I’m currently in Kenya on a BFF trip to bring new styles to the US, work with our artisans on quality control and source new products. The ten hour time change and weather have proven challenging. The first few days here I woke up every morning at 2 am on the dot. It’s also the start of the rainy season as well, so to say it’s hot and humid is an understatement!
We’re in the process of sourcing scarves made by refugee women as well as working with our artisans to create smaller items including key chains, hair bands and jewelry. It’s an exciting time as there are so many beautiful products made by amazing artisans across the country and beyond.
A challenge we have come across though in my time abroad is quality. There are so many interesting products that many BFF supporters would be interested in, but it can be a problem to source the highest quality materials. That is one of the reasons BFF is proud of our supplier, Lydia. She continues to source the highest quality products both locally and abroad to ensure our shoes will last for years. Because of the handmade nature of the shoes, we continue to provide feedback and work closely with the artisans to ensure quality is priority.
With each shoe order we learn more about what works and what doesn’t. Many of you have provided valuable feedback on the shoes and we are so appreciative! I have taken many comments back to the workshops and these serve as guides as we place future orders.
Yesterday I had a meeting with the artisans, going over common pitfalls we’ve had in the past regarding beading, packaging, leather colors, etc. They call me “mwanamke mkali” or “tough woman” because I have a very keen eye for what will last and what won’t.
Before the quality control meeting, BFF provided lunch for the artisans. Or I should say we provided a goat, rice and vegetables. Many of the women were kind enough to cook – I stirred the goat stew occasionally. We moved a few tables outside so the women cooking could chat with the women beading. While I was sitting there, Esther, the workshop Manager, handed me a small flower cut out of leather (the toe piece for the Maua shoe style for those of you who are familiar with it) and told me to try beading. Needless to say I got laughed at. A lot.
With her extreme patience, I was able to finish the center and the outside outline of the flower in about an hour. And it wasn’t even good. Lydia told me I’d need a few more weeks practice before she’d consider hiring me. At my current rate it would have taken me two days to finish the beading on a single pair of shoes. Lydia took the flower and turned it into a keychain. It serves as an additional reminder of the immense work, precision and skill that goes into making each pair of BFF’s.
The experience has not turned me into less of a mwanamke mkali when it comes to ensuring BFF is receiving the best handmade sandals in East Africa, but it continues to inspire me to advocate on behalf of our artisans. By the end of the quality control meeting, several artisans looked frustrated with the number of small issues we’d seen in a few pairs of shoes we’d received. That’s when I asked them whether they were proud of the work they were doing. I showed them my small beading (which received more well-deserved laughs) and reiterated what so many of you have said to me – how impressed you are with what they are able to do, the fact that they’re artists and are creating something unique and beautiful that people love. It continues to amaze me that such incredible and continually improving products can come out of a workshop that could not be more rudimentary.