In 2013, sixteen Kenyan women—whom Jenny Nuccio refers to as “my women” and her “best friends”—presented Nuccio with a poorly sewn tote bag with crooked hem lines and a mismatched pattern. “It was the worst product I’d ever seen in my life,” Nuccio remembers, chuckling warmly. “But my women were absolutely glowing with pride.”
That memory—and that tote bag—hold special significance for Nuccio. It was the beginning of what would become the Imani Collective, a woman-empowerment program founded by Nuccio that provides job opportunities to single, widowed, and disadvantaged women in Mombasa, Kenya, by teaching them to sew and tailor clothing.
Nuccio’s journey to that moment was a long one. She first traveled to Kenya from her U.S. home in 2009 at 18 years old, where she worked at a school in Mtepeni, a small village on the outskirts of Mombasa. While working, she noticed many children dropping out of school because their families couldn’t afford the school fees—around $2 to $3 dollars a month. Many of these young people were the children of single mothers, farmers who could put food on the table but had no steady income. Upon that realization, Nuccio knew she had to do something. In 2013, after visiting the Mtpeni village multiple times and establishing relationships with the women there, she sold everything, bought 16 sewing machines, and moved to Kenya permanently to train women how to sew so that they could live better lives.
Her exciting venture, however, turned out to be a little more difficult than Nuccio initially thought it would be.
“When I gave my women the first pattern, they looked at me blankly; none of them knew their numbers, so they couldn’t read the measuring tape. So, I put the sewing machines aside and started teaching literacy classes.”
Those literacy and sewing classes proved to be the foundation of the Imani Collective—which has now blossomed into a thriving business that features more than 70 artisan women selling high-quality, fair-trade fashion accessories to local markets and the U.S.—by putting, always, the women first.
Nuccio puts her women first by creating for those who work at the Imani Collective a caring, holistic experience. In addition to providing monthly salaries and weekly incentives, Nuccio also provides free daily lunches, free child-care, school fee coverage, weekly empowerment workshops, and even a dream development program.
“We don’t pay by piece work,” says Nuccio. “We’ve always chosen not to do that because that puts my women on contracts instead of on a concrete foundation … the monthly salary and weekly incentives that we give them are extremely exciting and cool, and we support a culture where they—and anyone who walks into our shop!—feels loved and welcomed.”
The recipient of both a seed grant and impact grant award from TPP, Nuccio was able to grow the Collective by buying an industrial sewing machine and expanding to other parts of Kenya.
Now also a TPP Grant Advisor, Nuccio gets to put her knowledge of creating something from scratch to work in reviewing other grantees’ proposals.
No matter how far she’s come and what challenges she may face, however, Nuccio always remembers that pivotal tote-bag moment.
“For my women to go from being illiterate to drawing a straight line to creating a finished tote–I remembered their faces. They were so proud of themselves for finishing something…My strength comes from the women, and the hope they always had in their eyes.”
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