• Konana is a 46-year-old woman from Samburu, Laikipia North, where beads are not only a form of beauty, but also an important part of culture. Now they are money-makers
• Konana and her friends are looking at a new option to reach customers, social media - Facebook. They're just learning but their area is still 2G
Beading those elaborate colourful collars and necklaces is a skill every young girl must learn and learn well before she can marry.
“If you get married and you cannot make your own bead necklaces and accessories, then you are considered less than ... Well, someone who is not marriage material," Felister Sekento Konana explained.
“People and your in-laws frown at you, wondering how your mother raised you."
Konana, 46, who lives in Naibunga Community Conservancy, Nabolo village, Laikipia county, said in this Northern frontier region, beads are not only a form of beauty, but they are also their life, they are part of the culture.
And so she grew up in Laikipia North seeing her mum do beadwork, she learnt the craft and when she was 12 years old, she loved making necklaces with beads in intricate patterns with reds, orange, yellow, blues, greens, black and white.
"Even when I would take the livestock to graze and shepherd them, I would take my beading along and spend my days making jewellry," she said.
Konana wears her neckpieces everywhere but there are some pieces —a broad, circular, multi-coloured and layered necklace from her neck to just above her bosom — that are very special. She wears it for her interview with the Star.
Another small one hangs over it. Konana has an array of colours and patterns around her neck.
“The necklaces we wear are very significant in our culture, if you don’t have the colourful accessories, it is like you are walking around naked. It is part of who we are as women. It accentuates your beauty.”
"When I herd the goats, I cannot wear all of them though because they will constrict my movement in case I came across a wild animal and I need to run."
Now, these beauty accessories have more than cultural meaning — they mean money.
“It is a valuable commodity that not only proves I’m well versed in my culture but also means my expertise can empower myself and my family financially," she said.
As a young girl, Konana dreamed of being a businesswoman but that seemed like a mirage.
She got married when she was 13 and in 33 years of marriage, she bore 10 children.
"I wanted to be financially independent so much that I used to buy sugar and tobacco and sell at a higher price to get some profit. Then I got into making bead products," Konana said.
Her skills and passion has helped her earn a living.
Konana is one of the women who make bead products for BeadWORKS, a handicraft business that harnesses the rich beading tradition of northern Kenya to improve livelihoods and empower women.The programme run by the Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT) began two years ago.
"I make the bead products after completing house chores like fetching water, firewood and herding."
The production manager for, BeadWORKS - NRT Trading, Beatrice Lempaira, explains how the process works.
"It is a unique business because it is not like a factory set up, " she told the Star.
She and others take the raw materials — beads, string, wire, clasps and other items — to the women.
They work during their free time. All they need to know is that a certain order is needed by this time. It's up to them to manage their time and complete the order.
"They are part of the business, like partners," Lempaira said.
Before the programme started, Lempira said the women were only pastoralists, taking care of livestock and the children. Lempira has seen firsthand the advantages of the BeadWORKS business.
"I’m a daughter of one of the mamas, and I am where I am because of my own mother," Konana said.
"So I can speak to the women in the language they understand, explain the business in the language they understand and inspire young girls an mamas. That's what I want to see."
The money from BeadWORKS has certainly elevated Konana financially — she had no income before she began beading for profit.
"I did not have a job. I had no control over the livestock I was taking care of, when they were sold or how much they sold far.
"Profits are controlled by my husband, he budgeted how to use the case."
She continued, "I’m saving the cash in the Sacco with the aim of buying a water tank. I have a small house made from eight iron sheets – money I got from the BeadWORKS.
“If you look at my head you see I have an indent where the straps for carrying water daily have left their mark. The water tank will make life easier."
She can harvest rainwater for later use.
Konana also uses the money from the beading business to educate her children. Her 10 children are between ages nine and 25. Her girls love to help in the beading workshop.
But boys are culturally forbidden to help. Just as women can't own property.
"Some of the cash I save in the NRT Sacco, the rest I budget to pay for their school supplies and pocket money," Konana said.
While the business is working for Konana and all the women at BeadWORKS-NRT Trading, the Covid-19 pandemic has been and still is a big deterrent to business.
The dwindling number of tourists visiting conservancies mean less traffic to their culture shops where their bead products are for sale.
"When the programme started, we had a ready market for the bead products as the tourists would come and purchase them. The pandemic hurt our sales, we haven’t sold much. To sustain ourselves during that period, we used our savings from the NRT Sacco."
And now Konana and the rest are looking at another way to reach their customers – mainly through social media, Facebook.
"If I knew how to operate Facebook, I would have sold products online,” she said.
Konana only heard about Facebook from her daughter who graduated in December.
"I can read and write but I have never used a smartphone, but if I’m shown the mechanics of it I can use it and post the products online.”
“For a while now, I have heard about social media. I haven't yet asked my daughter to set it up for me because she just finished her tourism course at the university."
Interest is growing in this Northern Frontier to learn more about technology to help their business.
Lempira from BeadWorks - NRT Trading said the women are aware of business opportunities in social media and e-commerce.
"They are very keen to learn how to use technology to market their projects. And now we are looking at ways we can teach them about it," she said.
Lempira's dream is that "the women learn advanced business skills they can use to run other businesses. I want women who believe in themselves, see opportunities and take them."
Alamitu Jatani, the wife of Marsabit Governor Mohamud Ali, is on the front line to promote digital literacy. She said there is a will to learn all things digital, to digital programmes are being introduced in the county.
The programme faces challenges.
"Technology has changed how things are done, but the problem we have as a county is that the networks you need to teach about smartphones an ICT isn't there," Jatani said.
They post programmes on YouTube, Twitter and Facebook so women can learn.
Programmes are about alternative rites of passage. Apart from FGM and early marriages, we also include courses on career development.
Is there a lot of interest in technology beyond BeadWORKS?
"Yes but it is not affordable," Jatani said.
"We are in a country that is not very advanced and it is hard to find technological tools. I'm sure if they are given the platform, our children have that interest. It is just that things are slow."
She added, "I'm sure you are not on 4G as we speak, sindio?" The network here is 2G."
For now, Konana and the women will continue beading with the hope that soon they will join the social media and e-commerce bandwagon and be to promote and sell more of their beautifully handcrafted beads as most businesses do in Kenya.
After all, Kenya is among the best digital-savvy countries with good internet coverage.
Just how the Northern Frontier is still in the 2G age remains a mystery.
• BeadWORKS artisans earned Sh9.3 million ($93,000) from the sale of beaded products in 2020, up four per cent from 2019’s Sh8.9 million ($89,000).
• BeadWORKS was granted provisional membership in the World Fair Trade Organisation (WFTO) in 2020. Upon successful completion of the monitoring period, BeadWORKS will be granted full membership in the global network. It lends credibility and provides tools to increase market access.
• BeadWORKS currently empowers 1,250 women in nine conservancies, including 90 Star Beaders, who organise beading groups, train their members, manage raw material distribution and are responsible for design input, prototyping, quality control and ensuring on-time production.
• Star Beaders are rewarded at the end of each year, based on the amount of production they oversee, and in 2020 these financial rewards amounted to Sh469,463 ($4,694).
• Five per cent of BeadWORKS sales contribute to conservation efforts in host conservancies. In 2020, this amounted to Sh1 million ($10,000).