It’s been a little over a week since I returned home from Kenya after an inspiring, motivating and ultimately exhausting trip. There were such high highs and low lows. I think part of what makes this business so special is that we share both of these with people back home.
To be completely honest, traveling to Kenya feels a little bit like punishment. We left LA early in the morning, having to wake up at 1:30 am in order to drive down to the airport and catch our flight. After 27 hours of travel, I felt a bit like a zombie arriving in Nairobi. We were lucky to miss traffic (which can last 3-4 hours sometimes) as we arrived and got to our hotel around 8 pm with no issues. I was happily surprised to find the hotel had Internet and hot water! It’s the little things sometimes. We struggled with jet lag and the 10 hour time difference quite a bit, but I’ve found putting on a sleep mask and playing a podcast to be helpful.
We started out by meeting with our Esiteti artisans in the south of Kenya. It’s about a 5 hour drive from Nairobi to Amboseli National Park, which our artisans live on the outskirts of. It was about 3.5 hours of tarmac and 1.5 hours of bumpy dirt roads. It feels sometimes like your teeth are chattering and your head hits the roof of the car if you hit an especially big bump! But it is so worth it as you near the park.
As we drove through Amboseli, we saw ostrich, flamingos, hippos, wildebeest, jackals, giraffes, and so so many elephants, which I happen to believe are the most incredible animals out there (don’t believe me? Take a deep look into an elephant’s eyes). We saw all this not on a game drive, but just on our way to our safari lodge/hotel! It felt a bit surreal. Our lodge was gorgeous and we had the most incredible views of Kilimanjaro, when the clouds would move out of the way briefly. It reminded me of our trek up that beast of a mountain not even a year ago. I appreciate looking at it from this angle rather than summiting it!
We have partnered with nearly 300 Maasai women in a jewelry cooperative in an area called Esiteti, which touches the national park. Esiteti is a Maasai ranch, sort of like a Native American reservation in the U.S. is how I describe it. It’s an area that has been carved out for the Maasai by the Kenyan government. But where the park ends and the ranch begins there are no fences or other means to keep the animals contained, so there is a lot of migration between the two areas. The Maasai essentially live in a national park and it’s the most incredible thing in the world. Because these people have grown up around these animals, they have such a special relationship with them. The way they interact with the nature around them is so harmonious and beautiful.
But because of the fact that many ladies have to travel 5+ miles from their manyatas (homes) to get to our meetings, we have to be cognizant of time. Around 3 pm, the elephants migrate near our artisans’ homes towards better sources of water for nighttime. And it can be dangerous to have our women walking when the elephants are out. These are the things we need to be aware of and why it’s important to ensure we’re listening to our artisans about their needs!
We had prepared extensively for our meeting with the Esiteti women by coming up with all sorts of clever and unique ways to ensure quality control in sizing and colorways. We try to keep things simple because I’ve found much gets lost in translation and my Maa, the Maasai language, is not nearly good enough to communicate other than a few basic phrases! Plus many of these women cannot read or write. Only in the past 10 or so years a school has been established in the area. So we made indentations on rulers, photoshopped pictures and cut measuring tape into appropriate sizes.
We met for two days to go over new designs, colorways, checking up on the community, discussing pricing, etc. We had a fantastic translator, a retired schoolteacher named Josephine, who was the go-between from English to Maa. The language barriers matter of course, but also don’t in so many ways. There is a mutual understanding between the beading group and myself that we’re working on improving their lives and the community as a whole through this beading project. The Esiteti women are incredible, vivacious, beautiful, resilient and strong. They immediately understood the direction forward with the jewelry, were excited for the challenge, and just seemed to “get it”. They all listened, we’re open to new designs and worked so hard to understand the points I was making. And our new jewelry line is going to be stunning! It’ll be another month or so until the order is finished, but I cannot wait to show it to our consumers, I know it will resonate with them.
I was left feeling humbled and so connected with these fantastic women. To know that these women believed in this project enough to walk 10+ miles that day to our meeting spot felt like an honor and re-established my commitment to do right by them. This is why I do what I do.
We left the south of Kenya and flew to the coast to meet with our sandal artisans. The rainy season arrived very late this year, so we had a lot of flash storms and humidity!
On our last trip to the coast, our hotel was broken into in the middle of the night two days in a row. It was disconcerting and a bit frightening, so we decided to try out a different hotel this time around. We ended up staying at an incredible hotel on the beach called White Elephant, owned by an Italian artist, Armando Tanzini. He had turned the hotel into an art gallery of sorts and it was stunning. We ended up meeting Armando and he gave us a tour of his house and workshop as well. He’s lived in Kenya for nearly 50 years and it is amazing the art and woodcarving workshops he has created. I was inspired by his mission to help build up industry and create jobs in the area through his art. He explained how Malindi has become fairly dilapidated in recent years and how he’s working to improve the situation. Many people call him the “King of Malindi” and I see why.
It was so nice to see the familiar faces of our sandal artisans! We checked in on their children and got updates from everyone. There’s a core group of about 15 artisans that we see without fail on every single trip and they were all there, plus a few newbies. But many other artisans were currently back in their homes farming. Because the rainy season had arrived so late, many people were scrambling to replant and get whatever yields they could out of their gardens. Completely understandable.
With our narrowed down group of artisans, we were able to knock out quality control meetings, new sandal styles and samples quickly. Sometimes smaller groups make things easier! We have one new sandal style and two new colors of a popular sandal style in the pipeline now that we’re very, very, very excited about. As are our artisans. Lydia, the workshop owner, looked at the new styles and said, “Oh yeah, those are good.”. It feels like we’re really making progress with our artisans, they’re able to better understand what we need as a business and mitigate problems better than ever before.
The quality of shoes coming out of our sandal workshop is better than ever and RoHo could not be in a better position moving forward. I brought with me to Kenya a few bead colors that cannot be found in Kenya and have seen exciting results! It is beyond difficult to not spill the beans on everything right now, but good things come to those who wait!
We also had the chance to explore Malindi a bit better. We met new and exciting artisan groups also operating out of the area making belts and other products. There is huge potential in the area. It’s feeling like we belong more and more as we visit. I’m recognized and remembered more and more, which feels good. It feels like we’re slowly making some impact in this town. And our artisans seem to be thriving.
We returned to Nairobi with about 35 pairs of shoes in tow to seek out new products and meet with our hide artisans. Our leatherworking artisans never disappoint. Their work is impeccable and our new products will blow your socks off! I've attached a very small sneak peak of what's in store. They should arrive in the US in 2 weeks or less, barring the Pope coming to Nairobi and shutting the city down. Sounds crazy, but that has actually happened to us before and shut down the city for a week, delaying a sandal order.
We traveled around Nairobi looking at promising up and coming new brands, artisan groups and ethical companies operating out of Kenya. There are some incredible galleries, brands, artisans and cooperatives operating out of Nairobi who are an inspiration to us. There’s so much room for collaboration and networking and I hope to have the opportunity to grow this in the future!
Nairobi is one of those amazing cities where you can get nearly every type of food. They have fantastic restaurants, great food, diverse people. It’s always buzzing. And after a wonderful trip to our hideworking artisans who had everything under control it seemed like a great time to celebrate. I was craving Ethiopian food badly. An Ethiopian colleague when I was working for a nonprofit in Nairobi swore by a place called Habesha, saying their food was the closest you could get to food in Ethiopia. Unfortunately before we could make it, we got a bacterial infection.
I’ll spare you the gruesome details, but my sister, Gabriella, and I got miserably sick the day before we were scheduled to leave. We both got terribly dehydrated and I almost passed out in a mall in Nairobi. Luckily, a nice pharmacist helped us out and got us the right medications to combat the causes and side effects. But it was less than ideal. And the annoying thing is anything could have caused our illness! Vegetables that weren’t properly cleaned, undercooked meat, etc. It was a great reminder to stay vigilant about the food we eat when traveling, but I wish I learned the lesson less harshly!
We’re really fortunate to have a great friend who is a driver who came to our aid and ensured we finished our work while also getting us back to our hotel safely. And Nairobi has Uber Eats! So we got water bottles and white rice delivered to our room for a 50 cent delivery charge. Nairobi does have its perks lol. What a way to end a perfect trip!
We had to travel back to the U.S., 31 hours of miserable travel with body aches, nausea, etc. It’s taken about 10 days of being home to feel a semblance of normalcy, but it’s the price we pay. It was worth it.
- Bacterial infections. Rough. But also a great way to lose 10 pounds
- I love RoHo’s artisans. When I become discouraged running a start-up, I see them and know the struggles are so worth it
- Our new products are going to blow your socks off. Stay tuned