The Leakey Collection – Making “Something from Nothing” Creates Sustainability for Maasai Families

Maasai women work together to make Zulugrass necklaces under an acacia tree.

Maasai women work together to make Zulugrass necklaces under an acacia tree.

Under the shade of a small stand of acacia trees, more than a dozen Maasai women are laughing, talking, and singing. Their brightly colored dresses create a cheerful contrast with the buff grass beneath them. Nearby, their children run and play together while the women string colored beads cut from strips of Zulugrass.

The result of their labor is both versatile and lovely — necklaces, bracelets, belts, and earrings in a rainbow of colors. Each piece is made primarily of natural materials harvested sustainably from local resources. The jewelry they make will be sold by the Leakey Collection in more than 20 countries around the world.

The name Leakey may well be familiar to you, as co-owner Philip Leakey is the son of famed paleo-anthropologists Drs. Mary and Louis Leakey. Katy Leakey, Philip’s wife, grew up half a world away. Yet their lives were already linked, even as children. Katy’s parents, Robert and Evelyn Moodey, were instrumental in the founding of the L.S.B. Leakey Foundation in 1964. Today, Katy and Philip are married to each other and, as business partners, are the co-creators of  The Leakey Collection.

As I type this post, I look down at my wrist. It’s covered with strands of tubular, blue, green, and black Zulugrass beads, interspersed with bright blue, clear, and gold glass beads. I’ve stretched and gently tugged the strands in multiple ways, trying them out as necklaces and bracelets over and over again. Yet, each time, the elastic fibers have regained their shape. I smile to think that these ancient African grasses have been strung on a synthetic fiber invented for the very modern movie Spiderman. (It’s not impossible to break a strand, however, so care is still advised.)

To learn about this new generation of Leakeys and the jewelry that provides a sustainable source of income to well over a thousand Kenyan families, Blue Planet Green Living (BPGL) spoke with Kristan Fazio, Managing Director of the Leakey Collection’s U.S. operations. — Julia Wasson, Publisher

BPGL: I understand that the origin of The Leakey Collection is tied to one of the worst droughts in Kenya in more than 50 years. What is the connection?

FAZIO: Katy and Philip Leakey live in the Kenyan bush among the Maasai people. Because the Maasai are a herding people, they are dependent on weather for their livelihood. When everything dried up in 2001, the men had to take the cattle hundreds of miles away for better grazing conditions. The women were left with no means of income and no way to get medical supplies, food, clothing, or education for their children. They were in desperate circumstances until Katy and Philip personally started supporting about a hundred families. Very quickly, they determined that wasn’t financially sustainable for them or the families.

Maasai women wearing their traditional beaded jewelry. Photo: The Leakey Collection

Maasai women wearing their traditional beaded jewelry. Photo: The Leakey Collection

So they said, “We need to figure out a way to make something from nothing.” Philip has a great love of nature. And Katy’s background is as an artist. It was Philip’s idea to use the grass to make beads, and it was Katy’s eye for the contemporary design that yielded the idea of a single strand of jewelry that can be worn in many different ways.

The Maasai women have long been beading in traditional designs, which are very different than what Katy and Philip designed. The Leakey Collection designs contemporary products for the modern world, quite different than anything you’ve ever seen in traditional crafts.

The Leakey Collection started with a small handful of women making the jewelry. Now, at times, the workforce includes more than 1,400 Maasai women. They work when they want to, as independent contractors.

Katy and Philip are very sensitive to the Maasai culture and traditions. The Maasai are receiving a lot of pressure from outside of their area to modernize, but we don’t want to change their way of doing things.

BPGL: Who is putting pressure on them?

FAZIO: Progress, communication, and technology are applying the pressure. The higher cost of education and medical care means that families require a higher income if their children are to prosper in a world beyond a traditional nomadic lifestyle. Many young Maasai want more than the nomadic life can offer. Land resources are not as plentiful now that the population has grown, which means that less land is available for grazing cattle.

BPGL: How do their traditions affect the women’s work for the Leakey Collection?

A Maasai worker cuts the Zulugrass for jewelry making. Photo: The Leakey Collection

A Maasai worker cuts the Zulugrass for jewelry making. Photo: The Leakey Collection

FAZIO: Living in the Maasai community, the Leakey’s worked with the women to design a system that would allow them to continue enjoying the age-old tradition of ceremonies that last for days to months at a time. One of the company’s greatest challenges was merging the irregular and varied lifestyle of the workforce to the highly demanding global market. What this means is the women can come and go as they please, sometimes not working for months at a time.

To handle this, the company must have three times the number of women available to work at any given time. This allows us to employ all those who want to work for only a few hours or a few days. It also runs up the cost of management, but we believe it is worth the cost so that the Maasai’s traditions remain stable and uninterrupted.

BPGL: What is the environmental impact of using the Zulugrass and native woods to make jewelry?

FAZIO: The grass used to make Zulugrass jewelry is a strong, thick grass that is too coarse for the cattle to eat once it has matured. Traditionally, the Massai have burned the grass along the wetlands to stimulate the growth of tender new shoots.

This had, in past years, destroyed the wetland habitat for birds and small mammals that lived there. Because we purchase the mature grass from the Maasai at a price double that of fair trade coffee, they stopped burning the Zulugrass. Within two years, the wetland habitat was restored to its original beauty and diversity.

The little, long beads are the grass. The grass is as hard as a bamboo. The women cut and dye the grass beads, then string them on elastic.

BPGL: Where do the women do the beading?

FAZIO: We have set up various remote work stations across the Great Rift Valley. We don’t have a central workstation, nor a factory. The women work under the trees, which is their preference.

There’s a whole process that Katy and Philip handle. It consists of going to the elders of each of these communities and telling them that we want to come in and bring this work to their women. Katy and Philip ask if this would be something the elders would be interested in.

Everything we do is very respectful of the Maasai’s conditions. When there are lots of orders and lots of good business, we have up to seven different sites that are working at the same time. We cover a span of about 200 miles. You can imagine, there are a lot of challenges that come with this business. For one, there are no roads.

A Maasai boy with a model wearing Zulugrass jewelry. Photo: The Leakey Collection

A Maasai boy with a model wearing Zulugrass jewelry. Photo: The Leakey Collection

I think that the reason we are successful is because Katy and Philip actually live amongst the people. These are their neighbors, their friends. They can make it work. But there are definitely some challenges, such as communication. It’s like moving mountains.

BPGL: Our culture is very different from their culture, so why would they follow our rules? That wouldn’t work very well.

FAZIO: Right. We’re designing a business around their culture, not the other way around. And because of that, we were a finalist in the BBC World Challenge.

BBC World News, in conjunction with Newsweek, puts on a competition every year where they’re looking for companies that are making a difference in the world without negatively impacting the earth. Last year there were over 750 companies who were nominated, and we were one of 12 finalists.

We were pretty honored to be there, though we unfortunately didn’t win. It’s phenomenal the way this competition is raising awareness about the importance of socially responsible and globally responsible companies.

BPGL: What do you see as the long-term impact of the Leakey Collection for the Maasai women and their families?

Stringing the glass beads with Zulugrass. Photo: The Leakey Collection

Stringing the glass beads with Zulugrass. Photo: The Leakey Collection

FAZIO: Since we started our company, there have been other droughts in the area. The change in attitude and the lessening of the stress over there has been so visible to Katy and Philip. The people are no longer depending on things that are out of their control. That’s been very rewarding.

BPGL: What is the process of getting the buy-in from the community?

FAZIO: Katy and Philip — especially Philip, because he speaks their language — are the experts on that. In the very beginning, when this all started, the Maasai men said, “In our culture, the men handle the finances. We understand that the women are working, but you need to give us their pay, and we will make sure that it gets distributed accordingly.” Trying to be very respectful of their culture, we did try to do that.

Unfortunately, the men did not share the money with the women. There was a little bit of stress. We basically shut down operations, because it wasn’t working. The women were doing the work, and that wasn’t fair. There’s a story that they tell, where Katy and Philip were driving through the dirt road, and they saw a bunch of the Maasai men lining up. They said, “Uh-oh. What’s going on?” The men finally came back to the Leakeys and said, “We understand why you did that [close down operations], and we now see the value in the women getting paid for what they’re doing. We want you to reopen the work stations.”

BPGL: So the women truly are getting the money now?

FAZIO: They are. And it’s so interesting, because the women spend it on education and food — those responsible things. They get paid per piece. They’re a very social group; while they’re working, they’re singing. Their children are playing around them. They’re talking the whole time, so it has to be done on a production basis, versus hourly. If a woman works 30 hours a week, she will earn enough in one month to feed her entire family for a year.

Women sorting grass in the dry landscape of drought-stricken Kenya. Photo: The Leakey Collection

Women sorting grass in the dry landscape of drought-stricken Kenya. Photo: The Leakey Collection

We’re Fair Trade Federation approved. We’re also a part of Green America.

BPGL: What does that mean to readers who might not be familiar with the two?

FAZIO: There is a lengthy application and process for becoming a member in both organizations. They dive deep into our organization, our company. They look at all different aspects of it to make sure that the people are being treated fairly and paid accordingly.

BPGL: When I think of buying goods made overseas, I think, somebody here in the States is making a good deal of money off of something, and they might normally be paying pennies to the person creating it. But with Fair Trade, I would assume that means that the people creating it are getting a living wage. Is that roughly how it works?

FAZIO: It’s a fair living wage, and it is based upon the averages within their country.

BPGL: What is Green America?

A necklace and bracelet set made from Zulugrass and Zuluwood. Photo: The Leakey Collection

A necklace and bracelet set made from Zulugrass and Zuluwood. Photo: The Leakey Collection

FAZIO: It’s a similar type of organization. They’re looking to raise awareness about green practices in companies from the United States. That includes doing things like using recycled paper. There’s a discussion board that members can engage in where all different subjects are discussed. I get many emails from them on a daily basis about things that I wouldn’t have necessarily known about otherwise, such as topics about legislation, production, marketing, alternative ways to do business that leave less of an impact on the earth.

BPGL: How widespread is The Leakey Collection? Are you selling around the world, or is it mostly in the United States?

FAZIO: The Leakeys live in Kenya, but this is where we set up our warehouse and where we handle the global distribution. Definitely, our emphasis is on the United States, because of costs and operations. We sell in 20 different countries and in about 2000 stores in the US. We focus on wholesale to stores; however, last July, we launched our Leakey Life retail website.

Our products are so beautiful to see and play with in person. It’s such a versatile product, because it’s strung on elastic and can be worn a number of ways. It’s great to go to a store and touch and feel it and see it and mix colors. But the way the economy is changing and people are purchasing, we had to have a presence on line as well.

BPGL: I see in your literature that you sell Relief Beads for Darfur. What is the connection to The Leakey Collection?

FAZIO: Everything we do in this company is unique. This is one example of that. Relief Beads for Darfur is a separate company that we have formed a partnership with because we like what they’re doing so much. There are so many similarities about giving back to people. And it’s basically two young guys who wanted to make a difference in the world. They started selling bracelets. Forty percent of the proceeds goes back directly to Darfur through Relief International. They sell retail on their website, and we handle the wholesale operations for them. So we present it along with our products at trade shows and sell to the stores.

Katy has also designed a line of products specifically to raise awareness for breast cancer.  It’s called Kupyona, which means to heal in Swahili. It’s made in different shades of pinks. It’s a lovely set. Ten percent of all the proceeds from that we donate to breast cancer research and women’s health initiatives every year during Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

I am just thrilled to be part of this. The Leakeys are amazing people to work with — very inspirational.

Beautiful Zuluwood necklaces made from the acacia tree. Photo: The Leakey Collection

BPGL: Is the current state of the economy causing any problems for the work that you all do?

FAZIO: We hope the economy here turns around. It’s definitely taking a toll on operations back in Kenya in manufacturing.

BPGL: Even in Kenya?

FAZIO: Definitely. With tourism being down, that’s a big thing for Kenya. As far as our company, we have to have the sales for the women to have work.

BPGL: What about the Zuluwood products? Do the women make those?

FAZIO: In the beginning, the women were making everything. But there were certain jobs that they don’t like to do. They said, “It’s okay if the men do this job.” So now the men collect the wood, since it’s far too strenuous for the women to do. All the wood that we use in our company is fallen; we don’t cut down any trees.

Again, prior to working with The Leakey Collection, the Maasai would burn the wood for energy. The Leakeys have educated them on the value of the wood. The wood that we use is exquisite. It’s acacia, and it’s just gorgeous. The grains in it are spectacular. We’ve taught them it is more profitable to sell the wood to us than to burn it and use it for fuel.

BPGL: How do the men manufacture these beads? Do they have power tools?

FAZIO: We have some power tools, such as drills and a jig saw, but most of the wood is hand-honed and polished. We are looking into getting into some other home interiors items. But that would require some machinery, which we don’t have yet. By the way, we were featured in InStyle magazine last year with our Zuluwood necklaces.

If we had won the BBC award, we were going to purchase a hydroelectric plant. There’s a river there. We were going to try to get some more sustainable energy.

BPGL: Do the Maasai make the porcelain items, too?

Items from The Leakey Collection, handmade in Kenya. Photo: The Leakey Collection

Items from The Leakey Collection, handmade in Kenya. Photo: The Leakey Collection

FAZIO: They shape it and fire it. The women do the shaping and let the men do the firing. I call Philip “MacGyver.” He made a kiln from scratch in the middle of the bush. He’s teaching the men how to fire porcelain.

BPGL: What are the company’s plans for the future?

FAZIO: We are looking to create high-design products for the global marketplace, while upholding fair trade, environmental, and social responsibility. Katy and Philip are becoming experts on rural enterprise development. Because of that, they were invited to speak at a conference in Switzerland on the International Trade Centre. It was an esteemed group of people meeting to discuss how rural enterprise can be done the right way, fairly, and how our world is so interconnected that we all have to figure out the best practices and take them worldwide.

Our goal is to design a business model and bring it to other rural enterprises around the world — and, if we can, work with them. A lot of fair trade companies have designs that are indigenous to the people. So that’s one thing we stand apart on; our designs are for the contemporary global marketplace. If we can find people’s skills around the world and then put the Leakey Collection design on it, Philip and Katy’s design — and be able to help different groups within the world — that’s what we would like to do, using our business model.

NOTE: After reading a draft of this article, Fazio wrote to tell us that Kenya is again facing a devastating drought. In the past few months, there has been little, if any, rain. The Maasai are now saying the situation is even more desperate than in 2001, when Katy and Philip formed The Leakey Collection. Purchases of items from The Leakey Collection continue to provide direly needed wages to support the basic needs of the Maasai women and children.

Julia Wasson

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)


One Response to “The Leakey Collection – Making “Something from Nothing” Creates Sustainability for Maasai Families”

  1. Fair Trade Connects Local Producers with Global Consumers | Blue Planet Green Living on March 30th, 2010 6:17 am

    […] Nailebo and Nalgito are Maasai women who create fair trade products for The Leakey Collection. Photo: Courtesy The Leakey Collection […]