We caught up with the brilliant and insightful Sarah Sternberg a few weeks ago and have shared our conversation below.
Hi Sarah, thanks for joining us today. Let’s start with the story of your mission. What should we know?
Before 2011, I worked at an NGO with two of my co-founders, Ellie and Jadot. Ellie was also a volunteer from the US, and Jadot was first our translator. But something about the setup of the organization didn’t feel quite right. Ellie, among other responsibilities, led English classes. Her supervisor was concerned about attendance. He instructed her to explain to the women in her class that this was “an investment in their future.”
“I’ll never forget it,” she said as she described the reaction. One woman stood up and said that yes, she could come to her class and learn her English or spend the day selling tomatoes to feed her son that night.
“I realized how man-splaining, culture-splaining, how-to-live-your-life-splaining, the nonprofit was. And that if I could do anything to help, it would be to help these women design a business that fits their needs,” Ellie said. And that had the power not only to put food on the table today but sustain the livelihoods of the women in the future. The idea of a dignified livelihood for the talented artisans was the seed that planted the idea for Songa.
Songa is a for-profit business. We built these incredible relationships of trust with the women, and that connection is what started Songa, and it will continue that way.
That starting point of love, friendship, and admiration inspired each of us. It is the most essential element of what keeps us motivated to grow the business and work hard to achieve more day in and day out. Living in Rwanda was one of the most fulfilling chapters of my life. My fondest memories are sitting in these womens’ homes for African tea every morning, meeting their families, and hearing their stories. It was so remarkable to get to know them so intimately.
Jadot agrees that our relationship with the artisans is very unique. He said, “These aren’t strangers. We know them. We know their families. That connection, that trust, makes it impossible to give up.”
Starting Songa connected me to something greater than myself. It’s a powerful feeling and I’m grateful the women trusted us to be their business partners.
Sarah, before we move on to more of these sorts of questions, can you take some time to bring our readers up to speed on you and what you do?
Before starting Songa, I had a career in the commercial real estate development industry. While it was good money, I didn’t feel fulfilled in the business. When the market crash of 2008 hit, it allowed me to explore other options, including volunteering internationally. I now know it was no coincidence, but I chose Rwanda as a place to volunteer because there was a soccer organization looking for coaches. However, when I landed in the country, the organization wasn’t even set up, and ultimately I didn’t have anything to work on. Determined to not let this experience go to waste, I eventually found an opening at an NGO that worked with women’s cooperatives all over Rwanda. That was my first introduction to the artisans, and I loved it from day one!
When Ellie and I started Songa, we knew our mission was to partner with the women artisans of Rwanda by providing an avenue to global markets for their baskets, handbags, and other handcrafted goods. We purposefully designed Songa as a business rather than a nonprofit, which meant the artisans negotiated their own prices and took the lead on design and creation. Transparency, trust, and respect are foundational still to this day. Our long-term vision was always to step out of any other position besides the role of distributors. As distributors, they explore new markets and increasingly place Songa’s work with major retailers. This has become a reality, and we’ve successfully connected the artisans to significant retailers like Crate & Barrel and Cost Plus/World Market.
The people who love our brand are eco-conscious, value supporting women-owned businesses, and love the natural style of our handbags, baskets, and jewelry. We’ve had influencers reach out to us from all over, including Japan, Greece, and Canada. It’s fantastic to see how they style our designs, and we love hearing from customers around the world!
Can you talk to us about manufacturing? How’d you figure it all out? We’d love to hear the story.
I’m proud of our manufacturing process because the materials are grown by women in their backyard. It’s a natural product. It’s not mass-produced or made by machine.
Anyone can go to any store and buy a wicker basket, but an item that combines the materials the way Songa products do is rare. However, these are more exciting than those—and they have a story.
From sisal harvest and dying to the creation of paper beads and cow horn ornamentation—the work that goes into every Songa product is tremendous. The design of the signature Orenda handbag, a large round straw purse, for example, takes as long as five days (and that says nothing of the process of harvest, drying, etc.).
“These are very unique and traditional processes,” Jadot explains. And they are skills that have been honed through the generations, over the course of hundreds of years. They aren’t just inherited; however, they are practiced daily by the contemporary artisans that we work with.
I’ll always have the image in my head of a circle of women with their legs stretched out in front of them, sometimes with a baby on their back, sitting and chatting and weaving and sewing for hours and hours, practicing their craft.
How’d you meet your business partner?
I was lucky enough to meet Jadot and Ellie while volunteering in Rwanda over a decade ago. Ellie is the design expert on our team, and Jadot is the artisan expert. I work on the business side. We called ourselves the “dream team” because we each fulfilled a pivotal role in the start-up phase of the country.
One of my favorite stories about Songa is how we came to name our company. Since the cooperatives were located all over the country, we spent long hours on the windy roads driving to meet the artisans. We tried to brainstorm memorable names during one two-hour drive that would roll off the tongue easily. We also wanted it to tie back to the local culture.
Rwanda’s native language is Kinyarwanda, and it is a difficult Bantu language to learn. However, Jadot mentioned the local phrase, “Isonga mbele” which means “continue on the path forward” in Swahili, widely spoken in East Africa. Eventually, we shortened it to simply “Songa” which translated to “the path forward.” Since this naturally aligned with our company values and was easy to remember, we knew we had a winner!
- Website: https://songadesigns.com
- Instagram: songadesigns
- Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/SongaDesigns
- Linkedin: https://www.linkedin.com/in/sarahsternberg/
Amanda Good Gilbert Kubwimana