“Kurandza” = “to love” in Changana, the local language of our women in Mozambique
Last fall 2014 after returning from serving three years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Mozambique, Elisabetta Colabianchi an American from California fulfilled a long-term dream of founding Kurandza. Kurandza is a purpose-driven fashion company that creates handcrafted jewelry and accessories with women in Mozambique. Their mission is to empower women, the majority of whom are HIV positive, through education and employment opportunities. In addition to receiving fair wages for their work, profits from sales go back to this community to fund development projects.
Kurandza got its start while Elisabetta was a Peace Corps volunteer, teaching HIV-positive women the skill of sewing so that they could earn a sustainable income and provide for themselves and their families. Today, Kurandza sells online and are supporting nine women in Mozambique.Although I have already added Kurandza to my permanent page of “Gifts that Give Back”, I wanted to learn more about the story behind it. I had an opportunity to conduct and interview with Elisabetta to learn more about her inspiration behind Kurandza and what she hopes to achieve. Here it is. A Conversation with Elisabetta Colabianchi, Founder and CEO of Kurandza
Me: Tell me a little bit about yourself. Where are you from? What did you study and why did you choose to be in the Peace Corps?
Elisabetta: I’m from San Francisco, California, but have lived in many different places that I still consider home. During college in San Diego, I studied Biology, foreign languages and Peace and Justice Studies. I was so fortunate to be able to study abroad in Mexico, Argentina, and in Italy, where I spent my junior year. In Milan, Italy, I took several courses in International Relations at the Italian university and also studied fashion. After college, I moved to New York City where I worked for an anti-hunger non-profit, helping low-income residents apply for public benefits and learn about financial literacy and nutrition. There I realized that I wanted to do similar work abroad, teaching people skills that would help them have a better future. I’ve always loved learning new languages, traveling and adapting to different cultures and making a difference, so I thought Peace Corps was the right next step. I was thrilled when I found out that I would be a Community Health Volunteer in Mozambique and would be learning Portuguese (the national language) as well as a local language, too!
Me: What inspired you to start Kurandza?
Elisabetta: As a Community Health Volunteer, I worked at the local hospital counseling HIV positive women on treatment adherence and the prevention of transmission of HIV to their babies. I noticed that many of the patients weren’t able to reach the hospital every month to pick-up their treatment because they didn’t have an income to pay for the transportation expenses. I wanted to help these women stay on treatment and continue attending their support groups and counseling sessions so that they and their babies would remain healthy. This is what inspired me to start an income generation activity for these women. My friend, Percina, thought that teaching these women how to sew would be a beneficial skill for them for their entire lives, and I’ve always been interested in fashion and creating jewelry, so we thought starting a sewing cooperative was a perfect choice!Me: What were some of the challenges you faced in starting Kurandza?
Elisabetta: It was challenging starting a company in a developing country with women who have never worked a job before. Not only did we teach them the skill of sewing, but we taught them about work ethic, time management, bookkeeping and financial management, the importance of good customer service and quality control. All of this was new to our women, and we had to take our time and let them learn these new skills without rushing through these foundational components to starting any business.
Now that Kurandza has emerged from the original sewing cooperative, it has been challenging living far away from the women. I was used to seeing and working with them every day, exchanging ideas on new products and new social programs but now we do our best to communicate a few times each week—it’s not the same when you live halfway across the world!
Me: What has been the most rewarding aspect of running Kurandza?
Elisabetta: The most rewarding part of running Kurandza is knowing that our work is changing lives for an entire community in Mozambique. Not only is it providing monthly incomes to nine women, who were formerly unemployed and dependent on subsistence farming and the rain, but it’s also impacting their children who are now able to buy books and school uniforms to attend school. We have also just started another project where each of the nine women help another family in the community start their own small business and act as their financial advisor and business mentor. Kurandza is creating jobs, commerce, and most of all a sense of empowerment and freedom—the idea that everyone is in control of their own destiny. Even though we Americans often take these feelings for granted since it can be relatively easy to get at least an elementary or High School education and earn a living, they are new feelings to this community in Mozambique.Me: Tell me a story about something that inspired you while you were in Mozambique?
Elisabetta: I always knew that I wanted to make a positive impact in the world, but I thought that it would manifest as a job with the United Nations or with a large NGO. Living in Mozambique and working one-on-one with the people, understanding their dreams for the future, inspired me to continue to work on the ground with the very people who I am trying to help. That way the experience is mutual, we are both learning, teaching, growing, helping and being helped.
Me: Tell me a story about an experience that was difficult or sad?
Elisabetta: One of the most difficult experiences I had while in Mozambique was when my village was flooded—water had risen past the windows in my house, ruined everything I had and I wasn’t able to return home. I was luckily evacuated to the capital, but my fellow community members did not escape and were trapped on their roofs for days without food or water. I wasn’t able to communicate with my friends in the village for weeks because the phone lines were dead, and I didn’t know if they were alive. All I wanted to do was go back and be with them and help in whatever way I could.
Me: What have you learned by working with local women and men in Mozambique?
Elisabetta: The people of Mozambique have taught me so much about life! They are the most generous, hospitable, patient people I have ever met. My host mom gave me a room to stay and a bed to sleep on while her five children slept on mats in the living room, and they were happy to do it. If they knew that I was hungry, they would cook meat for me, which is a delicacy in Mozambique that is only eaten once or twice each month. They were patient in understanding my culture and trying to speak their language. They live a simple life of family, friends, good food, and great conversations. They enjoy the little things and always try to give others the benefit of the doubt. They are courageous and I am forever grateful for knowing them because they have changed my life.
Me: What are you hoping to achieve with Kurandza?
Elisabetta: I’m hoping to increase opportunity for people in the village where I lived for three years in Mozambique—to create jobs and promote education. I also want to inspire people in the US and around the world to make a positive difference in the world. There are so many ways to make an impact—big and small, and everything helps. Even if it’s just helping one person—you’re changing that person’s life.
Me: Anything else interesting in the works?
Elisabetta: Stay tuned for some exciting new products from Kurandza! I won’t give it away, but a hint is that we will be incorporating different materials like wood, leather, and metal into more of our products. Lookout for a Kickstarter early next year!
Me: What are your favorite products you sell and why?
Elisabetta: I really love our tote bags because they are the perfect size and come in such fun colors! I have one that I use as my gym bag, one for my laptop and other things I’m working on, and a couple of others that I use for travel! I also LOVE the turquoise and gold glitter Mati bangles and stud earrings— turquoise is my favorite color and I wear these all the time!
I am so inspired by your story Elisabetta! It is people like you that truly make a difference. To check out Kurandza’s website and see their complete line of beautiful products click here. Elisabetta also keeps a beautiful blog on her site as well as a “meet the artisans” page. Truly inspiring!
Do you know of any gifts that give back or fair trade products to add to my continually growing list? If so, please let me know and also remember to check out my permanent page of “Gifts that Give Back”. I am continually updating it with more amazing gifts that give back and do good so stay tuned.