It all starts with one


How Hamilton’s Selbina Mwendwa started a business that is changing the lives of women in Kenya

By Maria Morales

Hamilton’s Selbina Mwendwa is using her business of hand-crafted art, crafts, and décor to empower women in her native Kenya. Over 50 women are now employed through the fair-trade of their work.

The art they make has given the women both greater independence and the ability to provide for themselves and their families in a society where women are subordinate to men.

By carving into a chalky light coloured rock, soapstone is transformed into beautiful hand-painted bowls, figurines, and decorative stones by women in her home village of Tabaka. Beaded purses, bags and carved wood products are crafted together by women in her father’s home village of Kiambere.

“Right now they don’t have to say: I want money to buy a dress or I need money for my child to go to school. They can do that,” she says.

In 2012, she participated in her first International Marketplace event, organized by the Immigrant Women’s Centre, where she initially began selling her wares. The two-day annual holiday event offers newcomer women the chance to start up businesses and sell to the wider Hamilton community.

At first she had doubts that people would be interested in the crafts, but was pleasantly surprised how much excitement people had for the products. “The energy there was great,” she recalls.

“All they needed was someone to help them find a market for their products.”

Now upgrading to her own store front, she credits the Immigrant Women’s Centre’s interview coaching and YWCA’s BizSmartz program as the supports that provided her with the confidence and the education that helped her achieve her business goals. Her husband has also been one of her biggest supporters, as her “financial guru.”

Despite Mwendwa’s busy schedule of balancing her business and family, she always has Kenya in her heart. “I’ll never forget my country, and what I can do for it,” she says.

After a recent visit to Kenya, she noticed the women in Kiambere were spending hours every day fetching water from contaminated sources where snakes and crocodiles pose great dangers. Upon returning to Canada, she began raising money to provide clean drinking water to the village. She has already raised $10,000 towards the project that she hopes to have completed by December.

Mwendwa wants to continue supporting the work of women in Kenya and growing her business. “I love seeing the smiles of the women. They are amazing and talented. All they needed was someone to help them find a market for their products.”

Starting with just two women a few years ago, the growth Mwendwa has seen is inspirational. As orders continue to come in across Canada, more and more women will be employed, she says.

“I have found so much satisfaction in helping the women in my village, while living here,” she says. “When you follow the right path, you can achieve what you want to achieve. There is no limit on what I want to do.”

WHO? Selbina Mwendwa
WHAT? Moja One
WHERE? 40 Mohawk Road East Unit #5
WHEN? Tuesday – Saturday 11 a.m. – 3 p.m.

Maria Morales is a Mohawk College alumnus, a passionate student journalist, and proud Hamiltonian. Follow her on Twitter: @mmoralesjournal.

Photo by Kathy DeMerchant.