Editor’s Note: The following is part of a series written by Anthony ‘Tony’ Peele, a social entrepreneur who co-founded Swahili Coast with his wife Caroline and a volunteer and board member of the Full Belly Project.
Greetings from Dar es Salaam. After arriving on a 3 a.m. late flight from Nairobi, I’m still up bright and early to walk the crowded streets, eager to begin my work. My brain recalls the familiar words of Swahili, and I smile through the unfamiliar ones.
I start with a walk around the city center to buy some ladyfinger bananas and a cup of coffee. Dar is one of my favorite cities in the world — a cosmopolitan hub of commerce and industry in coastal Tanzania, it is always crowded with excitement. Hawkers line the streets selling fruits, juices, coffee, soaps and all sorts of modern oddities.
Dar is home to 3 – 5 million people, depending on where you draw the borders of the city. The coastal climate isn’t too different from an eternal Wilmington summer. Coming back to Dar is always exciting. I have old friends here, some whom I’ve known since I studied abroad at the University of Dar es Salaam in 2009. I lived here in 2013 and 2014 while I was a Fulbright Fellow in Economics, and then later when I founded the social enterprise brand Swahili Coast.
While I was a Fulbright Fellow, I ran a project studying the efficiency of storage programs for corn. I had an apartment in Dar, but I did fieldwork in remote parts of central and southern Tanzania meeting with farmers that participated in foreign aid programs for corn storage. I spent long weeks on the road in my vehicle with a field research team. We looked at food storage programs and conducted 200 interviews with farmers and various officials in agriculture. On our way back to town, we’d make sure to stop by the national parks to gaze at the elephants, giraffes, and buffalo on the plains.
Once my Fulbright project was completed, I had built lasting connections with people in Tanzania. I didn’t want to let it go to waste. So I dreamed up a new project – Swahili Coast. Swahili Coast is a social enterprise – meaning that it’s a private company, but our mission is to develop opportunities for women in East Africa with fair wages and stable employment. We aren’t chasing money blindly; we are trying to leave the world better than we found it. I’ll talk more in a later piece about why we decided to be a private business rather than a charity, but for now I’ll tell you about the cooperative.
Our partner here in Dar is Ushirika wa Shanga Maua Pwani, which translates to the Cooperative of Coastal Beadworkers. Think of the cooperative as a small scale factory, except the workers own it. We raised the money to start the co-operative through selling Tanzanian sandals, but we don’t maintain any ownership. It is 100% worker-owned, so the artisans are all part-owners of the business.
The co-op is a lively place. On any given day 15 – 35 women drift in after sunrise to have a seat around a communal wood table to work on today’s beadworking projects. I arrive at 10 a.m. and the air is a cool 75 degrees, with a nice breeze blowing through the modest 2,000-square-foot, open-air co-op building. The atmosphere is always lively. Tanzanian pop music blares from a stereo in the familiar rhythmic cadence of Swahili. I’ve made a surprise visit, and on arrival work stops so that we can catch up. These are people I’ve known now for years now so it’s never a quick reunion. I’m introduced to a few new members that have joined, and some older members are quick to tease me for still not having kids.
My first reaction is humbling. Life for many people in Dar is challenging — but the stable income earned by co-op members is distinctly transformative. Members here are earning around five times the local wages for artisanal beadwork, which is made possible by capturing the value and eye of American consumers.
I’m here to meet with the co-op to work on a few new projects that we have coming up in the pipeline. We are working on the launch of a new program where American consumers can learn more about the co-op members themselves and send money directly to them as a bonus if they like their products. We will also be working on new designs for bracelets, and a leather tote bag, both of which we will push for delivery to our wholesale accounts around the USA. Every trip seems to be shorter than I’d like, so it doesn’t take long for us to get down to business.
You can follow along with my travels at @Anthony_Peele on Instagram
Find more information about Full Belly Project online.