NYU Silver second-year MSW student Erika Freund spent this last summer volunteering in Tanzania, a largely struggling nation in eastern Africa. She worked with a local Tanzanian organization called EDU-Care in a village called Machumba, but did more than most volunteers. People usually spend just about two weeks working in such volunteer organizations, while Freund spent months working with a group of women under EDU-Care and has expanded her work far past the summer.
Those summer months were well spent, although they started with some difficulties. Freund is no master of Swahili and struggled to learn the language. Throughout the entire experience, she had to communicate with the group through a translator (usually the founder of EDU-Care, Mr. Shija). Freund thought it was important to engage the women and spend time with them and learn about their environment, culture, resources, and immediate needs. And, although she knew she wanted to help the women create a plan for financial sustainability and stability, Freund knew that she could not develop such a plan before doing so. It was of the utmost importance to Freund that she “ask(ed) the women what they want and what they need.”
Freund developed a four-day training program that focused on budgeting, community outreach, business management, product development, and marketing in order to give the women the tools to sustain their our livelihoods. She also taught the group, with the help of recipes sent to her from her brother, how to make products out of the available crops: banana lemon jam, tortillas, and banana bread, among others. The group developed a name, Mama Machumba (in reference to the village where they reside), and started creating decorations out of dried banana leaves for the products in the local markets, since banana trees are nearly everywhere in Tanzania. It was from these banana leaves, though, that the business truly started to develop. “Funny, I literally was surrounded by banana trees the entire time I was there and had been fascinated by how resourceful they were. But it didn’t occur to me until that day to try something using them,” says Freund. Freund, through another EDU-Care volunteer, found a woman literally a few villages down from Machumba who could create place mats, baskets, bracelets, cards, napkin holders, and much more from the banana leaves. Subsequently, and at the suggestion of two fellow volunteers with marketing backgrounds, Freund decided to hire the local woman to teach Mama Machumba how to create these beautiful products, born of a readily available resource.
From the introduction of their first banana leaf product (bracelets which would look at home in any Urban Outfitters or Anthropologie), the women’s business has grown and continues to expand. Prior to leaving Tanzania, Freund worked with the women to make an agreement to sell banana leaf mats and baskets. When Freund returned to the United States, she brought with her 100 bracelets, just to see how people reacted to them and if they would be marketable to Americans. The feedback was quite positive, even from complete strangers on the subway, and, after many restless nights, Mikuti, which means dried leaf, was established. Mikuti is a socially active company that partners with the women of Machumba and together they are working towards creating a unique brand of jewelry sourced from banana trees. A large portion of Mikuti’s profits from each piece goes back into the community to fund different local issues and on-the-ground business development. Freund states, “This is really about giving them access to a new economy, one that is not charitable, or dependent or tourism. These women are more than capable of having ownership in a company. They are smart, talented, and the most resource individuals I have ever met.”
Freund states, “My vision is much bigger than this immediate goal. I have a lot of ideas always percolating and want to incorporate more women’s groups under Mikuti. But things take time to develop. I’ve set the bar high for this, and I’m thankful that these women and Mr. Shija are willing to walk down the fog with me, take a little risk and try something. My hopes are to come back at the end of the summer with some gorgeous, one-of-a-kind jewelry and land a wholesale deal. The progress already has been excellent, the women have registered their business and opened their first bank account. One this end, I am in the process of building Mikuti’s web site, and am incredibly grateful to my friends who are entrepreneurs and attorneys, who answer my endless questions.”
Freund is dedicated to and passionately focused on poverty combating poverty, women helping women, uniting people across oceans and continents in a mission towards equality and sustainability, without having to rely on outside aid alone. Under Mikuti, she is using her social work training to help impoverished and stigmatized women lift their own burdens through education, friendship, and both the tangible and intangible benefits of economic success. You can learn more about her, the organizations, and the determined women who make up Mama Machumba at her blog and on Facebook.