It might seem unusual for a snowsports brand to be talking about microlending in Kenya on Giving Tuesday. I’ve felt that way as well, which is why, among other reasons, I’ve never shared that much about Zawadisha, the non-profit that I started long before Coalition. But today I’m changing that because not only am I so proud of what we’ve accomplished over the past 15 years, the connection between Coalition and Zawadisha is growing stronger by the year.
Zawadisha: The Rent-A-Center of Rural Kenya
You can think of Zawadisha as the Rent-A-Center of rural Kenya. We work almost exclusively with women who take loans for household items like solar lamps, rainwater tanks, and iron sheets. They pay for the items over time, which is the only way that they could ever afford such simple things that dramatically improve their quality of life. Our all-Kenyan, all-women team travels on the backs of pikis (what Kenyans call motorbikes in the southern part of the country), down winding singletrack, into villages to literally meet these women where they’re at.
Then our team of Peer Educators follows up with workshops on topics that help them learn how to turn some of these items into income-generating activities, like growing vegetables in small kitchen gardens with the rainwater they have harvested or receiving a few shillings from their neighbors every time they need their cell phone charged on their solar lamp.
We’ve served thousands of women over the years, and because we are focused on one region, we’ve witnessed the change that our work has created. It’s nothing short of miraculous and more than I ever imagined it could be when I first stepped foot in Kenya in 2004 as part of my graduate research.
How Coalition and Zawadisha Connected
When I started Zawadisha, my goal was to work myself out of a job and turn things over to a local team. Their intimate knowledge of their community would ensure that our work actually solved real problems, not the ones that white women make up or pretend to solve. I did that, which is what allowed me to start Coalition. I’ve always been involved at the board level, meeting with Monica, our COO weekly on WhatsApp and spending at least a month every summer in Kenya.
At first, the only connection between Zawadisha and Coalition was that we would plant indigenous and fruit trees for every ski or snowboard sold. We still do that, but the relationship between the two has grown much stronger, particularly since COVID.
Zawadisha lost most of its donors when the pandemic started and we couldn't hold our annual in-person fundraising events. In Kenya, we paused all of our operations and sent our team home with full pay. Even once people began leaving their homes, the Kenyan government restricted the size of groups, so it was difficult for us to hold our orientation meetings for new borrowers. People suffered in Kenya in a way that I don’t think we quite understand. People went hungry, and when they did have food it was something that they had killed in the bush. The monkey population on the coast was decimated, to give you an idea of just how difficult things were there.
We had to figure out another way to generate revenue, and since I had learned these fancy things called marketing and e-commerce through Coalition, I thought why not launch an on-line store? People love the handmade baskets the ladies make and all the jewelry I wear from Cape Town (that connection is a different story for a different day and has to do with a bike ride across Africa), so let’s give this a shot. And then one day as I was shopping at our local farmer’s market here in Reno, and thought that it could be a good place for a Zawadisha pop-up. Turns out it was, and that’s why I now spend most of my weekends selling baskets out of the side of a van in a parking lot.
When Coalition opened up Far Out, our year-round retail store last November, we included all of the gorgeous, handmade items from Africa. The vision for the shop was to connect people to global adventures and the outdoors, so it fit. We also launched our Far Out trips, and one of them happens to include cycling through Kenya and spending time at Zawadisha HQ and in our community. As I consider the future of both Zawadisha and Coalition, I imagine that this is just the beginning of what we’ll do together and how our work will complement each other.
I'm Done Making It Difficult
Here we are, 10 years into Coalition and I finally feel like I have a reason to share this story with you. Perhaps I waited too long, but I’ve been hesitant. I have tried to stay far away from the archetype of the white woman savior who seemingly dominates the narrative about Africa, a singular place with a simple narrative rather than 54 unique countries that are deep and complex. I also have struggled with holding these disparate lives and work together in my heart and mind. But now I realize that it doesn’t need to be so complicated. I’m so proud of our work, our team, our partners and it’s time that I start screaming that from the rooftops.
Zawadisha is the most meaningful thing I’ve ever done in my life. When I think about how it all started with a handful of savings bonds from my grandmother that I invested in a small lending circle with the women in Kenya who helped me conduct my graduate research 20 years ago, I can’t believe how far we’ve come and the impact we’ve made. To see water tanks pepper the landscape and know that because of our work, these families have water and women and their children don’t have to spend hours walking to the wells or water pans every day. To hear the stories about how families can finally breathe in their homes now that toxic paraffin isn’t burning and children can study at night because of solar lamps makes you realize how a simple product can improve the health and well-being of families almost overnight.
I hope today on Giving Tuesday and beyond, when you think about all of the wonderful non-profits that you can support, you consider Zawadisha. A little goes a long way for us, and there’s something very special about knowing how your gift actually changes lives and doesn’t get lost in admin expenses and overhead. Your support could look like a donation, a purchase from our shop, or even a trip to Kenya!
And who knows, perhaps sometime in the near future Coalition will start our own version of a microlending program that could help address accessibility to snowsports 👇👇👇
Jen Gurecki, she/her, CEO of Coalition Snow