Ambassador to Artisans Series – In Conversation with Leslie Mittelberg, Swahili Imports

Leslie Mittelberg founded Swahili Imports, Inc. in June 1995. Leslie’s husband Dale held a Fulbright Scholar position at the University of Nairobi, and during the years the family lived in Kenya, Leslie fell in love with African artistry. Upon returning to the US, she founded her company and named it in honour of the people of East Africa whose artistry inspired her entrepreneurship.

  1. What does being an ambassador to artisans mean to you?  

I would be deeply honoured to be selected for this role. Throughout much of my adult life, I have dedicated my efforts to collaborating with artisan communities. Working closely with African artisans has been both a source of profound joy and a privilege. It has afforded me the opportunity to witness the remarkable and transformative changes that have taken place, benefiting both individual artisans and the communities they are a part of.

  1. How did you initially embark on your artisan journey? (As an artisan yourself or in partnership with artisans) 

Following a three-year sojourn in Kenya with my young family, I embarked on the journey of establishing my own company. Throughout my stay in Kenya, I delved into the vibrant world of artisan markets and communities. It became evident to me that there existed a significant potential for enhancement, both in terms of facilitating exports and catering to the local tourist market with a heightened level of professionalism.

  1. What area of the artisan sector are you most passionate about?  

My deepest passion lies in the realm of weaving. I hold a profound admiration for the artistry inherent in basketry and woven textiles. I am captivated by all handmade products, as they encapsulate a remarkable degree of ingenuity and craftsmanship.

  1. If the sky is the limit, what would you do to make a lasting impact in the artisan community?  

This is a complex and multifaceted question. There exists a vast array of opportunities to enhance the livelihoods of artisan communities. My aspiration is for the allocation of sufficient resources to enable the provision of clean water, enhanced educational opportunities, and improved healthcare infrastructure. These are foundational necessities. Additionally, the list of potential improvements extends extensively.

I envision a consistent and sustainable presence of product development coaches who visit these communities annually. Their aim would be to collaboratively work with local artisans, fostering innovation and refinement of existing products.

This proactive approach not only elevates the quality and marketability of their creations but also empowers these communities to become self-sustaining and resilient entities in the long term.

  1. What are you currently working on, and how do you hope your current projects will make a difference for your personal artisan communities and partnerships?  

Following the sale of my company, I embarked on a new endeavour by establishing a consulting business, driven by my unwavering commitment to support artisans on a global scale.

With 28 years of invaluable experience garnered from the growth and management of Swahili African Modern, I have accumulated a wealth of knowledge that I am eager to impart.

I aspire to perpetually expand upon the foundation my former company laid. This new venture enables me to continue the journey of fostering artisan communities, sharing insights, and contributing to the sustainable development of these artisans and their craft.

  1. Who inspires you to stay on your artisan journey?  

Following the sale of my company, I embarked on a new endeavour by establishing a consulting business, driven by my unwavering commitment to support artisans on a global scale.

With 28 years of invaluable experience garnered from the growth and management of Swahili African Modern, I have accumulated a wealth of knowledge that I am eager to impart.

I aspire to perpetually expand upon the foundation my former company laid. This new venture enables me to continue the journey of fostering artisan communities, sharing insights, and contributing to the sustainable development of these artisans and their craft.

  1. If you had your choice on anyone or any organisation, who would you like to collaborate with in the future?  

I am eager to explore collaborative opportunities with organisations that share a similar ethos and commitment to Fair Trade and sustainable development. Ideally, these organisations should possess the financial resources required to facilitate the essential elements for success. These components encompass comprehensive export readiness programs, fostering product development, establishing robust quality control systems, and effectively identifying and accessing suitable markets, among other crucial facets. A collaborative effort with such organisations could yield substantial positive impacts within artisan communities.

  1. What’s next for Leslie…?

The next phase of my life will provide consultancy services to artisan enterprises while also actively engaging in charitable and volunteer initiatives. This endeavour represents my ongoing commitment to supporting and uplifting artisan communities and contributing to philanthropic causes.

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