When Ryane Murnane and her husband adopted their son from Ethiopia in 2009, they knew it would forever impact their family. What they could not have known was that their connection with Africa would be life-changing for women and families they had not yet met.
Witnessing the poverty of the Shiro Meda region during the adoption process sparked what Murnane describes as, “a deep love and respect for the people of Ethiopia and a desire to give back.” In particular, a group of local women who work as fuel wood carriers caught Murnane’s attention. With 70-80 pounds of wood on their backs, these women make the 10-mile trek down Mount Entoto every day to sell it in the market for as little as $1. “Wild animals, harassment, and even rape are daily fears” she shares. Yet despite the risks, hundreds of women eke out a living as fuel wood carriers to provide for the families they often support alone. With assistance from a local organization, a group of carriers had been trained in weaving and other marketable skills; however, the local market for their handmade wares was extremely limited. “They had the talents and skills,” Murnane explains, “They just lacked the opportunity.” Willing to dream big, Murnane partnered with her mother to found Connected in Hope, a nonprofit social enterprise dedicated to helping the weavers achieve sustainable, predictable income by bringing their wares to the global market.
Since its inception in 2011, the socio-economic impact of Connected in Hope has been tremendous. From their weaving compound in Shiro Meda, aptly named Hope House, the foundation currently employs nearly 100 women who hand-weave the scarves sold on their online store. The artisans are paid upfront for their products, while the remaining revenue is reinvested into programs that grow their capacities. Workshops in management and technical skills are regularly offered and eagerly attended by the weavers —the impact of which is readily apparent. Murnane recalls a meeting late last year when several weavers approached her with a proposal to increase the retail price for some of their scarves. The women explained how sourcing raw, local materials combined with the intricate designs of their new line was increasing the cost and time of production. “We were thrilled!” she says. “To have the women feel sufficiently empowered to analyze the data, identify changes based on that analysis and then initiate a conversation about a price increase is huge.”
Another area of focus for Connected in Hope’s enrichment programs is education. “Most of our weavers started carrying fuel wood at a very young age, so [they] have little education themselves.” Murnane says. “They want their children to have better opportunities, and they know that the key to that is education.” To support the weavers’ aspirations, a small space in Hope House was set aside early on to use as a preschool. The program quickly outgrew the space, however, and was relocated to a separate location early last year. Shortly after the move, the foundation launched a sponsorship program to ensure the preschool’s continued growth. Every monthly donation of $24 provides the sponsored child with home visits from a social worker, medical screenings, and a high quality preschool experience he or she would otherwise not have.
Even with their growth and success, the Connected in Hope staff know that the need is still great in Shiro Meda: “There are still hundreds of women, including some of the mothers of our preschoolers, who are carrying fuel wood down Mount Entoto every day,” Murnane says. To increase their capacity to employ more women, the foundation is continually pursuing ways to improve and diversify their product line. The most recent additions to their online store include a growing selection of hand-crafted leather bags, a line of exquisitely up-cycled jewelry, and their latest offering of gauzy summer scarves. Ever eager to expand their sales base, Connected in Hope encourages supporters to host a trunk show to share their story with friends or to recommend their scarves to potential vendors.
The predictable, sustainable income earned by the artisans through their collaboration with Connected in Hope is truly life-changing. Perhaps the words of Senait, an artisan at Hope House, brings the power of that change into sharpest relief: “We used to not have anything. Every one of us remembers what life was like before…Today I have money to paint my house and build a ceiling.” Sharing her simple, compelling desires for the future, she adds, “I want our weaving business to expand. I want feedback so I can make my work better. I want the world to know me and like my work.” With continued support, Connected in Hope is well on its way to helping women like Senait realize those goals. In a mass-produced world where exploitation is more common than solidarity, there is nothing quite as satisfying for the conscientious buyer as knowing that even a single purchase can enable such positive change.
Connected in Hope provided a promo code for free shipping if you would be so generous to support their ministry. The code is FREESHIP15.