Interview with Katie Doyle of the Virunga Artisans, art and business venture in Central Africa improving living conditions while funding mountain gorilla conservation

 

First of a regular series, this interview spotlights a group or individual which people with Synchronized Chaos find interesting for some reason. People bringing about positive change in their communities, people innovating something new in some field of human experience, people with a compelling story. This month we focus on the Virunga Artisans, an international business cooperative marketing the craftsmanship of skilled weavers and carvers in central Africa’s Virunga montane forest region. This interview explores the opportunities and complexities of adapting products and business models for a world market and provides readers a glimpse of the cross-cultural learning process. Also, we intend to provide a wider audience for works of art which also serve as practical household objects. Many works of art challenge boundaries and dichotomies and blend purposes and styles – and these baskets and carvings bridge the gap between the pragmatic and the ‘artistic’ and show that even practical human activities can be seen as ‘art’ when approached with a high level of skill, craftsmanship, and innovation.

         

Virunga’s history and products are available here: http://www.virungaart.com

 Entrepreneurs Richard Cunningham and Katie Doyle regularly traveled through central Africa’s mountain highlands, but nothing prepared them for encountering one of the last remaining mountain gorillas.

            “The experience of sitting just a few feet away from a 500-pound silverback and his family, and making that connection with our closest relatives, was truly a life changing experience,” describes Doyle.

            According to the International Gorilla Conservation Program, the mountainous forested park encompassing parts of Uganda, D.R. Congo, and Rwanda provides a home for the world’s roughly 700 still-existing mountain gorillas.

            On the park’s border lie several country villages with skilled weavers, carvers, and coffee and tea farmers. Within the past few years, Cunningham and Doyle helped to create an international business venture, the Virunga Artisans (named for the Virunga/Bwindi highland areas.)

            The Virunga venture provides extra capital and international marketing for the baskets and other useful household products produced by the region’s people, offers profitable alternatives to developing land within the gorilla reserve, and allows a percentage of profits to fund continued gorilla preservation. <!–more–>

            Virunga Arts products have spread around the United States mostly through word of mouth and personal connections, and are now featured in galleries and specialty stores far from the project’s U.S. headquarters in Orinda, California.

            I discovered Virunga’s product line in a Pleasanton art gallery this past spring, and became intrigued by the story of how the project got started – through the grassroots efforts and creative thinking of individual people from various parts of the world.

            I believe the Virunga project represents a workable, rational, profitable and sustainable business model, and that their baskets, carvings, and other projects could benefit from being marketed as quality ordinary household products as well as works of art. Items people would consider buying when they need a jewelry basket or table centerpiece, tea, coffee, or something to decorate a living room – and found in regular department stores and not restricted to the upscale boutique market.

            Through email and through an introduction by the gallery owner, I’ve conducted an interview with Katie Doyle, one of Virunga’s founders. She shared some unique, interesting, and generally positive stories about the business’ startup phase and overall success.

 

            What was the process of setting up Virunga like? Were the local people receptive to the idea of producing their baskets for a world market? Has it been difficult to expand the scope of the business?

 

            Sorry for the delay…good news is we are very busy!

The process of setting up VA was positive.  The people, especially the women, were very excited about making money. Some of the women in Uganda had never held money before.  The carvers were a little more apprehensive, as folks had come and made promises but never delivered.

 

Do you have any interesting anecdotes about the people involved in the project, about your experiences becoming familiar with East African culture, about the story of Virunga? What has it been like working with people on the other side of the world? Was it easy/difficult/interesting to bridge the cultures?

 

It has been very challenging working with people on the other side of the world.  We had no idea what we were getting into, as there is no culture of commerce at all in this region.  They have so little, that explaining the need for consistent sizes, quality, or colors didn’t seem to mean anything to them at first.

 

Cultural differences.  One of our key goals is to for the artisans to be able to make a decent living while maintaining the integrity of local economic and social values.  We want to respect and encourage the local culture, just help them have better lives.  But it is challenging, as our worlds are so far apart.

 

[Once they made a whole set of orange baskets] when we had ordered many other colors (none orange) and when we asked why they said it was because they had orange dye. And they couldn’t understand what the problem was…we still got our baskets [and they’d be useful regardless of color!]

 

It is like peeling an onion, the more you know…the more you don’t know.  Why don’t the women come to the hut to make baskets and why don’t girls go to school every day?  Answer: they have no underpants or sanitary products!  So then we had panties made for all the women and girls so they could make baskets and go to school.  Why didn’t they fill an order that we sent?  Answer: they have to harvest the crops that month, and with no electricity they couldn’t work at night.  Yet they won’t tell you that in advance.

 

Also, [it’s been challenging] trying to explain about our web site and the internet. We’re used to the idea that people see a photo and expect to receive something which looks close to that, but the concept at first seemed to go right over the artisans’ heads.  There is now one computer in Nkuringo but it has no internet access, so they still don’t really know what we are talking about…except now they trust us as we have been true to our word about providing long term buyers.

 

What has been the most personally interesting, or gratifying aspect of working with Virunga? What would you say has been your greatest success, and your greatest challenge so far?

 

[We all have] great positive stories also about how Virunga Artisans has changed the local people’s lives. One woman bought a cow, many bought chickens and started egg businesses, one bought an ax and saw (her husband might watch out!), many bought pencils and uniforms for their girls to go to school for the first time….all so rewarding for us.

 

The women have gone from looking at their feet when we first met them with no hope, to dancing and singing for us in a very formal ceremony each time…now optimistic about the future.

 

The most gratifying has been seeing the change. Women are now very positive…and the carvers are changing from surly teenagers to highly productive young men, several with cell phones. 

 

How is Virunga able to be competitive in the slowing Western economy? What special features do your products have that continue to attract customers? How do you generate interest/help get the word out about the project?

 

There’s been a very positive response to our story here in the US.  Great woman-to-woman connection between the artisans and the largely female consumers.

 

And people such as Manda Heron, owner of the Bodytime chain, totally embracing our project, carrying all of our products even though her store sells primarily soaps and lotions.  And she has sold them all!  She put up a 36”poster of the Kinigi weavers in her windows and this was the most successful promotion they had ever had.  So her loving what we were doing…and being willing to support our products…ended up being a real positive for her too. 

 

And the wonderful people I have met, like Manda, and folks involved in the Fair Trade Federation all seem to be really nice with their hearts in the right place…very different from my corporate experience.

[Both Katie Doyle and her husband Richard Cunningham have MBAs and experience with the Western corporate world.]

 

We generate interest through personal connections primarily. A friend of a friend who has a store, connections at the African Wildlife Foundation and the World Wildlife Fund (used to be on their national council), Fair Trade Federation, and the Global Philanthropy Forum (they used our large baskets as centerpieces this year.

 

There has been a bit of a slowdown for us due to the economy and our prices are increasing due to fuel.  But if folks are going to spend money they seem to support the Virunga Artisans because we have the highest quality at a good price…and we “do good” …makes them feel like mini philanthropists.

 

[Note: To give Synchronized Chaos readers an idea, the baskets are available online for cheaper prices (around $20/$30 each) than I have seen in the galleries.]

 

Are the local people interested in gorilla preservation? What is their attitude towards wildlife and nature? Do they visit the gorilla refuge and park?

 

Most of our artists have not seen the gorillas, except if they have come out of the park to raid their crops in Uganda. That doesn’t happen too much in Rwanda.  The weavers don’t really want to go, but we are paying to have the carvers visit them a few at a time.  They are very interested in gorilla conservation, especially when they see that they can make money from tourists.

 

I am aware of the 17% increase in local gorilla populations recently – please share more about what’s happening ecologically and the successes with wildlife.

 

You can find out a lot more about mountain gorilla conservation at AWF.org under species “gorillas.” With such a dense population it is challenging work to protect the gorillas. We are finding that the greatest threat is human interaction and disease transmission (more info at the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project’s website, MGVP.org).  The tourists who have brought in the revenues to keep them alive are now themselves the greatest threat. 

 

MGVP is developing a ‘one health concept’ to include care and attention for people and animals and gorillas…very innovative.  Of course it is totally different in the Democratic Republic of Congo, as people and animals are threatened mainly by charcoal warlords showing their power and the soldiers getting way too close to the gorillas.

 

[Editor’s note: According to the MGVP website, mountain gorillas are the only great ape species whose numbers are actually growing. Although still seriously endangered, their numbers have grown from around 248 to around 360 just in Rwanda alone.]

 

Thanks for your time, and for the detailed answers and information you provided about the Virunga Artisans project! Glad to hear of a grassroots business model for developing a region’s resources for the benefit of humans as well as local wildlife that has proved profitable and successful.