Jewelry That Makes a Difference
Would you wear beads made out of old bottles or broken windows? How about necklaces crafted from used magazines? If you are cool/curious/hippie enough to say “yes”, the recycled jewelry lines of Acacia Creations should be perfect for you!
Or for your eco-conscious friend who says she doesn’t want a birthday gift because “everyone should really start consuming less”, you can still get her one of these hand-made bracelets and be justified. After all — they’re handmade by women in Nairobi, Kenya using recycled materials and the profits go back to helping their kids get shoes, medical care and school supplies! Now that’s something everyone can feel good about!
We interviewed Maura Kroh, the founder and CEO of Acacia Creations. She transformed from the graduate student who visited Kenya in 2006, to the 23-year-old woman who started a business venture in the male-dominated country, to establishing a fair trade company, to working with Kenyan artists, and to continuously inspiring women artists and entrepreneurs to follow their passion.
Urbanette Magazine: Please tell us about the brain and heart of Acacia Creations. Who is Maura? What inspired her to establish Acacia Creations?
Maura Kroh: I was inspired to establish Acacia Creations after working in several refugee camps across East Africa. I noticed a wealth of natural artistic talent and a desire to work. Like artists all across Africa, these people had skill and ambition but no access to capital or to a consumer market. Unable to develop their skills, people remained unemployed, impoverished and unable to provide for their families. Starting Acacia Creations seemed like the perfect solution to train and employ men and women and introduce their skills to the US consumer.
Urbanette: How did you come up with the name, Acacia Creations?
Maura: I first came to Kenya as a graduate student in 2006 and many of my experiences then would later shape Acacia Creations. During my first days, I was welcomed into a traditional Masai village in Kenya’s Great Rift Valley, an endless breath-taking landscape full of iconic Acacia trees.
One of my first and most vivid memories of that trip was of the Masai women sitting in the shade of a massive Acacia and making traditional jewelry to sell at local tourist markets. Years later when I was looking for a name for the company I knew immediately it had to include the Acacia tree, a very recognizable African feature and a place where so much artistry happens quietly every day.
Urbanette: Is it difficult starting up your own company? What were the challenges you encountered?
Maura: Starting my own company was a lot of fun but incredibly challenging. Not only was I 23 with no formal business training, I encountered almost every possible hurdle in the first year. Just months after getting up and running Kenya encountered its worst political upheaval since independence. Riots and widespread violence brought the country to a standstill after the Presidential election in late 2007. No one could safely get to work, supplies disappeared from local shops, prices suddenly increased and we were wondering if we would make it through. Just months after that the world entered its infamous economic downturn and the US economy stalled. It was a challenging time but only made us stronger in the long run.
It was also challenging to start a company as a foreigner in Kenya – especially as a young, white foreigner. There were obvious cultural and linguistic hurdles but I underestimated just how male-dominated Kenya can be.
Urbanette: Acacia Creations follows fair trade practices and gives a portion of its sales to charity. Do you think these policies made a difference in the company’s success?
Maura: Absolutely! The biggest challenge in our marketing is to fully convey the fair trade aspect of the company. Our products are great and affordable by themselves but what really makes them special is the human story behind each piece. Especially during the recent recession when consumers were less willing to part with cash, there was a definite increase in fair trade sales. I really believe that people like knowing that their purchase has made an impact somewhere in the world.
Urbanette: How is it working with the artists behind Acacia Creations? Do you personally oversee them?
Maura: We now have 25 people in our Nairobi studio that I work with everyday. These are the men and women that assemble the jewelry, pack it and prepare everything for export. In addition to this team, we work with nearly 100 other people across Kenya and Uganda that supply our materials like paper beads, olive wood tableware, etc. I make regular visits to these groups to discuss training and new designs among other things. They receive many of the same benefits of our employees.
Urbanette: Who patterns the designs for the jewelry collections?
Maura: Designing our jewelry collections is so much fun. Each new collection is usually first inspired by our suppliers and the new creative materials they are working on. For example, late last year I met 2 new artist cooperatives working with wood and recycled brass. With a little bit of design help from Acacia Creations they were able to produce great beads that are the foundation of our next collection. Once we have the materials, I usually make a few simple pieces and pass them on to our artists. This just gives them an idea of the color pallet and overall feels that I’m looking for in a collection. From there they are free to design. Then we meet and make changes to see what fits best into current trends. It’s really a collaborative process to bring African artistry and US consumer trends together.
Urbanette: Your jewelry line is both exceptional and ecological. It won’t take long before other companies copy your idea. Do you have any competition? How does your company stack up with the competition?
Maura: We certainly weren’t the first company to make jewelry from paper beads and many have followed since. What has really set us apart is our broad product line – we started with paper beads and never looked back. The competition really only focuses on jewelry OR accessories, etc. Acacia Creations, however, has become a great place to find a variety of eco-friendly fair trade items including jewelry AND accessories AND table top AND home decor. And I am always looking to expand. Later this year we will introduce some really cool new jewelry collections and also add to our home decor line and reclaimed olive wood tableware.
The other advantage we have over the competition is that I am fortunate enough to be based in Kenya and work with suppliers daily. This makes it much easier to meet new artists and also to work with existing suppliers on completely new things that are exclusive to Acacia Creations. This gives us a tremendous advantage in product design and quality control.
Urbanette: What do you think is the secret to a successful, eco-friendly jewelry line?
Maura: Personally, I have always felt that our jewelry should appeal to as many people as possible to maintain our success. That has meant keeping it affordable and not overly earthy. In other words, an eco-friendly jewelry line should not only appeal to the few consumers who are actively looking for ‘green’ jewelry.
Each piece should be beautiful in its own right and draw people even before they know it’s eco-friendly. The green aspect should be an added bonus to the jewelry, not its only selling point.
Urbanette: Aside from jewelry, you also create other interesting pieces like home decors and greeting cards. Are the recycled jewelry collections the first products your company made? Will you be adding other products in the future?
Maura: We started with recycled paper jewelry and expanded from there. We will definitely be adding things this season! In fact, it’s become an informal company policy to add new items every 6 months. As I mentioned above, we will introduce 2 exciting jewelry collections that are much more sophisticated than anything we have done before. We are also working on a new line of wooden tableware and will expand the hand-dyed accessories collection.
Urbanette: What advice do you have for aspiring artists and women entrepreneurs?
Maura: When I decided to start Acacia Creations everyone thought I was out of my mind even if some of them were too nice to say it. I was too young, inexperienced, underfunded and in a foreign country. Acacia Creations now has over 2000 wholesale customers across North America and will soon expand into Europe. Most importantly, we have touched many hundreds of families in Kenya and Uganda and provided opportunity where there was none. It has not always been easy but I have no regrets. Based on this experience I would advise aspiring women artists and entrepreneurs to follow their passion and stay focused. Mistakes will be made and hurdles will be encountered. Always remember that these obstacles will make you stronger and better prepared to take on all that lies ahead.
For more information on Acacia Creations, visit www.AcaciaCreationsStore.com