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Empowering Female Entrepreneurs: The Story Behind Akili

Although here in Australia, we still have a long way to go in terms of gender equality, we’re undeniably fortunate in comparison with many developing nations. According to the World Economic Forum, in 2018 there were 104 countries in which various laws prevent women from working in certain jobs. In developing countries such as Tanzania, women are prevented from joining the formal labour force, encouraging them to turn to other forms of work including entrepreneurship. Australian-based entrepreneur and ex-marketing executive Fabi Alvarez has made it her mission to support the women whose opportunities are limited by law: to help elevate their work and connect them to the markets that can support their livelihoods. We spoke with Fabi about the inspiration behind Akili: the online platform supporting female artisans and sharing their ethically made products with the world.

Working for large corporations in Australia, India, Brazil and the UK, Fabi grew disappointed with the environmental and social impact these companies were having on the developing communities they operated on. After moving to Tanzania to work on a project supporting local female entrepreneurs, Fabi witnessed first-hand the challenges that female entrepreneurs faced daily. Their resilience and perseverance inspired her to use her own skill-set to help, and so, when she returned to Australia, Akili was born. Fabi works in partnership with her childhood friend Vlad Barreto, on a shared mission to ensure female entrepreneurs can access markets such as Australia, and receive the recognition that they deserve.

 

Akili works with Female-led Social Enterprises in developing communities, tell us about the organisations you work with

In Tanzania, we work with four social enterprises:

WomenCraft is a fair trade-certified social enterprise. It currently engages 600 female artisans, many refugees, who create beautiful homeware with local grasses and upcycled grain sacs.

Vikapu Bomba operates in poverty-stricken rural areas where incredibly skilled female artisans cannot sell their products locally at fair prices. They engage more than 150 women and assist them with the sales of traditional handbags and baskets handwoven with local grasses.

Shanga employs over 50 people in Tanzania, the majority with a disability. They use locally grown cotton to hand-weave blankets, scarves and Maasai jewellery made with recycled glass beads. 

And, finally, Sidai is a social enterprise in Arusha, Tanzania, which creates traditional Maasai Jewellery and runs social programs for the artisans on women’s rights and cattle caring. In a culture where women are often denied an education and financial independence, Sidai plays a pivotal role in providing economic and intellectual empowerment.

In Brazil, we work with Carol Barreto, who creates stunning jewellery items from discarded plastic bottles and aluminium cans. She aims to challenge the notion of what is waste by creating a new approach to modern jewellery. 

Also from Brazil comes vegan shoes and bags, created by Insecta. They are a women-driven brand that aims to build a more sustainable world by using upcycling existing items or recycling raw materials in all their products.

And, lastly, Maki in Ecuador is a fair trade-certified organisation working to preserve the artisanal wealth of indigenous women. They produce beaded jewellery and hats made with toquilla straws.  

 

What inspired the launch of Akili?

The female entrepreneurs I’ve met in Tanzania inspired me. They were passionate, resourceful, incredibly skilled and driven. Despite operating under challenging circumstances, their handmade production processes were as beautiful as their final products. 

Each woman is a community leader having a positive impact on the lives of their artisans and their customers.

In a world dominated by large corporations and mass-produced items quite often damaging communities and the environment, I noticed that small, women-led businesses were doing precisely the opposite. They were building communities and making unique, beautiful handmade items with minimum environmental impact.  

 

Social businesses have really gained momentum over the last couple of years, why do you think that is?

Consumers are becoming more aware of the impact their purchasing decisions have on the world. Also, I believe that environmental and social problems are becoming more evident across all information and social media channels we access daily. People want to have a positive impact.

 

Tell us more about the selecting process of your products/collections? 

I met the entrepreneurs and visited the enterprises when I worked in Tanzania. I was a fascinated consumer then, and I’ve wanted to bring them to Australia ever since. 

It was easy to select and get behind these products when you have purchased and used them yourself.     

Our product range is quite broad, and everything is made with recycled or natural materials; hats, handbags, shoes, jewellery and homeware! 

 

Why do you focus on female-led enterprises?

In developing communities, women don’t have access to the formal labour market. So, entrepreneurship is not only a labour of love for them, but it is quite often the only way out of poverty and into economic independence. Because of this, the number of female entrepreneurs in developing nations is surprisingly much higher than in developed countries. The challenges they face in their environment are also more difficult to overcome

In addition, when women grow economically, their families and the entire community benefit. Therefore, I focused on female-led enterprises because they have more social impact. Also, the challenges they face are harder to overcome. And finally, because their products are handmade with traditional, ancient techniques and are unique. 

    

To support the incredible female artisans and makers that Akili represents, visit the Akili website akili.com.au

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