In 2008, Mari Martikainen and Minna Impiö were exploring the markets of the Kenyan capital Nairobi. The two women, who had met each other whilst studying textile arts, were astonished by the handcraft skills of Kenyan women. However, a fair bit was lacking when it came to fresh design.
“When we went to a local market, we saw many different people selling the same products,” Impiö explains. “If one came up with something new, the rest followed suit and copied it.”
Impiö’s family was based in Nairobi at the time, and Martikainen lived in Finland. The duo decided that by combining Finnish design and Kenyan craft(wo)manship, new markets could be conquered.
The tentative idea delivered. Now, six years since the very first order, the two-woman company Mifuko has a network of over 500 women producing traditional, Fair Trade certified kiondo baskets that are sent all over the world to design boutiques, lifestyle shops and department stores.
Weaving sustainable partnerships
Mifuko wants everyone to win. The women in Kenya have been able to bring in extra income on the side of unpredictable and weather-dependent farming. For some, Mifuko has turned into their most important job, and daughters of rural families have been able to return to their home villages from the big city slums because of the work provided by Mifuko.
The good doesn’t end there; because of the extra money, the women can buy products and services from others in their villages. This way, the whole community benefits.
“It’s essential that our partnership is ongoing and continuous,” Martikainen emphasises. “In the beginning, we could tell that the women had seen a lot of projects come and go. It took them a while to believe what we weren’t going anywhere, but once they did, they’ve been really motivated and committed.”
It’s not all charity, though. The end customer receives a handmade product that is unique and of high quality, regardless of what he or she makes of Mifuko’s social efforts.
“The design has to be eye-catching – that’s where it all starts from,” Martikainen emphasises. “No one would stop and listen to our story if it wasn’t for the design that intrigues them.”
Those who wish to contribute further than buying Mifuko products can do so through Mifuko Trust, a foundation which Martikainen and Impiö established to improve the welfare of the communities sustainably.
From small villages to Parisian design boutiques
Martikainen and Impiö believe that consumers are increasingly aware of and interested in the origin of the products they purchase. Mifuko wants to do everything as transparently as possible: every item the company sells bears the name of its maker on the label.
In Finland, the market for design items is limited, which means that heading outside of its borders is a lifeline for companies like Mifuko. The concept has proven functional: Mifuko has over 300 resellers in over 30 countries, including France’s renowned department store, Merci, and design boutiques in Japan.
The vast majority, approximately 90 per cent, of production is shipped abroad. The biggest orders come from France, then Japan, followed by the US. New collaborators are popping up all the time, and at the moment, Switzerland and the US are looking particularly promising.
If the baskets’ journey from a rural village or a city slum is a long one, it hasn’t been without ups and downs for the Mifuko founders either. Seeing that Mifuko can bring about a real, concrete change in the lives of the women and their families is a huge reward for the entrepreneurs.
“It feels quite amazing to see the brand for sale in a Parisian store,” Impiö notes. “It’s been a lengthy road that’s taken a lot of courage. Fortunately, we’ve had each other – alone we would’ve given up!”