Africa is a continent that is full of possibilities and challenges. With a population of more than 1 billion and a low labor demand, unemployment is as high as 80-96% across sub-Saharan Africa. Throughout the continent, men and women need income that sustainable jobs provide to support their families with food, shelter, and education. But where are the jobs?
At All Across Africa, we have an answer: high volume handmade production. Even though we were told that building a sustainable supply chain in Africa would be practically impossible, we did it. In fact, today we are the largest artisan employer in Africa, with more than 6,200 artisans who support 35,300 dependents.
All Across Africa’s mission is to create ethical, sustainable jobs and markets to alleviate poverty in Africa. We believe that everyone deserves to make a fair wage to support themselves and those around them, no matter where they live in the world. That is why we have created a first-of-its-kind technology, resource and distribution platform that unites woven-goods artisans, their communities, and sustainable materials. We source and produce all of our products in Rwanda, Uganda, Ghana, and Tanzania, while leveraging a design and sales team infrastructure in the U.S., resulting in stunning product designs, and exceptional wholesale and retail expertise. We have also developed significant online sales, digital catalogs, and in-store marketplaces for handmade decor and gifts.
Our early days were filled with obstacles, but we knew failure was not an option – our mantra was “Usefe Moyo” (“never give up” in Swahili). We had a commitment to our artisans to ensure that they could create better lives for themselves. It took tenacity, hard work, and a lot of learning, but we made it happen.
Through a combination of building a successful supply chain, a strong customer base, and committed investors we have seen over 36,000 lives improved in 2021 alone. The artisans themselves, 98% of whom are women, say they were able to improve their family’s nutrition, access to education and healthcare, learn new life skills, and contribute to their communities where they are now respected as businesswomen.
One of the most important parts of building a sustainable supply chain at All Across Africa is to realize that some systems in place will outgrow themselves as we continue to expand. For example, when we started All Across Africa, we used to just rely on our artisans to bring the materials, know the source, and work within their local communities. In December and January, we launched our own material sourcing initiatives including sourcing teams within the local communities who are planting and harvesting. Since sustainability is the core of who we are, it’s also important for us to make sure we’re not depleting raw sources or materials. We now know how much material we’re using, how much we’ve planted, and the regrowth timeline. This gives us control over both the supply chain and the impact on the environment.
Systems will outgrow themselves, but it’s an opportunity to discover what matters most to your organization and then develop better ways to operate.
Another important area that has contributed to our success is good communication. We cannot have a sustainable supply chain and work with thousands of rural artisans without effective communication. When we started, we had just five employees – everyone knew their own department and could get answers quickly. Now with 120 employees working across 5 countries, we need to make sure we communicate to everyone without having to repeat information over and over again. After all, it’s not like the old days when we could hop over to a colleague’s office next door and find answers. We’ve had to create efficient operating procedures that are repeatable and scalable. Communication needs to be clear and accurate.
It’s one of the major systems we’ve had to create in order to keep everyone informed across all countries and time zones. It’s the main reason we’ve been able to overcome so many different challenges while scaling our growth.
For us, communication always comes down to patience and consistency as keys to developing trusting relationships within the local communities we work with in Africa. It’s important for us to hire local leaders with who we work closely to facilitate change where necessary while being sensitive to the culture. It’s about moving slow, when necessary, and thinking about people first. We must always consider their challenges before moving forward: How do they best use their time? How will wages impact them? What do they need to do and how? There needs to be clear communication, active listening, and learning on both sides.
For example, through open communication, we learned that our artisans needed to work more evening hours to manage their small farms and their households during part of the day. In response we rolled out a solar light project, providing lights where it gets dark at 6 p.m. When needed, we also help our artisans access bank loans and fill out paperwork. It’s our mission to be there every step of the way.
There have also been times when our business had concerns about and the ebb and flow of customer orders and lack of consistency in those orders. Sometimes it’s the nature of our business. However, we never shy away from being transparent and honest in our communication even when it comes to difficult conversations. Trust and open communication are key, even when it’s not easy.
Building a sustainable supply chain in Africa means building a business where people can count on us for their income and for their family support. It means we are being both socially conscious and business savvy: improving and empowering the lives of those we partner with and who we employ, reaching far into the rural areas where jobs are scarce, and developing local leaders to lead positive change in their communities.