three bright colours and four muted colours. I paid for the women to produce samples and for the delivery to Undugu. As with all the producers I've met, I really liked Patricia - a strong, inspiring woman with a gentle, yet confident manner. The women need the income from the bags as although many producers will have some access to land to grow staples, they need some cash as well and, with the paucity of rain, food supplies can be worryingly low.
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• Soapstone carving
One of Undugu's longest established product lines is soapstone carving. So, early on the fourth day Fred, Norah and I went by bus to Kisii and on to Tabaka. Soapstone supports a whole town. To start with, the quarry provides jobs for extracting, sawing and shaping the stone to the necessary sizes.

Then in the town of Tabaka itself and its outskirts, artisans of varying skills levels create a good range of products: jewellery, chess sets, key ring fobs, paperweights, boxes, figures, and animals. I met and talked to many artisans.
…many producers will have some access to land to grow staples, they need some cash as well and, with the paucity of rain, food supplies can be worryingly low…
Barbara Wilson

Soapstone carving

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• James’s group
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• Mary Ombuy
Daniel, the production manager from one of the cooperatives, had been a teacher and decided to see if he could practically support some artisans in his home areanear Kisii. They started in 2002 with just 300,000 Kenyan shillings (around US $430) and the cooperative now employs more than a hundred men and women. Their shop is well placed on the main highway from the Masai Mara to Tanzania so quite a few tourists visit and this helps the group sell carvings in reasonable quantities.
Undugu are doing a great job against very challenging odds


The workers all own a share in the business and where they can, with their profits, diversify into other areas. Two people have bought land. One man bought cows and now sells milk, and a woman raises chickens to sell - she has built a house and now has 300 hens. Upskilling and diversifying in this way generally helps the local economy.

I visited James Nyandieka in his house where his family are making soapstone heart pendants for lovethatstuff. James is managing to also provide work to 30 women and 15 men and the income they get supports their families' education, food and healthcare. All of the children go to primary and secondary school and some go to university. As I had brought some plain heart pendants back that weren't selling in the UK very well, James and his family managed to experiment with colours and designs. It was wonderful to watch them at work, see the results and decide which were the strongest right there on the spot. We had a soda and I felt really comfortable in their small house chatting to them and taking photos of the whole family.

The village of Tabaka was lined with workshops on both sides of the street. Women as well as men carve soapstone and Mary Ombuy was very talented at fine work for chess sets. Moffat Aboya made lovely key fobs, Yodom Siangu lovely miniature figures. The broad sweeping background of green hills, with huge trees dotted across neat fields showed this to be a fertile area but one with an increasing population density and resultant claims to land. Farms were small and so couldn't support people fully - they needed a cash income as well.

The sun was going down when we left Tabaka and we had spent the whole day meeting different artisans yet there was still another to see before we left. Evans Some was making very cute paperweights, now on sale in our Brighton Marina shop. We spoke briefly to some of the master carvers and goggle eyed with the cornucopia of goods, we went back to Kisii for the night.

Undugu are doing a great job against very challenging odds and it was wonderful to see so many artisans not only supporting themselves and their families but contributing to great programmes for street children with the extra social premium they get from fair trade. Well if that doesn't make you feel good, I don't know what will! Enjoy buying your products from Undugu.

Hands of Hope, Kenya

Hands of Hope Artisans Carvers’ Self Help Group is a registered charity in the rural town of Tabaka, in the western province of Kisii, Kenya. The project started because of the tremendous number of vulnerable artisans, particularly women and young people in this area. As land is handed down, it is often split between family members and thus it’s common for plots of land to be too small to generate enough subsistence or income to live on. So, earning via craft is most helpful in helping artisans make ends meet.

The projects’ goals are to generally improve the artisans’ lives as well as raising community living standards, improving healthcare opportunities and promoting education through fostering the talents of these vulnerable groups. They do this through producing and marketing soapstone carvings, jewellery, and postcards. Lovethatstuff is developing a range of beaded necklaces as a result of Geoffrey Okwankwo contacting Barb and explaining their situation.

Hands of Hope’s main activity currently is overseeing the production and subsequent marketing of the products. Since they started, the project has been able to improve the living conditions of its members directly and indirectly through the sales of the finished products both local and internationally.

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