If someone had told Charlottesville native Ellie Kates 10 years ago that before age 30 she’d be living in Rwanda running an international jewelry business, she likely would have smiled and said, “You’re probably right.”
For the 29-year-old artist and entrepreneur, traveling, creating, and helping others has become a way of life. Kates is co-founder and head designer of Songa Designs International, a company that partners with networks of artisans in Rwanda to export handcrafted jewelry to the United States. Songa’s philosophy revolves around fair trade, inspired by the work Kates did with NGOs during her first year in Rwanda.
“It’s certainly a social enterprise, but it’s also a business,” she said.
Kates spent the holidays at home—only her third trip back to Charlottesville in three years—and has big plans for her little business.
Before graduating from UVA in 2006 with a bachelor’s degree in political and social thought, she caught the travel bug while studying in Latin America. She found herself on a plane to Rwanda in early 2010 to spend six months working with non-government organizations and African charities.
After spending a year in the Maryland-sized country, hopping from village to village offering education and training to female artisan cooperatives, Kates and her friend Sarah Dunigan were inspired to develop a business that could provide families with a steady income and the ability to plan ahead—a foreign concept in Rwanda, where she said many in impoverished communities live in the moment and don’t think about tomorrow.
“The crystallizing moment for me was when a woman stood up at a meeting and said she had to choose between coming to computer training and gathering tomatoes to sell so she could feed her kid,” Kates said. “They need money for the luxury to do trainings, but what about today?”
Songa is a for-profit business with a focus on creating jobs and developing skill sets. Over 150 women who have spent their lives handcrafting accessories, but never developed basic business skills, send their products—fully assembled jewelry or pieces to be combined with others—to Kates and her handful of Rwandan employees. Halfway across the globe in San Diego, business partner and co-founder Dunigan handles the webstore and distribution in the U.S.
Kates said they’re not trying to train artisans from the ground up, but rather to help them refine their skills and make a living doing what they already know how to do.
“For example, if they’re basket-weavers, we don’t teach them how to make cupcakes,” she said. “We help them develop their techniques, and combine and mix in new materials.”
Kates said combining materials—like dyed banana leaves, handmade fabrics, recycled paper, and cowhorn—adds depth to the products, opening doors to new marketplaces.
The company’s latest endeavor is selling products through Indiegogo, an online crowdfunding tool. Kates said the plan is to build a central workshop in the capital, Kigali, to house production, distribution, and training. The campaign has raised more than $4,000 of the $20,000 goal.
Songa is coming up on its second birthday in January, and Kates wants to see the African side become self-sufficient. It’s one thing for a foreigner to be at the helm of the business, she said, but eventually a Rwandan should take on a leading role.
“That’s why I’m purposely staying away,” Kates said. She left in September and has spent the past four months traveling in South Asia in search of new marketplaces for a similar model, but said she’ll continue to visit Rwanda and check in as the company grows.
Ellie Kates displays Songa Designs International’s handcrafted African jewelry.