Defined as ‘dried leaf’ in Kiswahili, the jewelry brand Mikuti specializes in partnering and collaborating with individuals, workshops, and artists within Tanzania to help foster a sustainable economy in which workers receive fair wages for their handcrafted goods. The Mikuti story started in 2009, while founder Erika Freund was volunteering with a NGO (Non-Governmental Organization) in the Meru District of Tanzania, and came to the realization that the banana tree could yield some artisan crafted, beautiful baubles.
Fast forward to 2011: Freund offers an array of beautiful, handmade bracelets and necklaces, ranging in price from $27-$95 made of banana tree bark, local textiles, and recycled aluminum — beautiful to look at, wonderful to think about, and perfect to give as a gift this holiday season! We also got to interview Ms. Freund about her journey and her vision for the future of the brand; read below:
FPD: Tell us a bit about your background prior to founding Mikuti?
EF: I grew up in New Jersey, but throughout my 20’s I moved around a bit; Boston, Sydney Australia, Washington DC, and Brooklyn, NY. I studied English during my undergrad, and I have a Masters of Social Work from New York University. My professional experience has a bit of variety to it; I advised international students for many years, working with hundreds of people who spoke English as a second language. I’ve also done a lot of program development for the social service sector, primarily always working with women and at risks female youth. I think one of my biggest strengths is being able to communicate in many environments and get really creative, which helps because my Swahili is far from proficient.
FPD: What are your long-term goals for the brand, lets say for five years from now what do you hope to have accomplished?
EF: My most important long-term goal of the brand is for the pieces to be recognized. I want people to know that a bracelet is a Mikuti bracelet when they look at it. I want Mikuti to be a known brand that people love and look forward to seeing the new collections. I’m also very focused on connecting with designers in Tanzania and Kenya in hopes of collaborating with them. This is something that’s really important to me. I feel as though there has been so much buzz about “ethical fashion” and “trade not aide” and the truth is, there are some amazing designers in East Africa creating hot, ready to wear styles that people in the west don’t know about. We see a lot of designers collaborating with local NGO’s (Non-Governmental Organization), which is fantastic. But no one is seeing that there is an abundance of very talented young designers in this region who would be so much fun to collaborate with.
FPD: How difficult (or easy) was it to set up the different groups and individuals that you work with, i.e. Edu-Care and Shanga?