Ndara is a company built on artisanship and a belief in the power of creativity, entrepreneurship and a will to work and learn. We believe that artisanship paired with entrepreneurship has the power to make lasting societal change. The stories of entrepreneurs making changes to their societies are infinite, and we want you to know about them.
We will be using our blog to speak with other artisans in the Central African Republic and beyond. These short insights will let them tell you their story, share their learnings and their vision for the future.
This week we spoke with Kate Wilson from Mulberry Mongoose in Zambia. Kate is another entrepreneur who is making a difference at the grassroots level.
Mulberry Mongoose is a group of creative and courageous ladies who believe in bringing women together, near and far, to help each other achieve the seemingly impossible. Together they share stories, ideas and aspirations as they make all of their jewelry by hand. Amongst materials such as guinea fowl feathers, and vintage coins from the Zambian markets, they also turn snare wire into jewelry. With every piece of jewelry sold they make a donation to anti-poaching patrols in Zambia to help remove the snare wire traps that kill and injure many of the area’s iconic wildlife. By buying their accessories, you’re helping to raise thousands of dollars for this vital work to save elephants, big cats and antelope.
1. Hi Kate! What is your mission/your why?
For Mulberry Mongoose, it's is to take our business, founded on a positive circle, and enable it to reach its full potential. Our business takes something terrible and through creativity and ingenuity transforms it into something beautiful that anyone would be proud to wear both physically and emotionally. And in so doing that crafted piece gives finances back and empowers those who need it, our team in rural Zambia and conservation and rangers working so hard for our planet. It does this whilst being a business focused on profit and growth.
2. How did you start? What was the first step in your journey?
Let's say it involved three parts.
The reluctant proposal: It’s fair to say Mulberry Mongoose officially began with a wedding proposal. Not your average wedding proposal either. I was working in recruitment in London; my life revolved around the tube, work and London bars. My now husband, Dave, broke the routine by taking me on a canoe Safari to Zimbabwe for my first trip to Africa; it is here that he popped the question.
It was quite a funny marriage proposal. It was the day of my 26th birthday and, blissfully ignorant of Dave’s proposal plans, I was dreaming of the red dressing gown I hoped he would give me. The proposal was made in a small hotel outside of Harare, he called me over to give me my birthday gift... I excitedly appeared hoping for the long awaited dressing gown and I was stunned into silence by an engagement ring on a candle lit balcony. I was terrified instead of elated; but as it happened that squeak of a yes marked the beginning of the most expansive, happy, and fulfilling next Chapter of my life.
There wasn’t much time to dwell, within 4 months of the proposal Dave had found us a job in the Zambian bush and I was saying goodbye to family and friends….that’s where the Mulberry Mongoose story really gets started!
A life changing friendship: My second trip to the African bush saw me living there permanently; I lived in the South Luangwa over 12 years. I am not going to lie, I was terrified at first. I found it very challenging to be cut off from my family and friends. Only weeks before, my life had been about dressing up in high heels and teetering around London bars. Suddenly I was learning to do my 360’s to check for elephants and buffalo while walking to work. I checked my bed for scorpions and tried not to sweat the snakes that hung from our roof. I did manage to dodge the khaki and sand color scheme and clung to my old wardrobe of fuchsia pinks and sky blues much to Dave's bemusement!
It was during this first year that I met a wonderful friend, Abi James who now runs Soul Jewelry in Cape Town. Like my proposal to Dave, my friendship with Abi changed the course of my life. We hit it off instantly and could make each other cry with laughter on any given topic. She played a large part in helping me survive my first year in the bush.
Abi had set up a small jewelry making project with local ladies in the village while in the South Luangwa. As well as teaching them new skills she funded the building of their houses and sponsored their kids through school. But she was leaving at the end of the year and so passed the project onto me. Whilst Abi leaving was devastating, the cardboard box full of beads that she passed over was the beginning of Mulberry Mongoose.
The big decision: Dave and my life became more established in the South Luangwa, and it really started to feel like home. I became, if not khaki in dress code, at least more bush savvy. I was comfortable navigating a Land rover (in my mind more than Dave’s), adept at waiting for passing elephants without panicking and could figure out what type of big cat was in the area by the tone of a baboons’ alarm call.
I loved my new role as Retail Manager at Tribal Textiles; Tribal Textiles employ many local artisans who hand paint textiles in big open-air studios. It was a pleasure to use my sales experience to find markets for this wonderful product and I got a buzz from adding value in this way.
All the while I would spend my Sunday’s working on the jewelry project Abi had handed over. I brought in new beads, tried out new styles and looked for more sales outlets. I was enthralled by this, and I got a natural high each time I designed something.
Making and selling jewelry enabled me to bring together everything I loved and believed in. I was creating essential employment, particularly for women, I was being creative, and I was bringing women together to shop for a product that made them feel good. The only missing element was my passion for conservation and upcycling. This is when the idea of transforming brutal poachers’ snare wire, set down to trap bush meat and responsible for harming and killing iconic wildlife, was triggered. If I could turn that metal into jewelry and give donations back to essential anti-snare patrols, it would be awesome. I just had to figure out how to manipulate the awful wire… my hands were not too chuffed with the undertaking!
In The Artists’ Way Julia Cameron states ‘Leap and the net will appear’. My passion for this small business grew so strong that an internal voice was pushing me to take it on full time. The concoction of a very supportive husband, the freedom afforded by living in the bush and this wonderful book saw me take the brave leap to running Mulberry Mongoose.
3. What is your biggest obstacle right now?
Time management and identifying and focusing on the most important things without getting distracted by cool projects that don’t add the weight other projects can.
4. If there are two things someone should know before starting an artisan company what would those be?
Define your why before you start. Set up good systems from the get go, don’t wait and put them in retrospectively.
5. What and who are you celebrating?
People and our power to do good. We have made a mess of this planet and yet everyday you hear stories of how magical we can be if you choose to listen. We are more than capable of putting things right and living in a balanced awesome way. We just have to believe it.
6. If you could put out one message for the world to see, what would it be?
Life is about bravely following your path and squeezing as much joy from it as possible whilst accepting the challenges and hardships that play a key part in growing you and are part of the deal.
Thank you Kate for taking the time to share your story. We salute you and your team for all the goodness that you provide. If you want to support Mulberry Mongoose you can find their website and instagram here.
PS. All pictures belong to Mulberry Mongoose and the questions have been answered directly by Kate in writing.