Out of Africa
Four years ago, Michelle Smellie moved to Tanzania and was bowled over by the opportunity she saw.
Members of the Masai were plying their trade, selling colourful, handmade beadwork and delicately crafted leather.
The 35-year-old started her company, Global Partner Solutions, to help businesses entering the African market.
She knew she could also help the Masai do more.
The result is Uzi Isle. The Bermudian partnered with Tanzanian Bea Lujwangana to design a line of shoes and accessories which were then handmade by the tribe.
“I was taken aback by the level of talent among the locals,” she said. “For the Masai people, it is their trade and it is also their culture to sit there and hand-bead. They take little beads and create anything, whether it’s jewellery or beadwork for shoes and handbags. They can do anything with leather; they can do anything with beading.”
The collection’s name comes from Uzi Island, a Tanzanian territory off the coast of Zanzibar.
“We’re inspired by the colours of East Africa,” Ms Smellie said. “The island is untouched. It’s gorgeous. The colours, the beautiful blues of the Indian Ocean. Everything is so rustic. We saw the level of talent and said, ‘We need to share this with the world’.
“Bea and I decided to design our own collection. We wanted it to be a little more luxury, but still capture the culture we see every day.”
Every part of the collection is East African. In addition to the shoes and accessories, there are bags and homewares. Baskets are traditionally woven of sisal; rings and bangles are fashioned in brass and beading.
“We go out and pick the leather ourselves,” Ms Smellie said. “It’s the softest leather. We have a group of Masai women who do the beading and then a group of local artisans who are making soles out of car tyres piece everything together.
“We came across this group of men who were doing some very cool things with brass. We came up with some designs to see if they could execute them and they did them beautifully. It’s a nice marriage of brass and Masai beading.”
The pair tested the New York market in June, shipping more than 300lbs of stock to the city to showcase at markets and festivals. They sold out.
“That indicated to us that people would appreciate the beauty and authenticity of our products,” Ms Smellie said.
“Because everything is handmade and hand-cut, we need to scale the business and understand better how to perfect our manufacturing.
“It’s important that this works, not just for us, but also because of the impact on the community.”
The consultant sees Uzi Isle as a social enterprise. They hire local women and artisans to make the goods, part of their profit goes to educating girls in East Africa.
“We’re trying to share the culture with the world, but it also has a wider impact. What started as a side hobby has now peaked as a second business because I see how it can impact communities in East Africa a lot more.”
She is now focused on getting the products in stores worldwide, including Bermuda.
• To learn more, visit uziisle.com and on Instagram, @uziisle.
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