Zulugrass necklaces are at home in both Kenya’s pasturelands and a trendy boutique in Los Angeles. A colorful, coiled group of The Leakey Collection’s Zulugrass™ strands costs $39.95. But what the price tag doesn’t mention is that the woman who cut, dyed, and beaded the native Kenyan grass into this necklace is earning enough money to feed and educate her family for years to come.
Katy and Philip Leakey founded The Leakey Collection™ after a devastating drought a decade ago destroyed the livelihoods of their neighbors in Kenya’s Great Rift Valley. As the landscape became charred and depleted, the community’s men moved north to find grazing grounds for their cattle, and the women and children were left behind with no source of income.
Philip, the son of renowned paleoanthropologists, Drs. Louis and Mary Leakey, noticed an abundant, unused resource in the Kenyan pasturelands — Zulugrass, a hollow, drought-resistant strain of grass so tough that even the starving cattle wouldn’t eat it. Katy saw a skilled labor source — Maasai women had been beading for generations. She used her eye for design to create the simple, yet modern, beaded strands suited for an international market.
Since 2002, their small enterprise, designed to help support 100 families, has evolved into a business that employs up to 1,400 workers in Kenya. The Leakey Collection sells products in 2,000 U.S. stores and in 20 countries around the world.
Recently, Philip and Katy visited one of these retail outlets — Zero Minus Plus in Santa Monica, California — to discuss the local impact of buying fair trade products. “Fair trade is a response to globalization,” Philip said. “Several decades ago, people produced [goods] for their local markets. With the internationalization of markets, many producers lost their buyers.” Fair trade is a market-based attempt to connect these producers with their new, global consumers, focusing on ethical and sustainable business practices.
For a company to be certified as Fair Trade, it must accomplish three things:
- work with local communities and people to set a price for their product and negotiate wages;
- invest in the community itself, outside of the business; and
- pay its workers a living wage.
“A living wage means you can afford to feed your family, to educate your family, and get decent health care. Not many people can do that [even] in this country,” said Katy.
“When we first started out, we encountered a lot of resistance surrounding this idea of fair trade,” Katy said, stressing that a lot of people don’t understand that they get what they’re paying for with fair trade products. Lured by often artificially low prices, buyers are sheltered from the damage or exploitation, particularly of workers and resources, that is perpetuated by the value chain between production and consumption.
Fair trade products face the double challenge of ensuring not only that each step sees a profit — that each of the individuals in this chain earn a living wage — but also that the product can compete in a global economy. “Everybody makes money in fair trade. That’s the key — it’s trade,” Philip said.
Currently, there are no ”fair-trade authenticators,” as no universally accepted definition of Fair Trade exists today. There are, however, numerous Fair Trade certifications. These certifications commonly refer to a definition developed by FINE, an informal association of four international fair trade networks:
Fair Trade is a trading partnership, based on dialogue, transparency and respect, that seeks greater equity in international trade.
By working from the ground up — with local resources and already-established skills — the Leakeys give women the opportunity to create wealth for themselves, which in turn helps create stability in the community.
The difference this makes on the ground is immediate and far-reaching. “Within 30 days of working full-time for our organization, a woman can feed a family of four for a year. Within three months, she can educate her family for a year. Within nine months, she can have enough money to start her own business,” Katy said. “The change is dramatic and immediate.”
This change catalyzed others in the workers’ communities. When the women began to have an income of their own, they no longer had to ask their husbands for money to buy household staples. This contributed to familial peace, which in turn contributed to the welfare of the children. “It changed the way young people viewed their families,” Philip said.
Additionally, involving people in their economies reduces the prudence of engaging in conflict. “If you’ve got something, you’ve got something to lose,” Philip said. “Our goal is to make people players, not spectators. Think about a sporting event. It’s the spectators, the people sitting there watching and not doing anything, that make the biggest ruckus.”
“What we’ve done is try to build a bridge between the producer and the consumer,” he said. But, it’s a hard bridge to build. “On one side, you have what you might call unsophisticated production techniques — the women decide how much, when, and where they work. On the other, you have an incredibly discerning and demanding consumer. But we can’t do it without you; the buyers on the other end are the most important part of the bridge.”
The Leakeys are living up to the challenge of fair trade as they continue to expand and change their business to meet the demands of the consumer. According to fair trade practices, a new product emerges from the purposeful collaboration between an overlooked resource and unmet need.
One of The Leakey Collection’s new product lines, Marula oil, comes from a resource that is abundant in the Kenyan landscape but that had previously never been analyzed: fruit from wild Marula trees. The fruit is hand collected, the milky white kernels hand pressed to extract a few drops of the non-greasy oil. Marula oil is rich in antioxidants and beneficial for skin or hair — a great competitor in the global market. “It’s labor intensive to extract,” Philip said. “And that’s what we want — to create labor.
Ultimately, Philip and Katy stressed the importance of functioning as a for-profit business, dependent on product-generated revenue rather than “money from the sky.”
When they had just begun selling Zulugrass, Katy and Philip visited the U.S. and gave a presentation to a Catholic school. The girls bought more than two thousand pieces of jewelry. “That’s when we knew we had a viable business idea,” Katy said.
After the girls had emptied their pocket buying jewelry, a parent took them aside and tried to write a check for $100,000. “Phil and I sort of looked at each other, and made a decision then and there — that we were not trying to raise money. We’re trying to sell a product,” said Katy.
“We have a formula,” Philip said. “We start at this end, at the retail price. A product is selling for ten dollars. We have to be able to manufacture, ship, and sell it at a profit within not more than 15 percent of its value. If we can’t, we don’t do it.”
“Only if everybody is making money is [a business] sustainable,” he added. “Free money dries up. Free money makes people dependent. You want to make them independent.”