LOS ANGELES, California — Storefronts lined the dirt road in front of All Across Africa’s basket center in Rwanda, describes chief operating officer of All Across Africa, Alicia Wallace. All Across Africa’s basket center was founded in 2013 as a center for packaging and shipping woven baskets and handicraft products made by handcraftsmen within All Across Africa. In an interview with The Borgen Project, Wallace provides insight into how the basket center helps reduce poverty in Rwanda through social entrepreneurship.
Employment and Social Entrepreneurship
Since the founding of the basket center, the center has become a source of employment in Rwanda, encouraging social entrepreneurship. The basket center directly increased artisan income by five to 10 times more than what was earned at local markets by connecting local handcraftsmen to the global market.
The basket center directly impacts social entrepreneurship on the individual level. Wallace describes a particularly impactful visit to the basket center. She was discussing the quality and color of basket weaving with an artisan when she was approached by an individual named Steven who became paralyzed during the Rwandan genocide and was unable to walk.
Without access to a wheelchair, Steven scooted on the ground toward the street-facing patio where Wallace and All Across Africa staff discussed business. Steven asked Wallace for money. Wallace had no money to give in hand at that time, however, she did have a job opportunity. The moment prompted her to ask herself, “Are our jobs only for the able-bodied? Why can’t we employ others like Steven who desperately need a job as well?”
After talking to Steven, the All Across Africa staff asked Steven to come to work at the basket center on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 8:00 a.m. — Steven arrived at 6:00 a.m. on his first day. According to Wallace, Steven began tagging baskets — applying tags describing the story of the artisan who made the product. Wallace explains that Steven took pride in his work and became a leader to his co-workers, even teaching new employees how to tag baskets.
Connecting Artisans to Global Markets
All Across Africa collaborates with more than 5,000 artisans from three countries in Africa, partnering with retailers throughout the world to create markets for handicraft products, Wallace states. Fostering entrepreneurship and collaborating with skilled artisans, All Across Africa creates markets for skilled artisans and trains those with the capacity to learn skilled work — like Steven.
All Across Africa’s model of social entrepreneurship directly responds to poverty alleviation in West and East Africa. For every artisan employed by All Across Africa, about 1.5 jobs are created in the community due to “increasing aggregate demand,” Wallace shares per published research from Santa Clara University. In light of COVID-19, social entrepreneurship creates stability during a period of economic decline due to economic closures arising from the global pandemic.
Social Entrepreneurship During the Global Pandemic
Forbes describes COVID-19 as a multi-faceted global crisis that requires innovation to respond to economic decline. Willy Foot, founder of Root Capital, an organization that invests in agricultural enterprises in remote communities in Latin America, Africa and Indonesia, reported that connection to communities proved vital in providing health resources as well as responding to economic decline.
“Working with socially-minded enterprises across our global network, over the last several months we’ve been able to deliver services and much-needed supplies (face masks, soap, medicine and more) to hundreds of thousands of rural families,” Foot writes in an article published by Forbes. Additionally, through supporting agricultural enterprises, Root Capital collaborates with social entrepreneurs in agriculture to bolster economies in remote areas contending with economic fallout during the global pandemic.
“Social entrepreneurs are ready, able and willing to reach underserved groups — in many cases, they already have reach into these communities,” Foot writes. “By leveraging those connections, we can help flatten the disproportionate impacts of this pandemic.”
How COVID-19 Impacted Business
Though travel restrictions and ever-changing obstacles in shipping products created difficulties in selling products during the pandemic, Wallace explained that All Across Africa adapted to the changing market.“Airfreight became really expensive so we changed to container freight. Now, there are tons of container freight delays and surcharges so we’re back to air freight,” Wallace says.
Similar to All Across Africa, international business owners are creating innovative strategies to respond to economic changes and restrictions. Middle Market Growth reported that the global pandemic accelerated alterations for workforces globally. About 83% of CFOs surveyed by Middle Market Growth state that they plan to incorporate a remote format to their business, promoting products to consumers through websites and starting online shopping platforms.
Wallace states that innovation and adaptation are normal components of businesses that foster opportunities to better support their artisans and partners, even during scenarios of crisis. “I think that we have this history of adaptation to market conditions that always allows us to stay alive and nimble and grow and serve our artisans, but I foresee that being the future of business,” Wallace states. “We are always having to respond to changing demands and needs that are sometimes more crisis-level than others.”
Impact of Social Entrepreneurship
Wallace states that, while working for All Across Africa, she has seen both individual and community-level impacts of social entrepreneurship. Serafine, an artisan for All Across Africa, was able to access a loan for a four-bedroom home as well as land plots and livestock. Serafine and her husband now employ their neighbors on their land, creating opportunities for employment.
Wallace also saw electricity reach villages in which artisans worked as All Across Africa artisans are registered and pay taxes as a part of formal employment for All Across Africa. In addition to economic impact, social entrepreneurship opportunities enable people to connect through relationships. Steven, who once asked Wallace for money in front of the basket-weaving center, was able to work in the center, even securing an employment opportunity for his son.
Steven’s Blue Suit
Steven experienced sickness as he grew older. Greg Stone, All Across Africa’s chief executive officer, visited him. During Stone’s visit, Steven said he was scared of death because he had not fulfilled his life goal. He expressed that he wanted to wear a “blue suit.” Blue work uniforms are worn by packing and logistics team members employed by All Across Africa to protect their clothes and bodies but also serve as a symbol of status as the uniforms indicate employment.
Stone relays his conversation with Steven to Wallace, wanting to “give him a celebration of life while he’s living.” During the celebration, “All the weaver leaders came and spoke to his testimony of where he was and is now and the light that he is in their lives.” Steven was awarded a blue suit, symbolizing not just his achievements and success but also his dignity.
All Across Africa not only impacts entire communities by encouraging social entrepreneurship but also creates meaningful relationships to encourage social entrepreneurship on an individual level. Overall, the organization contributes to reducing poverty in Rwanda by uplifting both individuals and communities at large.
– Amanda Frese