Life can take strange twists and turns for the volunteer staff at Food for the Hungry (FH), a Christian NGO. During 2007 and 2008, FH partnered with the Rwandan government to help train workers, and promote businesses in Southern Rwanda’s rural communities. The goal was to give the locals the necessary skills to run a business, and the program was successful—up to a point.
Many of the rural entrepreneurs still struggled financially. The FH team brainstormed ways to help the rural communities to access larger markets that would ultimately increase funds available within the community, but could also be invested in products and services, creating a cycle of development. From that, Azizi Life took its first breath.
Key to Azizi Life’s principles is sustainability. The organization supports community-organized artisan groups that work independently throughout Rwanda’s southern province. Azizi Life’s team includes a Rwandan staff and Western partners that for the past five years have coached both women and men in craft. Apart from helping artisans expand their traditional processes in creating baskets, bowls, jewelry and home goods and ornaments, Azizi Life also offers guidance in developing designs, but also creating non-traditional items in variety of colors and design elements that appeal to western consumers.
“Even more than coaching in craft, Azizi Life desires to participate in the artisans’ vision for the well-being of their families and communities. We believe that, for all of us, true thriving is only possible when we experience wholeness in all the areas where life can be broken: within ourselves and the environment, and in relationship with God and with one another. Fair wage income is essential, but it’s only one piece of the puzzle. With that in mind, we are developing a framework through which artisans who want to make an impact can be trained to mobilize others in a grassroots movement for whole-life development,” said Christianna Whitekettle, Artisan Liaison at Azizi Life.
Programs range from faith-building to community-building resources. “Weekly English lessons are also offered, as well as periodic training of trainers in areas such as first aid (in conjunction with the Rwandan Red Cross) and building strong character (in conjunction with Kugana 10-40). Our team is also available for mediation and advising when cooperatives face challenges,” said Whitekettle.
Azizi’s collection includes a wide mix of traditional craft—sisal-woven bowls, classic Rwandan peaked baskets—but also products with an international appeal such as bags, Christmas décor, jewelry and home goods. “One of Azizi Life’s strengths is our consistent presence both in the US and in Rwanda, which enables us to serve as a bridge between customers and artisans. We love working on both sides of that bridge to facilitate specialty designs, such as our lines of wooden toys, greeting cards and nursery décor for Global Mothers in Vancouver. Volunteer designers from the US collaborate with our Rwanda team for the creation of Azizi Life’s new products each year. Artisans also craft special order wedding favors and branded products for company gifts,” Whitekettle said.
In addition, the organization’s Rwanda office, a devoted design corner was created for visiting artisans and guests to see upcoming trends and join forces, fostering creativity and innovation. “In the future, we envision a training program through which artisans may grow in their capacity to create their own new designs with locally sourced materials,” Whitekettle added.
Azizi Life will be introducing their range of products for the very first time at the upcoming Artisan Resource® at NY NOW® from August 16-19. The collection will include woven baskets and bowls, jewelry, ornaments, wood carvings.