Swahili Coast: Handcrafted East African Goods Help Provide Opportunities for Artisans

written by Becky Starkey | photography by Drewe Smith

In 2013, Caroline Fisher and Tony Peele were living in Tanzania interviewing rural farmers who were receiving governmental aid. Today, they live only a few blocks from their most recent endeavor, Swahili Coast. A new addition to the Cotton Exchange, Swahili Coast merges the pair’s original business, Seeded Hand Sown, with a variety of East African goods, each with a story to tell.

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Living and Working in Tanzania

Before 2013, Tony had visited Tanzania twice through educational opportunities. With the approval of his Fulbright application, he prepped for a third trip with Carolina by his side as partner in research and life.

“I’d never been, but I knew Tony had friends who he’d known for years at that point. He already had an established community. He loved it so much that I just knew it was going to be great,” Caroline recalls.

Focus on the Coast Swahili Coast Wilmington NC

Throughout that year, Caroline and Tony traveled to rural farms, speaking with Tanzanians who were the recipients of aid programs. During that process, different issues would come up that were important to Tanzanians and while Tony’s agricultural research project served as a great inroads to a career in aid and development, neither he or Caroline was convinced that was the path for them.

“As a young idealist, we said let’s give it the good old college try and try to do something on our own!” says Tony.

An Idea Begins to Take Shape

focus on the coast Swahili coast Caroline, who had always had an interest in beading, crafting, and design work, bought her first pair of beaded leather sandals while living in Tanzania.

“There was already a local market for these sandals and literally half of the women you’d see at any given time would be wearing them. I thought they were beautiful and when I was wearing them, I started thinking this is really cool. It’s a product made by women, and we knew that we wanted to do something that would support females in Tanzania.”

After getting confirmation that the shoes had a viable market in the US, Caroline and Tony invested their savings into the products needed to create their first collection of shoes. They worked with Indian manufacturers to create lasts, which are mechanical forms used to create shoes. They imported barrels of rubber from China. Tony realized he had a knack for creating a good looking website. The one thing they refused to outsource was the craftsmanship.

Partnering with Local Artisans

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In Tanzania, each crafter is employed by a workshop or a labor company and work conditions and pay can vary greatly. If you visit any local market, you can find leather beaded sandals, but Caroline and Tony wanted to ensure the crafters who created their sandals were being treated fairly and compensated appropriately.

“We also wanted to make sure this whole project was scalable. It’s hard to make an impact if you’re only employing six people. We needed to make sure we had a solution if demand increased. The group we work with right now has 30 beaders, but we can scale up as needed and the labor pool is there.” Caroline adds, “The ladies we work with are like, this is my craft. This is my passion, and they’re proud of that. In that sense, we work with folks who are true artists.”

As Seeded Hand Sown began to grow, the ability to send more work to Tanzanian locals grew and now all workers are part owners of the workshop.

Seeded Hand Sown Grows Into Swahili Coast

After relocating to Wilmington in 2016, Caroline and Tony began to talk about ways to establish themselves as a Wilmington business.

“It’s hard to connect with people about your story when you have a space that no one really sees,” says Tony.

But throughout the process of establishing Seeded Hand Sown, they would often come across other artisans who were making incredible things. Although it didn’t necessarily make sense to sell home goods alongside leather sandals, they knew there had to be a US market for these handmade items. So when a light-filled space opened up in the Cotton Exchange, the two jumped at the chance to give their business a brick and mortar home.

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In addition to the beaded leather sandals that started it all, Swahili Coast sells traditional Iringa baskets, beaded necklaces and bracelets, Zanzibarian chests with origins dating back to the 1600’s, and terry cloth lined kikoy towels. The best part is that Caroline and Tony can tell you who carved the wooden chest and where the leather for a piece of luggage came from.

“All of this tells a story,” says Caroline. “We’re not just buying things and tossing them in our store. This is something that we develop and continue to work on.”

Tony adds, “We hope that we’re doing our part to influence the manufacturing culture in the [Tanzanian] region to be fair and treat workers with respect and dignity while also informing Americans about the incredible culture that is East Africa.”

If you want to check out Swahili Coast, visit them in the Cotton Exchange on the Front Street level in the Dahnhardt Building. They’re open from 10-5:30, Monday through Saturday and 11-4 on Sundays.

And mark your calendars for June 3rd! Swahili Coast will be having an official grand opening with specials all day and a reception from 6-8. To find out more about Swahili Coast, visit them on Facebook.