By Diane Y. Welch
Through the founding of Solana Beach–based Songa Designs International, Sarah Sternberg, with her business partner and head designer Ellie Kates, has provided a unique business opportunity for talented artisans in East Africa’s once war-torn Rwanda.
It is an endeavor that evolved from Sternberg’s volunteer work, building wells and providing safe water education to communities there five years ago. It has since developed into an international for-profit business that significantly helps reduce poverty through job creation, while supporting Rwandan women to become independent artisans within a global trade market.
The Rwandan artisans produce eye-catching, colorful jewelry and fashion accessories manufactured with locally-sourced materials, such as banana and sisal leaves, said Sternberg. In planning their business relationship with Rwandan artisans, Sternberg and Kates intentionally looked to nature for resources.
“We wanted to make sure that materials were easily abundant and naturally renewable so that the women could go and pick them in their countryside,” Sternberg said.
In 2008 Sternberg had worked for a decade in commercial real estate in the U.S. With the onset of the recession she was laid off and found herself at a crossroads.
“I knew I didn’t want to do real estate for the rest of my life but I wasn’t sure what I would do,” she recalled. At that same time she was also working toward an MBA in sustainable management and joined colleagues who were living and doing volunteer well work in rural Uganda. While there she visited neighboring Rwanda.
“That’s where I was introduced to these talented artisans and noted that there was no link to a global market or even the local market at that time,” said Sternberg who firmly believes in a for-profit business. “When you do business ethically there’s no blurrying of the lines and it’s a simple exchange,” she explained.
Sternberg had the idea to support these artisans by co-founding Rwanda Nziza, the country’s first handicraft store where 100 percent of profits are earned by the artisans. Sternberg also helped spearhead the formation of the Rwanda Fair Trade Artisans Association, a group of over 23 cooperatives with more than 2,000 members whose executive committee has transitioned fully into running the Rwanda Nziza store.
Songa Designs was created locally to work with a network of artisans who had proven talent and specific skills. “We then further trained the women on our specific designs but made sure they still used traditional methods and traditional materials, so that they were building on what they already know,” said Sternberg.
As a result, the jewelry, with its contemporary design, appeals to a modern, western market with the necklaces being a top seller. “It’s field to fashion jewelry using traditional methods,” said Sternberg.
Artisans are paid well for their high quality work and the business supports over 150 women artisans, allowing them to earn a steady income.
Rwandan artisans are proving that they are motivated, strong, and hard-working people, said Sternberg. “They are entering the global economy with dignity and a drive to succeed in business by investing in themselves through their dedication to advancing their individual skills. They want to and they will create better lives for themselves.”
Visit www.songadesigns.com to see the lines of Rwandan jewelry and accessories or to make a purchase. Call Sarah Sternberg at (858) 356-4954 for more information.