Fair-trade Leakey Collection transforming Kenyan society through jobs for men and women

Maasai women work on beading and sewing projects for the Leakey Collection.
( / Courtesy photo)

Thanks to The Leakey Collection, as many as 1,500 Kenyans have jobs creating sustainable products that are purchased all around the world. Katy Leakey, who founded the company with her husband, Philip Leakey, recently visited Del Mar from her home in Kenya for the Fair Trade Federation’s annual conference.

“The fact that we’re neighbors, we’re all members of the same community, makes an enormous difference,” Leakey said. “We don’t have the perspective that we’re helping anyone; we’re just a neighbor. They help us and we help them. We’re all equal.”

Leakey and her husband, a third-generation Kenyan, live in the rural bush of the Rift Valley in Kenya, among the Maasai people. In the early 2000s, the drought-stricken land left people hungry and jobless.

“The women had been left behind, and the men had taken the cattle elsewhere to try and keep them alive,” recalled Leakey. “Thousands of people in the Rift Valley were affected by this.”

To help, the Leakeys financially supported more than 100 of their neighbors, providing money for food, medical assistance and education. As the numbers grew, however, the couple looked for a way to expand and sustain their reach.

“We had to come up with something that would give them an income and keep them on their feet,” she said.

“We both had an idea to do something like this before we knew the need was there to create a fair trade company. When the need presented itself, it was an obvious solution to use products to solve the problem.”

Katy and Philip Leakey. “We love nature and we’re inspired by nature,” Katy says.
( / Courtesy photo)

Originally from Southern California, Leakey is an artist and a designer. She earned a bachelor of fine arts degree at Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles. When she moved to Kenya in 2001, her husband had recently ended a career in politics and was working on a project focused on land issues and conflict prevention.

Combining their talents, the couple founded The Leakey Collection in 2001. The international fair trade company, with a warehouse based in Carlsbad, offers jewelry, home goods and skin care products handmade by the Maasai men and women of Kenya.

At first, The Leakey Collection only provided job opportunities for women. Within five days of launching the company, 350 women accepted work. By the end of the year, the number had jumped to 1,200. More jobs were later opened to men.

Today, there are 13 worksites spanning 150 miles. Depending on the season, 1,400 to 1,500 Kenyans accept work with the company each month.

“I love people,” said Leakey, who designs the pieces. “I love the men and women there, and seeing what a big difference it makes in their lives. It’s really remarkable how much good fair trade does.”

One of the company’s most popular products are the Zulugrass and glass bead strands, which can be worn as necklaces, bracelets or hairbands.

The Leakey Collection provides assembly kits to the artisans. Every kit includes enough materials for 10 pieces. When the pieces are assembled, the women bring them back and are paid for their work. The more they produce in one day, the more money they earn per piece.

“We love nature and we’re inspired by nature,” said Leakey about the company’s sustainable products.

The products are available on the company’s website and at various stores, including Fair Trade Décor in Del Mar, Urban Girl Accessories in Del Mar and San Diego, Bliss 101 in Encinitas and the San Diego Zoo.

The Leakey Collection has been a member of the Fair Trade Federation, a trade association that strengthens and promotes North American organizations fully committed to fair trade, for at least a decade. The company recently had to renew its membership, proving that it sources all of its products in compliance with the Fair Trade Principles and the Code of Practice.

Leakey was one of many fair trade producers and store owners in Del Mar from March 24-26 for the association’s annual conference. She was one of the event’s keynote speakers.

“The benefits of fair trade are incredible — it’s life-changing for the people on the ground, the producers, the artisans around the world,” she said. “Fair trade is not a gimmick. Fair trade is not a slogan. Fair trade transforms communities. It really, truly does.”

For example, when the Leakeys moved to the area where they are living now, she said that many people were malnourished, few children had clothing and at least one woman would die during childbirth each month.

“It was really one of the most poor areas of Kenya,” she said.

Within a few years of establishing fair trade work opportunities, however, the community has completely transformed. When the women began earning money, they first fed their children, then enrolled an additional child in school, and later used surplus money to start a small business.

Having a larger role in the local community and economy, said Leakey, means that “women now have a political voice, which they never had before. They are actively working to shape the community.

“That’s what fair trade does. It wouldn’t happen if people didn’t buy fair trade products.”

For more about The Leakey Collection, visit www.leakeycollection.com.

For more about the Fair Trade Federation, visit www.fairtradefederation.org.