Iwani Mawocha is critical of the way many Western countries render aid to the African continent. Or, as the Zimbabwe-born model puts it: “People come into the country, build a well and say, ‘We helped them, but why aren’t they rising out of poverty?’“
The 26-year-old is keenly aware that the “white saviour” trope is well and alive. “The people in Africa don’t need handouts — they need a way to generate income,” she says. “They need people to listen to the community and listen to their needs, instead of having people come in and tell them what they need.”
It’s why Mawocha founded Mustard Seed Africa with her mother in 2010. The non-governmental organisation travels across the African continent — mainly through Uganda, Kenya, Eswatini and Zimbabwe — to reach out to local craftspeople and offer them a platform to showcase and sell their products. If they’re open to it, Mustard Seed Africa takes their products and puts them up for sale in their chic boutique in Zimbabwe’s capital of Harare.
“We never, ever try to lowball the artisans,” says Mawocha. “We take it for exactly what they charge it for, and once we start making more profit, knowing that the product is solid, we will add even more. It’s a model of sustainable, ethical income generation.”
A portion of Mustard Seed Africa’s proceeds are also invested in programmes that provide these communities with free healthcare. Mustard Seed Africa is also unique because they focus primarily on female artisans and crafters —
the organisation’s motto is “invest in a woman, invest in a community”.
“We found that when women were breadwinners within their communities, they would help to build education centres, community spaces where kids can come play, or where we can conduct health check-ups,” says Mawocha. “Not to generalise, but we found that when men were the breadwinners, there was less of that trickle-down effect.”
This, explains Mawocha, is largely due to the patriarchal mindset that many rural communities still subscribe to. “The way men are conditioned in those more traditional societies, it’s like — ‘I am the head of this household, my household.’ It begins and ends there. But women tend to be more community-oriented. They interact with each other a lot more, and they share in the wealth.”
To date, Mawocha estimates that Mustard Seed Africa has helped some 3,000 women build their own businesses and generate a steady source of income — to say nothing of the larger communities the organisation has indirectly helped to grow and build.
As Mawocha explains, craftsmanship has always been an integral part of the cultures throughout Africa, which was why she wanted to provide these women with a larger platform to scale and monetise their businesses. “It’s a tradition that’s passed down from mothers to daughters,” she says.
At their Harare headquarters and storefront, the organisation also has a space to host classes between local artisans and visiting creatives. In the past, they even used to hold fashion shows and auctions to show off the creations from their artisans.
But it’s not just a one-way street of foreign creatives, who are more often than not white, coming to bestow their knowledge upon local Africans. Mawocha is keenly aware of the optics, which is why Mustard Seed Africa ensures that any foreign designer who they host is open to collaborative dialogue and exchange with the local artisans.
Mawocha moved to Singapore in 2014 to pursue a degree at the Yale-NUS College as the inaugural Kewalram Chanrai Scholar. She frequently shuttled between Singapore and the African continent to source for products and manage Mustard Seed Africa’s operations, but after the pandemic stymied travel, Mawocha decided to set up digital storefront Kuumba in early 2020. The online store sells a selection of Mustard Seed Africa’s products — specifically, jewellery — to Singaporean customers.
“Initially I wasn’t sure if setting up Kuumba was going to be the right choice,” she says. “But after I bought some test pieces, maybe US$100 worth, one of the artisans texted me and said: ‘I just want to thank you so much for having bought those products, because I was able to send all my kids to school for the entire term.’ And that really encouraged me to make this work.”
Beyond expanding the market for Mustard Seed Africa’s artisans, Mawocha’s mission with Kuumba is twofold: She also wanted to change people’s perceptions of handcrafted goods, especially those from Africa.
“There’s this negative perception that handcrafts are something cheap — something you buy on the side of the road, a little curio, a cute thing,” she says. “But when you look at the amount of craftsmanship that goes into each piece, it really should be classed as a luxury product.”
To demonstrate her point, Mawocha arrives for the photoshoot dressed in pieces from Mustard Seed Africa — including a matching set of earrings and a bracelet made from cow horn.
“Some people might think it is unethical,” says Mawocha, who describes Kuumba’s aesthetic as “Afropolitan luxury.” “But the reality is that as people within Africa are raising their median income, more people are eating meat — so the abattoirs have a lot of cast-offs. So we source these bones and horns from the abattoirs so they don’t just end up in a landfill. It’s an ethical use of something that would’ve otherwise gone to waste.”
Mawocha says that for all the challenges she has faced in running Mustard Seed Africa for the last 11 years, none of them were because of her gender. But she admits that she often grapples with the feeling like whatever she has done “is not enough” and “not significant” — something she attributes to the patriarchal nature of her home country.
“I grew up in a society in which giving [oneself] credit seems very boastful for a woman,” says Mawocha. “But what I’ve done is enough, and often, I need to take a step back and see that. And I need to be okay with giving myself credit for that.”
Subscribe to our newsletter