Oct 14, 2020
One of the things that really sets
fair-trade businesses apart is how they are often led by the
artisans themselves. Fair trade in many ways can really turn a
traditional business model on its head. This time and time again
prove to be an incredibly transformative process in the lives of
everyone that the business is impacting. My guests this week are
Christi Whitekettle, Tom McGregor, and Jeannine Umutoniwase, the founders of Azizi Life, a fair-trade
organization dedicated to partnering with skilled Rwandan artisans
in their vision to lift their families from poverty. Since 2008,
they have cultivated partnerships with more than 500 artisans.
Azizi Life serves as a bridge linking artisans, designers, and
global customers to offer high-quality, ethically sourced goods for
life and gifting. As a not-for-profit organization, Azizi Life is
dedicated to the well-being of their artisan partners and their
families. In addition to opening economic opportunity through fair
trade, Azizi Life invests in a range of community impact projects.
Their Rwandan-led team facilitates adult literacy classes and
offers other resources for personal, spiritual, and economic
growth. I was so thankful for the gift of technology to be able to
connect with Christi, Tom, and Jeannine in Rwanda. They are an
incredible team. I loved learning more about their story and the
inspiring impact they are having on communities.
5:12 - The Azizi 101
- Azizi Life was started under the
auspices of a different nonprofit known as
Food for the Hungry that supported
education, health, and small business support. Through those
relationships, the founders of Azizi life made connections with
artisan cooperatives and noticed that artisan’s neighbors were
buying their products but were only ready to pay a fraction of what
the product might be worth in other markets.
- Artisans were scraping by with
some income from farming, but still not enough to cover their basic
needs like healthcare, clothing and shoes, and school fees for
their children. Cooperatives were organized with leadership and
skills to make things.
- Azizi Life realized they could be
a bridge across the gap to give artisans a fair wage and become
connected to people who would love and pay for their products.
Artisans could work toward their own vision toward a better future
for their families through their crafts.
- Azizi Life aimed to register as an
independent business, separate from the Food for the Hungry
nonprofit. They wanted the work of Azizi Life in Rwanda to be
handed over to the local community. It was their vision to begin
the business with that intent. They came in with a development
background, looking to eventually put themselves out of work and be
able to hand over easily.
- Christi Whitekettle, Tom McGregor,
and Jeannine Umutoniwase joined us for this
episode about Azizi Life. Jeannine is the Azizi Life Chief
Executive Officer, and lives in Rwanda. She joined Azizi Life in
2008 after working as a housekeeper for the Food for the Hungry
guest house. That is when she met Christi and helped with Christi’s
accommodations and helped Christi as a translator. She was also
teaching Tom Kinyarwanda
at the time.
- When the social enterprise of Azizi Life started,
the team thought Jeannine would be a great fit to join the team and
help foster relationships between the enterprise and local
14:51 – Azizi Life Beginnings
- Azizi Life is incredibly special
to Tom, but he was sure to let us know that Jeannine is very humble
about her role and title as CEO! Tom’s background is as a
commercial insurance broker. He became a successful account
executive doing commercial insurance for relatively large
businesses. He was about to turn 30 and had that feeling that many
of us have experienced or can relate to of, “There has to be more
than life, this can’t be my purpose.”
- Tom started looking for different
opportunities. He knew he wanted to look for work overseas after an
experience working with YWAM (Youth With A Mission) through
Mercy Ships when he was 18. He started
in Togo and sailed to South Africa. When he turned 30 and started
having a crisis about what he wanted to do next, he took his
business acumen and love for Africa and started researching and
- Tom found a position with Food for
the Hungry, Rwanda to work with a team of Rwandans doing small
business training in the rural communities on basic accounting,
marketing, etc. Oh, and it was an unpaid position. Tom did some
fundraising in January and was on a plan to Rwanda by August. Once
in Rwanda, the job was not quite what Tom had read about, mostly
because Tom’s new boss did not think there was enough money in the
rural community so support a non-agricultural business.
- Tom’s boss asked him to go around
to all the people who had tried to start a business to see how they
were doing. A few were ok, but many people had been trained in arts
and crafts with the belief that they could farm in the morning,
make baskets in the afternoon, ship the baskets out of the country,
and make plenty of money. All of that was working, except for there
being a big or strong market in the West for the
- The artisans were seeing benefits
from their business as far as interpersonal relationships, but
there was no cash coming in. Azizi Life had the idea to buy the
crafts from the artisans and sell them in profitable markets to
return money to the artisans to spend money back in the local
businesses where they live.
- Before she found her way to Azizi
Life, Christi was working in recreation bringing activities,
creativity, light, and love to seniors. She came to a crossroads
where her knowledge of the need and pain in the world moved her to
think about how to faithfully respond to those realities. Christi’s
desire to respond and her knowledge of sociology and crafting led
her to the work of wholistic development, serving and understanding
people in an integrated way.
- Christi came to work with Food for
the Hungry on a similar volunteer program as Tom, trying to figure
out what her future would look like. When an opportunity fell
through 9 months in, she fell into a slump with no practical way to
be engaged in serving people. Everything changed in a moment at
church where she felt extremely uncomfortable physically,
spiritually, and socially. She thought to herself that she could
just go help Tom with whatever he needed to do his job with Azizi
Life. The next morning, Tom approached Christi with the same idea.
Christi was able to use her creative skills in a business position
with Azizi Life in Rwanda.
31:12 –Azizi Life Today and the Long-Term
- Azizi Life started with three
people and one desk. Today they have a team of 23 permanent staff,
12 temporary staff, a big office with three locations in Rwanda,
and over 500 artisan partners in Rwanda. Tom wanted to clarify that
since Jeannine became CEO, Azizi Life has doubled in size.
- There are several different parts
of Azizi Life: Azizi Life Rwanda, Azizi Life US, and their
nonprofit and impact work in Rwanda. In the US, it is a nonprofit
that handles distribution and fundraising with a push for
increasing sales to 10x what Azizi Life was selling two years
- In Rwanda, there are three main
projects: the making of the crafts, educational tours where people
can visit Rwanda to learn from artisans in their communities, and
work through a sister organization called Beautiful Creations that
help support local beekeepers! Eventually, Azizi Life wants to keep
adding on social enterprises to provide employment opportunities in
local villages with the intent to turn them over to the
- Any money made by the three social
enterprises is funneled into a Rwandan nonprofit that runs impact
projects that will help communities overcome barriers so that they
can thrive. Programs include things like adult literacy programs
and loans for systems that save money in the long run like water
filters, fuel efficient stoves, solar lamps and more.
- Azizi Life focuses on wholeness as
an individual and breaks that down into physical, social, and
spiritual wholeness. They offer Bible studies and Bible
40:51 – Getting to Know Our Guests
- Find out what Christi’s guilty (or
not so guilty) pleasure is, what Jeannine likes to do for fun, and
what meal Tom would eat for dinner if he had to eat the same meal
every night for the rest of his life. Hear more from Jeannine what
it means to her to run a business with purpose.
6:52 - “We realized that if we could a bridge across
the gap…the artisans could work toward their own vision for a
better future for their families and use their craft to those
14:22 – The artisans really value this work. Every
moment when they are creating a product, they think about where we
came from, what we are aiming (for), and they make sure that
whoever will buy the product will be very happy about it and also
they think about how it can impact their families.” -Jeannine
36:26 – “We’re really keen that people buy the
products because they’re beautiful with the bonus that they make an
impact, as opposed to a “pity” buy.”
38:49 – “Every business we look to start, we look at
whether it’s going to be beneficial to the community and to the
rural community and that will bring something to God’s kingdom
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