While living in Malawi, Marissa Saints fell in love with its people, culture, and beautiful African textiles. When she returned home to the U.S. in 2009 she knew she wanted to help the amazing women she met, so she created Desenyo (dee-SEN-yo, meaning "design").
Creating Stable Jobs
The mission of Dsenyo is to create stable jobs for women and today Marissa's mission extends beyond Malawi, the initial source of inspiration, and includes artisan groups in Zambia and Brazil.
Business as a Source for Change
Dsenyo proves that responsible business can be a powerful source for social and economic change. Today the company works with more than 100 artisans empowering women through employment.
Love Justly spoke with Marissa about starting Dsenyo, the importance of women in economies around the world, and why sustainable sourcing means so much to her.
Dsenyo came to life after you lived in Malawi, can you tell us about what first took you there, your experience, and what sparked Dsenyo?
I lived in Malawi, Central Africa for a year in 2006 when my husband was on a Fulbright Scholarship. My background is in International Studies and Art so naturally, I was thrilled to spend time there. I did a lot of grassroots volunteer work in Malawi, like painting educational murals with a local government school, coaching a girls soccer team and conducting art workshops with the Ekwendeni Youth AIDS Center. Through this work, I developed great relationships and saw first-hand how hard women in Malawi work to survive and keep their families afloat. My fascination with African textile design ignited when I visited the Mataifa market in town for the first time. The walls were lined from floor to ceiling with vibrant colors and the most fabulous designs you’ve ever seen. After living in Malawi, I was determined to come up with a fair trade business that could benefit women and artisans in Malawi and showcase the fabulous art of African textile design.
What's your favorite story from an artisan partner?
I love Fanny's story from Malawi: Fanny is an artisan with Mwayiwathu, an artisan enterprise supporting families affected by HIV in Domasi. When Fanny started working here, she did not have any knowledge of craftwork. Now, she has become an expert at making the Little Friends toys and flower clips. Her income is almost double that of a teacher’s salary through her craftwork and grocery business.
Fanny is married with four children. She works hard to send them all to school and provide enough food. Food insecurity is a common problem faced by many people in Malawi, but Fanny works to feed her children three meals per day and does not have to purchase vegetables because she grows enough in her garden. Despite the current maize shortage in Malawi, she has maize stored at home to ensure children will not go hungry.
Fair trade is an important model for empowering women like Fanny to achieve their dreams and improve their family’s livelihood. She told us, “I was raised as an orphan so never went to school, but through Dseyno I am about to learn skills and make money.” She has invested her earnings into purchasing goats to raise and sell and has opened a grocery truck stall with her husband. She is proud of her skills and hopes to learn more business and financial management. She sees a bright future and wants customers to know she is happy!
Sometimes people may feel like the impact of their purchase doesn't matter, what would you say to those people?
Sometimes the world's problems can feel really heavy. Especially when we find ourselves in an economically privileged part of the globe. One of the most powerful things we can do on a daily basis is choose to spend our money where it matters. We each have incredible power to speak out for justice with our everyday purchases. By choosing to buy fair trade, buy local, buy eco-friendly, etc. our collective conscious consumerism does eventually make positive change in the world.
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Affordable ethical fashion is hard to navigate. On the one hand, ethical fashion is going to cost more because each person behind the product is paid a fair wage. As a result, the item costs more to make, so the cost to consumers is going to be higher. This is the way fashion should be...but we're used to cheap fashion. This is where Love Justly comes in.