Power Over Pity with Swahili Coast
Swahili Coast is a North Carolina-based fair trade brand working in partnership with artisans in East Africa to handcraft sandals and accessories.
Our story began in 2013, when husband-and-wife duo Tony Peele and Caroline Fisher, made a big move from Chapel Hill, North Carolina to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.
Tony received a Fulbright Fellowship to work with farmers in East Africa, so we packed our bags and started a new life in Dar es Salaam. We spent a year traveling across Tanzania in our trusty 2-door Suzuki Jimny named “Edna,” interviewing farmers and adventuring through the beautiful rural wilds of East Africa. We met so many talented people striving for a better life, and we committed ourselves to seeking out opportunities for their talents on a global scale.
While on the hunt for a pair of the beaded leather sandals worn by many Tanzanian women, we came across a workshop of sandal-makers not far from our home in Dar es Salaam. We were impressed to learn that most of the artisans beading these beautiful sandals were women, and we saw an opportunity for growth in this female-dominated industry in Tanzania.
Caroline worked with the team in Tanzania to design a line of sandals more suited to American style, while Tony worked with the production team to innovate for comfort and durability. We began to market our handmade leather sandals to a global audience through our sandal company.
As our sandal company has grown, so has our relationship with our artisan partners. In 2016, we started making moves with our partners to incorporate their sandal workshop as a worker-owned co-operative, so that all artisans would get to share in the profits of the workshop, and have a say in the direction of the business.
In early 2017, the co-op became a reality. Tony and Caroline founded the East Africa Cooperative Development Group, a 501(c)(3) non-profit, committed to funding and supporting the efforts of co-ops in East Africa--so that other people can assist in bringing co-op projects to life.
Our sandal brand continues to grow, with placements around the U.S. and Europe, including with major retailers like Anthropologie. Meanwhile, Swahili Coast has also taken on a life of its own, with the casual, coastal accessories we design here in Wilmington selling at retailers around the US and the Caribbean--and even as far away as Peru.
Since founding the cooperative, we have been able to expand by partnering with other artisans groups throughout East Africa. It is our mission to connect these incredible artisans to global markets, all while operating on principles of fairness, dignity, and respect.
We call this strategy “power over pity.” The artisans we work with are our friends and partners, and it is an absolute joy to work with them each day - tackling poverty with community-owned solutions. We focus on empowering our artisan partners rather than pitying them. Our partners are making a good wage and working hard to create a future for themselves and their families. Through Swahili Coast, we celebrate their talents.
The Voices of Swahili Coast -
“I’m seeing my life brightening day after day since I joined this cooperative. My message for Americans buying my shoes is that they are changing my life.” - Merium, Artisan
“The world is smaller than ever. We can use technology to connect to each other and build friendships across continents--and we can use responsible business to connect artisans in East Africa to the US economy.” - Caroline Fisher, Co-Founder
“I am proud of being a woman in Tanzania because I am working hard to fight against poverty. I will help those who don’t know how to make beadwork and are willing to reach their goals.” - Paulino, Artisan
“At Swahili Coast, we have a commitment to ideals that are powerful. The ideas we cherish are based on the power of cooperativity to solve our mutual problems. Cooperativity - working together for common goals - is an incredible tool that builds our capacity to affect change in our communities and across the world.” - Tony Peele, Co-Founder