Kenyan-born social entrepreneur Esther Gathambo has taken a momentous step forward in her dream of transforming African communities with the opening of her first physical Sawubona store in Hamilton’s newest urban market, Made, on 4 November.
The small business owner first came to New Zealand in 2018, carrying the weight of her African community on her shoulders. Esther didn’t view this weight as a burden, in fact, it is something that drove her to establish her social enterprise in October 2020.
Through Sawubona Esther promotes and sells traditionally handcrafted homewares made by more than 60 talented artisans from Kenya, Rwanda and South Africa. Products include baskets and handbags, bowls and coasters, spoons and scoops and African tea.
Esther, who has been selling online and at local markets since Sawubona’s inception three years ago, says the business was borne out of her desire to pass the opportunities she has found in her Kiwi homeland onto Kenyan communities, much like the one in which she grew up.
“I’ve experienced being in the global south and being in the global north, which presents really different ways of living and different perspectives on a lot of things. Coming here, you get to see another type of life. It’s a really good quality of life in comparison,” she says.
The primary goal of Sawubona is to empower the artisans and their families, sustain traditional craft and art forms, and help their communities thrive. It is something close to Esther’s heart, as she grew up experiencing challenges such as access to clean running water, reliable electricity and many of the everyday things Kiwis take for granted.
“I grew up in a rural town and it was a very small community. My neighbours were my family. I was brought up by the community so my way of thinking has always been, I have to take care of other people,” she says.
She was also surrounded by single mothers raising their children without a social welfare system to provide support. With little education they may not have had book skills, but Esther says they all ran their own 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, Esther says opening at Made was the next big step for the business.
“I always wanted to open a store eventually, but I couldn’t find a good option. Leases were too expensive, commitments were too long-term, spaces were too big. I saw Made’s signage outside the old Waikato Regional Council Building a year and a bit ago and contacted them ASAP.
“Made’s appeal was that it’s a middle ground between the markets I was attending and a stand-alone store. It suits all types of businesses, large and small like mine. In fact, a lot of the tenants at Made are people I have been to local markets with,” she says.
Esther is honest about the fact that the lead up to opening didn’t come without its challenges. “I didn’t have a big budget for the store fitout, so I had to do a few things on my own and with the help of friends and family,” she says.
“One of the biggest challenges was getting my largest order finalised and in New Zealand on time. The artisans took around seven months to make the items, partly due to some difficult family circumstances, so there were real moments of stress where I was unsure that they would arrive ahead of opening. Fortunately, the order arrived in the nick of time.”
Since opening, she has enjoyed engaging with customers in person, sharing stories of the artisans and the mission behind Sawubona. Something she enjoyed doing at local markets but now gets to do full time.
While Esther acknowledges the challenges of competing with online marketplaces selling discounted goods, she emphasises the value of purchasing from Sawubona. Every customer contributes to the social and economic well-being of the African artisans.
Esther explains, “You want to price things up so you can give the artisans a good income, but it’s tough because people often seek inexpensive items here. The reason something is cheap is that someone in the supply chain is probably getting zero to very little.”
Esther largely credits opening her store to New Zealand charity All Good Ventures, run by Hamilton-based business-people Heather and Rod Claycomb. Heather is the owner of the award-winning Hamilton-based PR agency HMC, and husband Rod has kickstarted multiple successful businesses in the dairy industry.
Through All Good Ventures, the couple supports social enterprise ideas with money, mentoring, and ‘muscle.’ Esther connected with All Good Ventures last year and is putting the grant she received towards opening her store.
In addition to receiving a much-needed cash injection, Esther says the mentoring and ‘muscle’ that she received proved invaluable. “When we first started, I had a session with Rod to do a strategic plan for Sawubona. That was very helpful because then we were able to map out what’s going to happen in one year, three years, and what’s going to be the big goal in 10 years.”
The couple continues to provide monthly mentoring sessions, helping Esther with communications and marketing – Heather’s forte – and Rod supports with the strategic and financial side of setting up and sustaining a business, amongst other things.
“I feel like the business, the way it was before I got that support, was very different. Their generosity is incredible. It’s been such a good journey.”
And that generosity is something Esther doesn’t take lightly. “It’s something I’m hoping to repay at some stage, hopefully by supporting somebody else like me.”