I have been meeting Anne Kiwia in various events and occasions in Dar es Salaam, but I never had the chance to talk to her in deep… Surely she was in my top list of Tanzanian women entrepreneurs to interview.
Her colorful up-cycled headbands are so gorgeous that it is impossible not to notice them… And in fact, they have been featured in various magazines and platforms, among which Vogue.
Talking to her has been so amazing: she is such a chatty, energetic, beautiful soul and I hope that all these characteristics of her may come out through this interview.
Hi Anne, I am so happy to have you among my interviewees.
Thank you Lorenza for this opportunity.
Ok, let’s start: who is Anne Kiwia and how this project started?
I am a daughter of a Romanian mother and a Tanzanian father, born in Romania and grown up in Germany in the heart of Bavaria.
I’ve studied Fashion and Communication design at the Master School of Fashion in Munich.
Soon after my studies, I had the chance to travel around the world and to make a short internship in Sidney for the international Japanese designer Akira Isogawa, who I was assisting at the Australian Fashion Week 2006. From him I have learned how to grow by mistakes: all his technique is based on cutting, mixing and experimenting also through the Japanese origami. Working with him was really an inspirational experiment.
It was February 2012 when I arrived here with my husband and I had to figure out what to do and how to invest my knowledge and skills. After a trial in the graphic design sector, I felt it was good for me to start as a solo-entrepreneur. I knew I wanted to work with fabrics and the colorful ones of Tanzania reminded me the vibrant textiles and traditional handcrafts of my childhood in Romania: the first materials I met were kanga and kitenge, which I like for the colors and the meaning, but I was not very happy with their texture. So I decided to up-cycle the fabrics sold at the used clothes market (“mitumba” in Swahili) in search for high-end quality textiles like silk, cotton and rayon.
And this is how I started to search for used preloved clothes and give them a new life and a new story.
Also Read: Women-led business: A bridge of sisal
So you actually go and select fabric by yourself in the used clothes market?
Yes, I do… After Vogue, this is a humble experience that keeps me on the ground. Actually, going to the used clothes market for the first time was such a cultural clash, because you could find in the same place an Indian sari together with a skirt from eastern Europe and up to now we use the fabric selection moment as a joyful learning exercise: each one trying to guess the type of fabric just by touching it. We all gained a fine sense of fabrics through it.
What do you think about the used clothes business here in Tanzania?
In a time where consumers want to become more conscious of consuming and praise sustainability, we should take the used cloths also as an opportunity to show off our creativity by upcycling. Recycling and upcycling are of more value for our environment in our century and if we understand that here in Tanzania than we can develop a better attitude towards preloved clothes. We can still make our own, but we should rather try to be at the forefront of reusing and renewing. The potential of young untouched minds can bring up ideas that the first world has lost by planning and structuring.
So did you start immediately by producing headbands?
No, it was 2013 back then and I started by making clothes from a mix of these used fabrics, inspired by the work of Akira: it was really funny and stimulating from the creative point of view, but soon I realized that I would have not been able to be consistent or to delegate the work to other people… So I thought I had to opt for a product, which I could standardize a bit more, at least in its production process and this is how the headband came out: I liked the idea that anyone could choose her own way of wrapping it and that the uniqueness of each fabric makes it fit for anyone’s taste.
What is the headband for Anne Kiwia?
The moment you wrap it on your head is the moment all the pain and the fights you have to deal with daily as a woman slip away. It’s the moment you reconnect with yourself, with your life and find relief. It’s a symbol of unity and sisterhood. It’s the crown that you finally can wear to feel like a queen… a warrior-queen in your community.
This is what this object means for me and this is how it helps me to tell the stories of all the women behind it.
A couple of years ago I was in one of the darkest period of my life and it’s in those black days that I was really able to see all these warrior-queens around me who, in spite of their own difficulties, had so much grace to give and tought me the secrets of a “peace of mind”.
It’s in that moment that I realized I had to also encourage them the same way they were doing with me: somehow I felt my mission was to highlight some inequalities of our society… I could feel I was so embraced in it and I felt that my products should have highlighted these stories behind, but at the same time without picturing the women whom I wanted to represent in a weak and pitiful way… Exactly the opposite, I would say: I wanted to give the image of their strength without they could lose their authenticity.
And this is how our mission “Every queen deserves a crown” started.
How is all this perceived by people?
I make people laugh by saying I make headbands in Africa. For sure many expect other entrepreneurial projects in a developing country. They struggle to connect small in relation with value.
But you know, I like that also through this simple object I can somehow and in some way contribute to give a different image of this Country: not as the place of poor people in need, but the place of driven people who can make something at a really high standard of perfection.
Somehow a movement of change hangs above us.
If it’s not too much of a personal question, has the setup of this project been for you a way to reconnect with your Tanzanian side?
It has been passion-driven: I am a social person and this project engages people and it is my way to connect with the social community around me: suppliers, artisans, customers… For me it’s my way to discover people and to know their stories: like the stories of the women I work with or the story of the owner of the used cloth market, or anyone else I come in contact with. I feel I embrace unity despite different cultural backgrounds through the work process of my project.
What have been the greatest challenges you had to face during your entrepreneurial journey?
In the beginning, the cultural differences and differences in mindset, especially concerning timing and relations with money.
Also, the difficulty of letting go and not being obsessed with having everything under control. I had to give up perfectionism just to learn that it will return to its best.
Lastly, being a leader in a failing system, in a system where arts and crafts are not valued and are not relevant.
Have you learned to let it go in all these years?
Yes, somehow. Knowing that your best efforts can fail, then automatically you know you are not in control, which is something that in Europe we fail to accept. See, for example, what has happened with COVID: people plan things way ahead, maybe they plan for a holiday one year before and that’s why it’s difficult to accept that things may go in a different way. But when you are somehow faith-driven and you make things form the hands to the mouth, then you just are less affected by external events and you become more resilient. And in the end, you are happier because you have less mental restrictions and you learn that all of us will be gone one day.
Speaking, instead, of a system that does not properly value arts and handcrafts, as you said before, what do you think can be done to make artisans and artists more and more appreciated in Tanzania and East Africa?
I think it’s mainly an issue concerning education and exposure, but also lack of awareness of their potential by artisans and creatives: if you are not exposed to certain things, you cannot even appreciate them. Also, how do we expect the producer to market the product without a deep knowledge of marketing and social media? It’s a one-man show, where only the most diverse and skilled people can take on.
It is a fact that the most successful handicraft projects here in Tanzania have been started and implemented by Tanzanians who have a higher level of education, who have been living abroad or who come from abroad because they have been exposed and encouraged to create and to become leaders.
But we need to rethink about this sector so that it becomes broader and more appreciated by a larger number of people: it’s a matter of education and of exposure.
Children get born with a lot of curiosity that makes them very creative, but while they grow-up their creativity is not encouraged by the educational system.
And that’s why, in my opinion, handmade products and crafts are not valued in society and there are not enough platforms where to sell.
But to improve this sector in the Country and Region, the Government also needs to do something, for example, to protect copyrights, to increase places where to showcase, to create and enforce artisans’ unions and platforms.
I completely agree with you. Which suggestions would you give to another woman who, like you, wants to start a journey as entrepreneurs?
The first one is being passion driven and not money driven and knowing that you can actually start small and increase the impact of what you do through branding and marketing… Don’t be scared of dreaming big.
The second one is: “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. Unity/come together, not seeing at each other as competitors but as a way of collaborating and learning from each other”.
What Vision do you have for the future?
To wrap the most precious fabrics and accessories around this so vulnerable and underestimated women of Tanzania. To make the artisans I work with to model for themselves in their unique beauty and strength. I’m of good hope after seeing my team model our brand around the world.
Thank you so much Anne. This chat has been wonderful!
Thank you too.
Photo Credits: Nicky Woo