Africa Art Culture Entrepreneurship Woman

Women-led business: A bridge of sisal

Leandra is a young Tanzanian architect, who had the dream of establishing her own business in the creative industry. This dream materialized two years ago, under the shape of “Refixit”, a Tanzanian company in the sector of home décor and interior design, entirely based on the use of an organic, biodegradable local material: the sisal.

In these two years of life, “Refixit” is gaining more and more visibility both locally and internationally, thanks to the perseverance and the vision of Leandra and her team.

A few days ago I had the chance to meet and chat with her and she has revealed to be a gifted creative mind and a talented entrepreneur.

Ok, Leandra let’s start from you. Who are you?

If I have to define myself, I would say that I love life and I love design, not only because of my background in architecture but because this passion belongs to me since I was a child, together with the love for nature.

How did the idea of Refixit come?

Since by the time of university, when I was making an internship for an architectural firm, I perfectly knew that I wanted to set up my own business and didn’t want to be employed by someone else forever. So, the idea came while I was working for the same company I made the internship for, around three years ago: I felt it was the time to create a project of my own and I wanted this project to combine my passion for design and my love for nature, but also to highlight the abundant natural resources of Tanzania, by adding value to them.

To do this, I started a research to understand the available natural materials in this Country and I found, by chance, about the sisal. At that time I knew nothing about this fiber and it was a real surprise when I found out that Tanzania is the second-largest producer worldwide. While learning more, I had like a flash in my memory: I remembered one uncle of mine who used to teach my mum how to macramé. I had never met him again since I was a very small child, but that memory bumped in my head over a sudden.

So I contacted him and explained to him my idea and he was ready to come on board and to make some samples for me. Then, after a few months, I met with the team and we started in a small garage.

Why Refixit? Where does the name come from?

The name Refixit comes from the wish of filling and fixing a gap between the generations of our parents and grandparents and ours: I think the older generations had some skills and knowledge that we have lost and that may be combined in a perfect way with our creativity and our technological skills. So I felt, in some way, the need of fixing this gap.

So, you are somehow building a bridge of sisal between generations!

Yes, I would say so.

How did you meet the rest of the team instead?

The meeting with Aquilina is a bit funny because we both studied at the same university, different faculties, I was taking Architecture, she was taking her bachelors in Building Economics but we never met. Instead, we run into each other some years later at church. One day, while chatting, I told her about my plan of leaving my job and starting this project and when I explained to her what it was about, she immediately joined. Instead, I had met Japhet one year before at an event and he had offered to volunteer for whatever work I had available. So, the time I and Aquilina were starting with the company, I decided to contact him and I explained to him about the idea and I really cannot forget his comment. He said something like “Oh, so you are going to make handicrafts for foreigners!”.

This is an interesting point to talk about. The issue of end market for handicrafts and arts is often raised during talks and conversations about the creative sector in Tanzania. Why do you think that handmade items are not so much appreciated and recognized for their value within the local market? Why do artisans and artists struggle so much to sell into the local market and mainly target tourists, foreigners and export sales? I mean, on average a Tanzanian family with a high purchase power would not hesitate to spend ten or twenty million for imported furniture but rarely would spend the same amount for high quality, hand made furniture by a local brand. What is, in your opinion, the reason behind this?

On one side, I think there is the misconception that whatever comes from abroad – maybe somewhere in Europe, or from Dubai – is of higher quality than something produced locally.

On the other side, it comes from the fact that often customers do not know the process of making a handmade item. It often happens to us that they see our products and they think they are very easy to make and so they judge them as too expensive.

Finally, I think it also comes from the fact that many artisans do not know how to really price their products: they do not take into consideration all the costs and their own time spent and so in many cases they under-price their items and run their businesses in loss, without even knowing it. But this contribute to nurture the biases that handmade things shall be cheap.

How does Refixit contribute to change this narrative?

We talk a lot to our customers: we tell them about our production process and all the other artisans we collaborate with and we also invite our clients at our atelier for macramé workshops. We are seeing that the more we do this, the more people gets educated on it and gets to really understand the value of what we do.

So what do you think other local artisans shall do to tap into the local market?

Talking to customers and above all listening to them: hearing what clients want and need is really essential, because then it takes only one product to make the customer understand how it makes him or her feel and then come back to you. In general, I would say that talking and listening to customers is helping us to create a more authentic connection with them and in this way we are able to receive genuine feedback for improvement.

This is very true. However, I think that, on one side, some artisans do not really know how to do that, but on another side they are maybe scared: they may see being open and disclosing business information as a threaten.

Yes, that’s true especially in Tanzania, where it often happens that someone copies what you are doing. But I really think that this is not an issue: first of all, there is enough space on the market and secondly the way you grow does not come from just selling, but from the way you communicate and engage your audience.

For example, during this Covid-19 period, we have developed more small items as an entry point to attract all those customers who are bit hesitant to buy more expensive products in the first place and we are actually seeing that this selling strategy is really working to create a long-term relationship with clients and retain them. But the idea of doing so came out just by hearing what customers wanted.

Speaking about Covid-19, has it affected you and how?

On the negative side, we were affected on sales and keeping ourselves motivated especially during the first month, we had to close our shop for 3 months. On the positive side during this period we have been working enough: many people, staying at home from job, decided to renovate their homes and so we have been doing business online.

What has been the biggest challenge you have faced up to now in these two years as an entrepreneur?

Oh, I can list some of them!

The first one is remaining strong, determined and positive even in the periods you are not selling anything, especially in the beginning. Keeping the rest of the team motivated has not been easy.

The second challenge is changing the perception of handmade products among Tanzanians.

The third one is building the right team, who shares the same values and the same attitude.

Instead, what would be your suggestion to another woman who wants to start a business like you have done?

I would just tell her “Go on, because you can do it and keep sticking to your plan and your vision even in difficult time”: there will be hard times, when you probably do not have enough money and you are tempted to get a job again, but in those rough times you need to stay strong and move forward. In this sense, it is very important to have a positive network around you of people who really support what you are doing. The journey is not easy but it is worth it.

Speaking about this, how do you think women can collaborate and help each other more to succeed in their entrepreneurial journey?

There are many ways: by buying from each other, by referring to each other with potential customers, by networking, by creating roundtables and talks about women entrepreneurship and handicrafts… I think we really need to have more and more of these conversations.

I agree. Thank you Leandra for your time and for this very insightful conversation!

Thank you too, Lorenza.

Photo Credits: All to Gervas Lushaju, except for the portrait of Leandra by Nicolas Calvin.

Lorenza Marzo is a Tanzania based freelance consultant, Founder Wana-WAKE-UP! You can follow her on Facebook and Instagram

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