Kenyan-born social entrepreneur Esther Gathambo is transforming African communities by opening her first physical Sawubona store in Hamilton.
The small business owner first came to New Zealand in 2018 and established her social enterprise in October 2020.
Sawubona sells traditionally handcrafted homewares from Kenya, Rwanda and South Africa made by talented artisans. It aims to empower the artisans and their families, sustain traditional crafts and art forms, and help their communities thrive.
“I’ve experienced being in the global south and the global north, which presents different ways of living and perspectives on many things. Coming here, you get to see another type of life. It’s a good quality of life compared to them,” said Gathambo.
“I grew up in a rural town, and it was a tiny community. My neighbours were my family. The community brought me up, so my way of thinking has always been I have to take care of other people.”
Single mothers also surrounded her without a social welfare system to provide support, and although they may not have had an education, they all ran their small businesses.
“My grandma had a small shop selling produce and artisan goods, and I used to go there and support her. All these things shaped me and are the reason as to why I started the business in the first place.”
Having sold Sawubona’s products online and at local markets for three years, opening a physical store was the next big step for the business.
“I saw Made’s signage outside the old Waikato Regional Council Building a year ago and contacted them ASAP.”
Made’s appeal was that it was a middle ground between the markets and a stand-alone Store, but she did not have the finances required and had to take help from family and friends.
Another challenge Gathambo faced was finalising large orders in New Zealand on time since artisans took around seven months to make the items.
While she acknowledges the challenges of competing with online marketplaces selling discounted goods, she emphasises the value of purchasing from Sawubona as every customer contributes to African artisans’ social and economic well-being.
“You want to price things up to give the artisans a good income, but it is tough because people often seek inexpensive items here. Something is cheap because someone in the supply chain probably gets zero to very little.”
Gathambo credits opening her store to New Zealand charity All Good Ventures, run by Hamilton-based business-people Heather and Rod Claycomb. In addition to receiving a much-needed cash injection, their mentoring was invaluable.
She is incredibly grateful for their generosity and is hoping to repay them at some stage by supporting somebody else like her.