“I am an occupational therapist and I believe in social entrepreneurship. And it must benefit somewhere where it’s needed if we are going to make that.”
The calling to provide sustainable jobs for African women is a huge drive for Iris Helen Nikolaisen. This mission of hers is the foundation for creating the NGO, Wayawaya. Here they design and produce high quality leather and travel friendly products in Livingstone, South Africa.The objective is training women to obtain a high skill level of craftmanship and providing them with a sustainable employment. Wayawaya sets an example on how an underdeveloped area can become an important manufacturing force that produce quality.
From Therapist to Entrepreneur
“Women empowerment is a field that I am very passionate about. Therefor, I had to go back to Norway to find a masters that made it possible to go to Zambia and set up something for women there. A Masters in Entrepreneurship and Innovation was the logical choice,” says Iris. During her master studies, she managed to channel her desire to help provide opportunities for the women living in Livingstone. This also became the steps for founding Wayawaya.
The idea on producing quality leather bags started with Google. “We turned to Google [to search] what was the most expanding market while coupling up with craft and tailoring. It turned out to be your typical leather bag from $200 - $1000. So, if that's what google was saying was the trending market in Europe and it was increasing, let us focus on that. It was substantial to the people we would be training,” explains Iris on how they came up with the idea to produce quality leather bags.
“Wayawaya means the art of wasting time.” During the early days of Wayawaya, when it was just a place where they learned how to cut and work with leather appropriately, the women behind the brand where being told that they were wayawayaring. Mainly because they kept training and wasting their time with this musungu,” Iris explains about what her team faced in the beginning.
"In conclusion we wanted to take the term and concept, claim it, and re-purpose it. It has a fun meaning where we came from, and from a product perspective it also means taking your time. You shouldn’t waste your time making fast fashion, where you are forced to work long hours and forced to produce on such high demand. […] I think Wayawaya has a deeper route in meaning to us where it is about craft and the time we spend together making the product,” she states.
The method being used in creating the leather hand bags is called Two-Tone design. This is when you have a product or design in two colors or different tones of the same color. Iris goes on talking about how it all goes to folklore which has a history and synergies, which again leads to combining the different folklores from Zambia and Northern Norway.
In Zambia, they have the Chitenge wear. A versatile and very colorful garment that help with almost any need. The Sami, the indigenous people of Norway, have a more toned-down embellishment that it is very rich and strong. “Combining the rich African colors from the Chitenge with the more simplistic-inspired Sami patterns felt like a really good merge to me. Thus, creating this Two-Tone design” she explains.
There is a strong synergy between Livingstone and Tromsø, both being popular travel destinations. "We realized that the destination had more of a pull and push. In fashion we didn’t have enough followers, and we didn’t know how to spread the word. There were too many questions. But we started talking about the destination and people loved it. Being travel- and destination friendly makes it a more powerful brand when you are part of Tromsø, which is a wonderful place to travel to,” says Iris.
“It was supposed to be something to cover our costs, but actually it turned out to be our main market. It presented itself, just like the name Wayawaya, and we let it grow organically to what it should be.” Here Iris explains how the tourist became their target audience. Ever since putting up a shop that is on the way to the Victorian Falls more tourists came and entered the shop.
Adapting to COVID-19
Having planned several trips to expand on the tourism front, the pandemic halted their plans once Berlin closed. Iris could see the rest of the world closing before it was happening. “If Europe is closing down, then by default Africa is closed down. And if this virus moves through Europe, then it moves back down again when we are officially closed. That’s the second wave.” She continues to analyze the bigger picture. Africa will be affected by two different type of waves. First, the financial wave that is caused by a knock-on effect of Europe being closed. And the second wave, which is the effects of the virus itself. “But because of what was happening in Europe so early on we had time to prepare,” she says.
To be able to survive financially, they needed to close bag productions completely and find other things they can do. “Together with three other organizations, we approached the Ministry of Health and said that we would like to make something for you. We will find the funds for it, and we will help you out,” Iris informs. With this they started the production of face masks. She adds that they will make face masks for companies as well, if the organization in Zambia can benefit from it.
They started to research what makes the best reusable mask that even health care workers can use. They started to produce masks with two layers of silk and one layer of cloth, which is supposed to be the best design for face masks. By obtaining grants to produce the face masks, they could cover the basic costs of manufacturing, rent, and the salaries for the team.
Bring back manufacturing
“Building on COVID, one of the most important things is not necessarily what happens today health wise. It is what happens tomorrow, and the next year, and the next five years with jobs,” she points out.
“One of the most important things that Wayawaya has to play in the future is to create more vocational training and sustainable jobs. We are constantly thinking of new ideas on how we can continue sustainable manufacturing.“
“Livingstone used to be the manufacturing hub in Southern Africa before the free market and aid,” she points out. “Aid and the free market destroyed manufacturing in Southern Africa. It was not the economy in Southern Africa, because it was working better than the free market and aid than after… But what they didn't realize is that they were destroying jobs,” she explains.
“But the point is there used to be manufacturing in Livingstone that again can become a big player. Especially if it is done the Wayawaya way of thinking craft and quality and spending your time doing it right,” she concludes.
Masks for a good cause
As mentioned before, Wayawaya helps to provide face masks for the Ministry of Health of Zambia. By doing so, it helps to provide work for the females behind Wayawaya during the pandemic which has caused a huge surge of unemployment in the world.
“While being back home I have been thinking on the masks that we provide for the NGO and Zambia,” Iris points out.
“Early on I was not thinking on selling masks commercially because there was no market since Norwegian government suggested not to use masks. However, this changed while I was on a trip to Sommarøy with some friends. On that day, the government announced that people in the Oslo region should start wearing masks on public transportation and places that is difficult to maintain social distance.” Iris continues on explaining that because there's a demand for masks now, they can take advantage of and produce more funds for their NGO, to keep their vocational training, and providing a sustainable income for the team.
“I already had some designs made from the time we were developing a mask for the Health Ministry. In addition to that, and one of my friends being very picky on what she wears, it lead to our masks that we are selling now.
"People can now buy colorful and/or patterned reusable mask instead of the blue standard one-time use mask.”
Iris informs that all the proceeds they make by selling good quality masks will help generate parts of the income they have lost when producing high quality bags. In conclusion, by buying a Wayawaya mask, not only will you be comfortable and show your personality, you will be helping their values of providing vocational training and sustainable employment for women in Zambia.