EP 215: Christi Whitekettle, Tom McGregor, and Jeannine Umutoniwase, Founders of Azizi Life
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 communities.
- 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 praying.
- 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 baskets.
- 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.
- 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 ago.
- 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 communities.
- 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 distributions.
- 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 ends.”-Christi
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 there.”Thank you to our partners of the show: Ammas Umma
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