Sarah Dunigan is the co-founder of Songa Designs, a company providing a fashionable, fair trade line of innovative accessories exclusively handmade by Rwandan artisans. Each of these designs represents a collaboration among a growing network of over 150 artisans composed of individuals and women’s cooperatives.
An expat in Africa for many years who now splits her time between the U.S. and Rwanda, Sarah has graciously agreed to share her story to help inspire others who may have aspirations for building a business to support their life as well as their local communities overseas.
Sarah started her career in commercial real estate development and spent almost ten years in the field before heading in a new direction. She was drawn to East Africa in 2008 while earning an MBA in Sustainable Management and has dedicated herself to work in the region ever since. She believes strongly in reducing poverty through job creation, and is now focusing on building viable markets for skilled rural artisans through Songa Designs.
I first connected with Sarah in August of last year. She reached out to me in need of support for how to best position herself and her company when speaking to different audiences so that her message of value would resonate with both the western corporate world as well as communities in Africa. Her passion and desire to make a real difference in the lives of Rwandan women was extremely strong back then and has translated into a business which is now selling Rwandan artisans designs globally.
Sarah talks about helping women write a new story for Africa through Songa Designs: a story of dedication, transformation and success. I believe that Sarah and Songa Designs have not only helped these East African women tell that story – they are a living example of that story themselves.
Thank you so much Sarah for taking the time to share your story with us. Can you share how Songa Designs came to be?
When I first landed in Rwanda in 2009, I did not plan on living there for a total of 15 months. In fact, I almost didn’t even last 15 days. It was also not in my plans to become an entrepreneur. I was supposed to volunteer with an organization that trained street children to play soccer however that fell through and I was left in a country where I knew no one. Not wanting to waste my opportunity of really experiencing this East African country, I found myself working with women’s cooperatives and eventually partnering with them to start Songa Designs, a fashion accessories and design business.
Songa was not my first venture in Rwanda, though. Along with two other American expats, including my Songa business partner, Ellie Kates, we co-founded Rwanda Nziza, (“Beautiful Rwanda”) in 2010. Located in the capital city of Kigali, it is the country’s first and only all-Rwandan handicraft store where artisans earn 100% of profits from sales of the products they make.
In the early stages of planning Songa, Ellie and I acknowledged that there was a lot that we didn’t know. We are always in a constant state of learning. We didn’t know exactly how to start a business in East Africa. Because fashion is not a part of their every day lives, we didn’t know if we could get the artisans to follow our vision of building an international fashion accessories and design firm.
Instead, we started with what we did know. We already knew what kinds of native materials Rwandan artisans were familiar working with and the kinds of products they were comfortable making from those materials. We observed the kind of traditional weaving techniques, and sewing and tailoring skills they possessed and knew we could take their existing knowledge and skills to create something new and unique.
Our vision to merge the traditional with the contemporary to create different, fun, fashionable accessories is unfolding before us. A year and a half later, we employ an exclusively Rwandan staff (who are being trained to eventually run operations on their own) and we partner with a growing network of over 150 rural artisans throughout the country who collaborate with each other and produce our original handmade designs.
We sell at retail stores in San Diego and Chicago with more stores to follow. We’ve also partnered with Hybrid Her, a trunk show platform that sells products with a purpose.
What natural strengths and qualities were most important in helping you succeed/overcome your challenge?
My Rwandan colleagues have said that my ability to connect with the women I work with on a more personal level has been a big strength of mine. Being in the cooperative while they work is one of my most favorite places to be and it shows. I sit on the cement floor with them and learn to speak their language and watch them at their craft. It goes outside the cooperative walls and into their homes, attending their family weddings, having a Fanta with their children, or enjoying a traditional Rwandan meal in the village. By showing a genuine interest in wanting to know more about them, outside their roles as artisans, they are able to see who I really am and that builds trust.
What "lessons learned" would you like to share with other current or aspiring expats?
Ellie has said this perfectly in the past: we must always remember and respect that we are visitors in Rwanda. That there are layers of cultural meanings that I won’t ever understand but that if I remain open and humble, I can still experience this beautiful country, its people and all that it has to offer. Related to that, I’ve learned that immersing myself into their culture has helped me gain a unique insight into the lives of the artisans we work with. By experiencing their lives personally, I can also anticipate some of the challenges we might face at the operational level. This helps as we all work together to create processes that best adapt to their lives all while meeting the demands of a global business.
Lastly, a piece of advice that was given to me when I first started working in Rwanda: “Don’t expect a ‘thank you’.” It’s important to make sure I am doing this kind of work because I truly want to grow a business that will develop the skills of others while helping them earn a living. There is very little appreciation expressed with what we do and we don’t expect it. We do expect high-quality work, though!
What does the future hold for you?
Our immediate future will be working with our partner artisans and staff to build Songa into a self-sustaining business within the next couple years. We know that even with careful planning we have so many more lessons to learn, in addition to the ones we’re figuring out now, so it will take time. But we love the challenges and the rewards get better every day. I was in corporate America for ten years prior to heading in this new direction and I can’t see myself ever going back. My passion is doing exactly what I’m doing now.
Please come visit Songa Designs on Facebook.
If you would like to learn more about Songa Designs work, you can click on the video below or this link to see how banana leaf belts are made,
SPECIAL OFFER FOR EXPAT STORIES READERS:
If any of you would like to support Songa Designs by buying a gift for a family or friend, Songa Designs is offering a special discount for Expat Stories readers. Just enter "expat" (without quotes) in the code box when purchasing and receive a 15% discount off your purchase.
EXPAT CAREER SUCCESS TIP: Writing your story is a great way to celebrate your accomplishments in life as well as uncover strengths, qualities and talents that could be keys to your personal and professional success.
Reflect on the things that Sarah shared about her expereince that were critical to her professional success in Rwanda. How could they help you move forward towards a successful career abroad?
Then consider writing about your own story to see what what strengths, talents or lessons about work and life you might find. Come back and share what you discovered.
For tips on how to write your story, you can read Jo Parfitt's advice on this topic in "expat story" interview.
Would you like to use this article in your newsletter or website? Permission will be given to those who include this information: Author: Megan Fitzgerald, expat and international career coach, helps forward-thinking expats become highly visible, valued experts and leaders and succeed abroad. Sign up for expat and international career success tips: www.careerbychoiceblog.com ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
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