Oregon company gives creative outlet to East African artisans

Swahili African Modern, an American business that sells handmade African home décor, toys and accessories to stores around the world, is on a mission to find more suppliers in the East Africa region.

That drive sent the company’s founder, Leslie Mittelberg, on a four-day mission in November to buy products in Ethiopia, Kenya and Rwanda through a U.S. Agency for International Development program called the East Africa Trade and Investment Hub.

Man holding basket speaking to women gathered (Swahili African Modern)
Two USAID representatives (center) show baskets and discuss pricing with Rwandan women who are interested in doing business with U.S. firms. (Swahili African Modern)

By the end of the visit, Mittelberg had connected with 12 companies and identified roughly 120 products she wanted to purchase for her Portland, Oregon–based company — she expects to spend about $100,000 on new orders. “We have witnessed so much creativity and talent, mixed with industry — creating endless sourcing possibilities,” Mittelberg said.

The hub, funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, advances trade and investment with and within East Africa by promoting two-way trade through the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA). The hub holds trade shows that connect sellers to buyers and assist East African entrepreneurs in exporting their creations. The hub works with eight countries: Burundi, Ethiopia, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda. Trade hubs also are available to serve East Africa and southern Africa.

The three-year-old program bolsters President Trump’s goals to promote two-way trade and investment in Africa. Africa “has a tremendous business potential and representing huge amounts of different markets,” Trump said in September. “And for American firms, it’s really become a place that they have to go — that they want to go.”

The hub’s results have been remarkable: helping to make possible $284 million in AGOA exports since the project began in 2014. It also has created more than 38,000 jobs in all of the countries it works with.

Two women looking at African products arranged for display (Swahili African Modern)
Leslie Mittelberg, founder of Swahili African Modern (right), assesses the quality of products from Inzuki Designs, based in Kigali, Rwanda, with a USAID official (left). (Swahili African Modern)

In the more than two decades since Mittelberg founded Swahili African Modern, it has partnered with businesses in 14 African countries. The company takes on the responsibility of moving the products and supports several fair-trade principles, which include paying workers fairly and on time, providing safe working conditions and creating opportunities for economically and socially marginalized producers.

Those partnerships not only offer a conduit for African artisans looking to sell their wares beyond their local markets, but also empower them to earn money from home while juggling household responsibilities. The company gives artisans the freedom to focus on what they do best — and Mittelberg is always looking for more talent.

One of the businesses Mittelberg visited in November is Songa Designs International, a company in Rwanda that hires women to make handmade, eco-friendly bags and other items from natural materials. While Songa waits to hear whether Mittelberg will order baskets after sending her some pricing information, Songa’s artisans have renewed vigor to succeed.

“They understood the enormous market opportunity in front of them and were more motivated than ever to create a lasting partnership that has a real possibility of growing their businesses with new avenues for sustainable income,” said Sarah Sternberg, Songa’s founder.

This article was written by freelance writer Lenore T. Adkins.