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How many of the items in your home provide jobs, empowerment and dignity to their makers? Why shouldn’t everything we purchase do just that?  All Across Africa allows women living in Africa to use their traditional weaving methods to create meaningful designs and make money to support their families and overcome poverty.  For weavers, the baskets that they create represent status, as weaving has made many of them valued individuals in their society.

All Across America takes the extra step to seek out rural populations that have very few employment options.  They then provide education to create “market-driven employment opportunities to improve and empower the lives of rural and poor people across Africa.”

As part of our Changemakers’ Series, which highlights people and companies doing their part to lead positive change in their industries, we spoke with Alicia Wallace, COO of All Across Africa to learn more about the system that they have created to provide long-term return to their artisans.

All Across Africa

All Across Africa

Little Swappies: How did the idea for All Across Africa come about?

Alicia Wallace: My business partner and I were working together for a non profit in Rwanda. We were running different programs, with the main source of income being generated through fundraising and donations. We realized that we had the most impact was when we could create jobs that were self-funded. Through this experience, we developed All Across Africa, with a focus on designing and making product that sells in the US market and gives back to the communities where the product is initially purchased and created. It’s a double impact that creates a ripple effect in the community.

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Little Swappies: How do you find your artisans?

Alicia Wallace: We have a few methods. Our most common is to work with artisans who have existing skills and a known craft. However, we also select vulnerable populations and train them. For example, we have a UN-funded program that trains returning refugees of war in artisan craft. It’s amazing to see people who have lost everything have their dignity restored by job training and market connection.

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Little Swappies: What strikes you most about the artisans that are a part of the All Across Africa network?

Alicia Wallace: Our artisans are survivors and not victims. The populations we serve are rural, marginalized, genocide survivors, refugees of war, and unemployed youth. They all have heart breaking stories, but are focused on building their future, not perseverating on the past. They want to create value in the world, they want to be proud of their work and they also want to have control over their own lives. That’s where we’ve been able to create value as an organization, not just giving a one-for-one business saying “you need this, so I’m giving it to you.” Instead we’re saying “you have value and can create something in demand and when you’re paid, you get to decide what you need and how to spend it.”

Of course, income needs to also come with training – how to save, how to invest your money wisely, how to take care of your family, etc. We know education is lacking in many developing countries so our first goal is jobs, then once they have a job and income, we teach them what to do with it.

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Little Swappies: Why is important for All Across Africa to educate consumers about the supply chain?

Alicia Wallace: We’re not used to paying more for a product – our world has become flat and competitive meaning cheap goods are everywhere. We work hours outside of major cities, in landlocked countries, working to create jobs for people that have no options. It’s expensive work and being that we’re a social business, many think prices are high because we are looking to exploit and make money off of the poor. The education comes when people learn that what we’re doing is not common. We’re working to reach people no one else is paying to reach. We’re not turning a profit, and if and when we do, the profit’s purpose is to fuel the organization for long term growth – to invest in infrastructure, trainings, and product lines to create a long-term return for our artisans.
Other artisan craft groups are located in Kigali, Nairobi and other major cities. Our work is far from major cities because we want to go far and deep to reach places without options.

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Little Swappies: Can you tell us more about how All Across Africa has impacted the lives of its artisans?

Alicia Wallace: Specifically in Rwanda, baskets are a traditional craft passed down from mother to daughter. It’s never been a source of income for families because there is a surplus in the market, everyone knows how to weave so very few people are purchasing baskets. When we started working in Rwanda our 30 weavers were malnourished. They didn’t have safe housing and clean water. Now when we go out weekly for the buy days, we see our weavers are the wealthy respected business leaders in their community. They have store fronts, own motorcycles and are creating businesses that employ others in their community. Their kids are in school, they have built new homes and I’ve been to a handful of homes where they have put wells on their property!

In the other countries where we work, Uganda and Burundi, our impact looks different. In Burundi, it’s unemployed youth and refugees with no skill or craft. Artisans are born out of their injustice and their dignity is restored. In Uganda we work in the slums in Kampala with displaced women from the LRA war in the north. They’ve lost their families, children, husbands and create beautiful beads out of recycled paper. Their kids are in school and they are saving so that one day they can afford to return home to the north.

In general, the impact is seen physically in tangible things – bicycles, houses, kids in school uniforms, clean water, health insurance, but more than that, we see an attitude shift – from darting eyes and a bowed head to eye contact and a big smile. They are proud to be All Across Africa artisans and they too are making the world a better place through their work.

Little Swappies: What are your plans for the future?

Alicia Wallace: Our plans for All Across Africa’s future include new product lines, new groups, countries, all the while created a larger impact for the 3,000 artisans we currently employ.

For additional information, please visit: http://allacrossafrica.org/