Why I’m closing down the SAHEL shop
It’s with real sadness that I’ve decided to wind down SAHEL, and I will no longer be selling through my online shop once all our current stock is sold. From then on, our products will be available for bulk wholesale orders only.
It was over 10 years ago that I made my first bag with horse reins handles. It was on my hand-operated sewing machine in our dusty home in the North of Burkina Faso, with no running water or Wifi. Me, my husband and two kittens living in a bungalow with a tin roof and a horse and some chickens in the yard. I wanted to help alleviate poverty through fashion, the only thing I knew much about at the time.
Since then, the business has been on a rollercoaster of success and failure. Through it, we provided an income to some women who otherwise lived off the arid land. With profits we drilled wells, bought solar panels, motorbikes and more. The vision was development through trade, with the artisans themselves choosing how to spend profits.
When the security situation worsened in 2010, we moved to Ouagadougou. There I found some lucrative sales opportunities through the local shops and embassies, and I was soon selling a bag a day. I met a talented leatherworker who started making my bags for me and I made friends with the workers at the Tan Aliz leather factory who could provide me with whatever colours I wanted. My bags became renowned locally, and through the website I was getting orders from customers around the world.
In 2014 we returned to England and six months later, as I was lying in my bed with what turned out to be malaria, the news came through that Ouagadougou was on fire. The people had turned against the president, Blaise Campaore and were setting alight to government buildings and those connected to him. Tan Aliz was burnt to a shell, with my latest order of 20 silver leather hides.
Believing all things work together for good, I moved our leather sourcing and bag manufacturing to the UK. Our products were more beautiful and better quality than ever, but they were twice as expensive. I shipped the reins in from Burkina and had them assembled into bags and belts in Devon and Cornwall.
On January 15th 2016, tragedy struck in Burkina Faso again. Terrorists entered a cafe in Ouagaoudou, one of our old haunts, and gunned down 30 people. On the same night, our dear friends Ken and Jocelyn Elliott were kidnapped from their home in the town where we used to live.
I had been planning on visiting them two weeks later, when I was due to visit the reinsmakers again. But it is no longer safe for me to visit the North, and I have not been able to see them since 2015.
Determined not to be defeated, I carried on.
But these changes have taken their toll. My mid-market customers didn’t understand and couldn’t accommodate my price rises, so I lost all of my hard found wholesale customers in one season. Selling directly to customers should have meant better profits so I developed the website and online shop. SAHEL became a CIC (community interest company) to help prove to customers that we are a business legally bound to invest our profits into the community.
It’s very easy to set up an online shop but that’s the problem – the internet is swamped with them. It is the virtual equivalent of setting up shop in the desert unless you have the right celebrity to sell it or the will to spend your life on Instagram.
Until this day, I’ve not made any money at all from SAHEL. Even when I have sold the rights to our popular Bogolan making video, all the money has gone directly to the artisan.
I’ve had amazing generosity from friends, family and professionals such as photographer Tim Bret Day, Ashley from Mirrorme PR, Annegret Affolderbach, Annick Andrea, David & Lesley Skews, Paul Hettler and Mark Wilson.
But a business can’t run on kind deeds (and even good press) alone. Ten years on I am in debt and running out of ideas. I am passionate about sustainability and genuinely believe we should all buy less. Which is hard when you need people to buy more from you.
So that’s why I’ve made the decision to close the shop down and work more on promoting sustainability as a consumer, mother and through my work as Families Pastor at St Peter’s Church, Battersea. The brokeness in this world is a human heart issue first of all.
I’m not counting on many people reading this article, but if you have, thank you. I wrote it mainly for closure for myself and those who will be affected by the change.
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