-Kono Business makes female Tailors Economically Sustainable.
By Ajong Mbapndah L
It may have started small but it has succeeded in transforming lives of women in Sierra Leone. What Anni Lyngskaer started after discovering firsthand the sufferings of women in a country suffering from the hangover of a civil war has succeeded today in making many empowered. The venture called Kono Business helps the activities of female tailors to become economically sustainable. Anni of Danish origin has rallied other young volunteers from her country to assist her in turning Kono Business into a formidable organization with on the ground results that are there for all to see. In a chat with PAV, Anni sheds more light on the work of her Organization, challenges faced, her observation of developments in Sierra Leone and plans for the future.
PAV: May we know what Kono Business is all about and how did this idea come about?
Anni Lyngskaer: Kono Business is a not-for-profit social enterprise aiming to empower a group of female tailors to become economically sustainable and role models in the local community. This is done through trainings and two annual production cycles. The tailors produce scarves, bags and computer sleeves that we sell in two shops in Denmark and online on www.konobusiness.com.
Kono Business is run by 10 Danish volunteers and all profit generated from sales are re-invested in the project. For example, this year we supported the tailors in shining up the shop at the local facility in Sierra Leone to help them gain more local customers. The tailors paid half of the expenses from their shared savings and Kono Business paid the other half from the profit.
We are approved by Fair Trade Denmark, which means we live up to the international standards of fair trade. Co-founder Anni Lyngskaer traveled to Sierra Leone for the first time in January 2008. She went to write a story about girl soldiers for the Danish news paper “Kristeligt Dagblad.”She met a lot of interesting and inspiring people on that trip, and one of them was Arthur Kargbo, who is the Project Manager of the local CBO that Kono Business & Development works with today.
After Anni got back to Denmark she fundraised around 3.500 us dollars to the local CBO. All the money was spent on equipment for the vocational training school the CBO is running.However, this wasn’t enough for Anni, she wanted to do more and one day she had a conversation with founder of Café Retro, Rie Skårhøj.The two young women realized that they had similar ideas. After a little while they raised money to travel to Sierra Leone to start the project that today is Kono Business & Development. The journey took place in January 2009 and Rie and Anni met with the group of female tailors who are still working for Kono Business today.
PAV: What made you settle on the choice of Sierra Leone and what concrete impact would you say Kono business has had on the life of Sierra Leoneans?
Anni Lyngskaer: We work with a rather small group of tailors (14), but we believe in quality and believe even a small effort can create a huge impact. We are empowering the tailors to participate in the community by talking about female issues and take part in discussions. During each production cycle we run a training as well. This past fall we carried out a video workshop encouraging the women to tell their own story through filming. They were able to create their own short documentaries and presented the results at a local film screening in Koidu town. One of the women said “I’m very happy and have realized that women are also valuable in society.” (Hawa Gborie)
PAV: How is the selection done for people that you work with?
Anni Lyngskaer: The selection of tailors was made of our local partner organization who knows the tailors from the school they are running. The tailors now select their own new sisters in the co-op. However, for the moment we have a limit of 15 women. But we hope to be able to expand in the future.
PAV: What are some of the challenges that Kono Business has faced so far?
Anni Lyngskaer: The fact that we are actually running a business. It’s A LOT of work to maintain the sales and marketing activities in Denmark. In the beginning non of us had any business background, but recently we got some new volunteers educated from Copenhagen Business School, which is really necessary.
PAV: Any prospects that the initiative may be expanded to other African countries or you intend to limit it solely to Sierra Leone?
Anni Lyngskaer: Well, we would love to. We would also love to share our experiences, so others can do similar start ups.
PAV: We noticed that you have succeeded in building a dynamic team of young volunteers, what exactly drives them towards Kono Business?
Anni Lyngskaer: That’s a very good question. We are part of a bigger organization specialized in running projects on a voluntarily basis, so we use quite a lot of energy to work on management of volunteers. Our volunteers have different motivation. Some of them do it because they want practical relevant experience while studying. Most of them study African Studies or International Affairs.
Most of our “business volunteers” work full time besides volunteering for Kono, and they do it because they like the idea of sharing their experience and also doing something “good” for others. I think most of us believe that development aid should be changed and focused more on business initiatives and entrepreneurship instead of “just” capacity building or “democracy projects telling them how we like it.”
In Kono we believe that our tailors already have a lot of capacity and knowledge and teach them through storytelling and with a trust in their ability to change their own lives.An example of them taking initiative is that they recently hired a woman to continue to teach them reading and writing. They pay her from their shared savings account.
PAV: You probably have been to Sierra Leone a couple of times, it is a country try to shirk off the hangover of a brutal civil war, what assessment do you make of the situation there today and what potentials do you see for the country?
Anni Lyngskaer: We work in Koidu and unfortunately the signs of the civil war are still very present in the community. We experience a lot of fighter spirit and a drive to move forwards, but a lot of basic needs are still not present in Koidu. There is no power unless you have a generator, no running water, bad roads lack of doctors and qualified teachers. There is a huge potential for the government to cooperate with foreign mining companies about CSR and paying a fair amount of tax to Sierra Leone. As for now the companies make a huge profit the diamond mining industry, while the local people suffer.
We also see an abrupt family structure. Only one of our 14 tailors is married, but 9 of them have kids – most of them with different fathers.
They tell us that the young men leave them as soon as they find out the woman are pregnant. Prostitution is a problem as well, and it seems to be the easiest way for young girls to make a bit of money and often the only way to survive. To me this is a very important issue that both NGOs and the government should address in the future. Our tailors always say they encourage their sisters to get off the street, learn a trade and make money that way instead of selling their body.
PAV: You come from a much more developed background and country, what do Danes think of your initiative and what image of Africa do they have?
Anni Lyngskaer: I think most of my friends and family appreciate what I do. Some times I host talks and show pictures and films from our work and that is usually very inspiring for people.
Most of them are curious and ask a lot of questions about Sierra Leone, Africa and of course Kono Business.
PAV: Any other big plans or projects that Kono Business intends to work on down the line?
Anni Lyngskaer: We are working on a new web shop because we experience problem with the current payment system. We hope to expand internationally and start selling in Scandinavia and by time in the rest of Europe and The States as well. We are always open for new ideas and partnerships so you’ll never what happens next. On a more personally level, I’m about to launch my next project called This is my Story, which is also a social enterprise focusing on participatory video workshops as community development.
PAV: Anni Lyngskaer, you are quite a formidable young Lady and PAV is grateful for the interview
Anni Lyngskaer: Thank you.