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  • Christen Kinard

Imadi: Baskets Changing Senegal

As an introvert, it can be awkward reaching out to strangers with a meeting request. Yet, I'm doing a lot of that here in Dakar, Senegal.

I arrived on Tuesday for about ten days to explore potential partnerships for The Off Ramp and source new products for Threads by Nomad. This is a trip I've been planning since before the pandemic; and because I am unwilling to waste our resources it feels like the pressure is on!

So, I'm reaching out to strangers who have organizations and companies that I think would be a good fit and asking for meetings. Not a single person has turned me down! In fact, every single person has responded and has responded positively. Still, I sat in a cafe near the Corniche in Dakar, with espresso-fueled courage, still sort of hoping the first person I was going to meet with wouldn't show. My fellow introverts understand.

But, wow, am I glad she did! Fatou walked into the cafe, and the energy of the space lifted. Bright, intelligent, personable—she sat down and for the next two and a half hours she shared her story with me, her passions, her values.

It all started with moving to Dakar, as an architect, and wanting a totally white basket for her home. At the time, only multi-colored, bold baskets existed. She spoke with vendors who only knew the resellers; no one seemed to know anyone who actually made the baskets.

She eventually encountered a group of local weavers whom she convinced to make a totally white basket. A friend who sells jewelry on Facebook started using Fatou's custom baskets in the background of her product shots, and when people inquired about them she gave them Fatou's number—without permission.

"I finally stopped answering the phone because everyone wanted to order baskets, and I was an architect. I wasn't taking orders!" One woman was especially persistent, however, and Fatou eventually agreed to come alongside the weavers in a local village outside of Dakar to help them fill a 300-piece order for a company in Sweden. She had to help them figure out fair pricing. She personally paid for the first order of 300 baskets that were all varying (and incorrect) sizes—she hadn't realized that, having never gone to school, the women weavers wouldn't know how to measure the width and depth for consistency. And when her contact in Sweden gave her a commission on the final order, she reinvested it in a local school and built them a bathroom.

Incredible, right? She tells me this as if anyone would have done the same thing! As if her story is unremarkable.

I'm skipping many parts of her story that I wish I could share with you, but I'm hopeful we can perhaps reboot our podcast this year and share her story in depth. In short(-ish), this first order and a fortuitous trip to Vietnam—where she learned that Vietnam is the top exporter of Senegalese-style baskets, not Senegal!—led to the launch of Imadi World.

Fatou now works with 20 salaried weavers in Senegalese villages and over 100 weavers total. She continues to reinvest profits in local projects like school bathrooms and the distribution of sanitary pads to girls in schools in villages outside of Dakar.

It is when she spoke of the need for sanitary pads that she, too, started to tear up. She explained that too many organizations try to address child marriage through education, without realizing that often the reason that girls leave school is because they can't catch up after missing class often...because they don't have access to sanitary pads.

She spoke, choking up, about the women weavers who have been empowered to leave violent marriages—"Fatou, why do you think I have no teeth?," one woman told her of her husband—because they now have a reliable source of income.

Entire communities of women are being changed, lives are quite literally saved, because of Imadi and Fatou's commitment to her work. She, like us, believes that business can be a source, maybe the most important source, of good, of positive change.

Fatou is not (yet) an official partner. Next week, she is going to take me into the villages to meet some of her weavers. I asked her to think about what she and her business might need from The Off Ramp between now and then, and that we would continue having conversations about collaboration. But I also asked her permission to share this story with you now—because it's important.

I left our encounter feeling energized, excited, inspired, and committed to supporting Fatou personally and professionally in any way I can. Follow her on Instagram here. And make sure to follow The Off Ramp here for my continued journey here in Dakar and my visit to the villages with Fatou on Thursday.

I'm not going to re-read and edit this blog post. I wrote it in one sitting, and I wrote it as I felt it. That feels important. So pardon any typos or incorrect punctuation. I'm letting them be a part of the story, too, in hopes that my own passion in telling it is contagious!

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