Paper made out of poo

Andy and Susie Hart, founders of Neema Crafts

Yes, it is possible to make paper out of poo. Elephant poo to be exact. What’s even better is it’s possible to train and employ people living with disabilities to make this paper into crafty gifts, the income from which provides them with a decent wage. In fact, these elephant dung creations are just a fraction of the products and services pumped out by Neema Crafts in Tanzania. This social business has grown into a mini empire where, under one roof, every imaginable spin off project is pursued. The latest of which is something you don’t come across every day…Neema Crafts are opening the world’s first guesthouse run entirely by disabled people which has a room sponsored by Annie Lennox!

Neema Crafts is a social business run by husband and wife team, Susie and Andy Hart. Based in Iringa, South West Tanzania, they provide training and employment to 123 people who are deaf or disabled. Their brightly coloured premises are not easily missed and if you step inside it’s literally breath taking to see what unfolds. The entrance takes you straight into their shop displaying endless varieties of hand crafted gifts and goods. Take the stairs at the back and you enter into their welcoming restaurant with an outside terrace and mouth watering menu. Follow the signs to their internet café and you’ll find the best web connection in town. Just next door there is a spacious conference room clad with bunting and just beyond that, there’s a guesthouse under construction!

At every stage on our guided tour we were struck that the people managing the show were deaf or disabled. Though it’s uncomfortable to admit, this feels a little strange at first. But that’s exactly the feeling that Susie and Andy are trying to get people to confront. Alongside the provision of much needed employment, the key mission at Neema Crafts is to change attitudes towards disabled people by showcasing their skills and talents. As Susie explained, Neema Crafts has been set up “to challenge the stigma attached to having a disability in local culture, where disabled people are often viewed as burdens without potential or even cursed.”

The realities of living with disability are well known to Susie. Born with no hip joint on one side, she spent much of her childhood in a wheel chair or in plaster casts. She’s undergone over 20 operations to give her the mobility she’s got today and understandably her personal experience has had a profound impact on her life. “It gave me a strong determination to be defined by my abilities rather than my disability,” Susie explained. And it was this deep rooted determination, blended with her own talents in textile art and her Christian beliefs, which led her to start up Neema Crafts in 2003.

Based out of a derelict warehouse, Susie started Neema Crafts with three young deaf men, a £400 donation and a bag of elephant dung! From that point onwards, everything they raised from the sale of their goods was ploughed straight back into the business. After five years they had expanded their handicrafts into bead-work, tailoring and candle-making, providing employment for over 70 people. If you walk through the back of their new premises, built in 2009 to house their booming business, it’s like an artist’s Aladdin’s cave! Crammed full of every imaginable kind of craft equipment, people sit together laughing and chatting, whilst skilfully working with their hands.

The warm feeling we got from the workshops at Neema Crafts had a lot to do with its charm. Thanks to Susie and Andy’s unfailing thoughtfulness, Neema Crafts is more than a place to work.  Staff are given wheelchairs, subsidised lunches and a bursary to cover their medical costs. They are provided with literacy and numeracy classes, health seminars and business advice on how to set up their own enterprises. They are given the opportunity to work from home if their disabilities are too severe or if they have small children to look after. And if they’re up for it, they can join the Deaf Dance & Drumming Group. An incredible brigade who’ve toured the UK and entertained every embassy in Dar es Salam!

Though we’ve visited three projects supporting people with disabilities, Neema Crafts felt like the most holistic. As a result, the lives of many people working at Neema have been transformed. To give one example among many, Josphat was born profoundly deaf and with spina bifida. Brought up by his Uncle after being orphaned, he spent his childhood hidden away and was made to lie under a bed when people came to visit. Through her work with the local deaf school, Susie discovered Josphat and brought him to work at Neema. At first his wild temperament rendered him almost unmanageable but when he discovered that he had a talent for paper making, things slowly began to change. After eight months Josphat’s work mates pronounced that his sign name had been changed. He was no longer to be known as “Hunchback,” instead his name was “The best and strongest worker.” Just as we wouldn’t change our first name, it’s unheard of for sign names to change. But Josphat, now a calm and capable worker able to live independently, had under gone such a transformation that he deserved to be re-christened.

If we had space to tell tens of stories like these, we would. Each of them was so intensely inspiring. But it seems even more important to share the stories of how Neema Crafts is driving an endemic shift in the cultural response to disability. When Susie first started her work, many accused her of being mad. Today, however, there are tangible signs that things are changing. There are small scale success stories….Godfrey, who works in the café, used to be thrown out of his local shop for being crazy. Today, he’s given priority service. There are medium scale success stories…a local chip making company in Iringa recently employed 14 deaf men after seeing them at work in the Neema Crafts restaurant. And there are massive scale success stories…after much lobbying by Neema Crafts, last year the Tanzanian government employed a Junior Minster with a remit for disabilities.

These achievements are significant. Even more so when you consider that they’ve been driven by one small organisation based in a medium sized Tanzanian city. Undeniably, if Susie and Andy were to expand their business further, their impact could be even bigger. But this provides a stumbling block for Neema Crafts. Unlike a commercial business, Neema Crafts is cause-driven, not market-driven. “The business is here because of the workforce,” Andy explained. Iringa region has one of the highest incidences of disability in the country, with rates reaching almost 15% of the population in some districts. Committed to serving the most in need, they can only see Neema Crafts working in Tanzania’s most impacted areas. From a pure business perspective, the next logical step for Neema Crafts would be to franchise out to all the tourist towns where customers are rife. However, this is unlikely to happen because Andy and Susie are wedded to the fundamental social purpose of the organisation. “Those are the wrong places for what we’re trying to do,” Andy said.

This catch 22 situation is not uncommon; we saw the same conundrum at Shonaquip in South Africa. Nor were the other challenges that Neema Crafts are facing. Like Paul Joynson-Hicks’ project, Wonder Workshop in Dar es Salam, sales at Neema Crafts have dipped in the last two years owing to a volatile exchange rate and sluggish tourist trade. Popular with tourists, retail outlets and hotel chains, they were previously 100% self sustaining. But when their revenue dropped to only cover 75% of their outgoings, they turned to conventional fundraising means to make up the deficit. Thanks to a sustained publicity drive, however, the books are beginning to look healthier and initiatives like the new guesthouse are set to bring things totally back on track.

Buzzing and vibrant, Neema Crafts felt like a project that was in a good place. With Andy coming on board full time to join Susie in 2009, the couple has invested every inch of their energy into building Neema Crafts into a success, only ever receiving a small stipend for their efforts. With skills that complement one another, Andy explained that he operates as “the break!” The more visionary of the two, Susie would have built their current premises 10 stories high if Andy hadn’t been there to root her feet to the ground. All the same, Susie is evidently proud of what they’ve created. “I never imagined for a moment when I started the project that it would grow to the extent it has in the time it has,” she said.

And Neema Crafts isn’t just an inspiration to mere mortals such as ourselves. Neema’s moving story has swept the celeb scene thanks to a chance visit from the BBC comedian Sandi Toksvig. After a guided tour, Sandi was left as awe struck as we were and set about doing her bit for Neema Crafts. She nominated Susie for the UK’s ‘Women of the Year’ award, which of course she won!  The award opened the flood gates for further support from the likes of June Brown (Dot Cotton), Annie Lennox, Julie Walters and Baroness Floella Benjamin. Pretty insane! As well as the celebrity community, it also turned out that Neema Crafts has won the hearts of minds of Nikki’s old high school in Harrogate. Totally oblivious to the connection, it turned out that Nikki’s old sixth form now support Neema Crafts with an annual fundraiser. What a small world!

We knew we had to include Neema Crafts in our profiles because everyone who’s spent time in Tanzania knows about them. What we found was a project which reflects the strong Christian values of its leaders – inclusive, considered and authentic. To really get a hold of what’s so special about Neema Crafts, you have to take a trip to Iringa. It’s only an eight hour journey from Dar es Salam (one of our shorter trips!) and it will leave you hooked (also potentially bankrupt if you’re female, the gifts are rather hard to resist!).

We left this project feeling sure that if every country – first and third world – had a Neema Crafts, the taboos which surround disability worldwide would become a thing of the past. Others clearly think the same and Susie and Andy have already received requests for the model to be replicated in Africa and India. Though Andy and Susie are quite rightly handing over to new management (thus avoiding the classic founder syndrome) and returning home to the UK next year they are considering taking Neema Crafts international. Please join with us in our encouragement for Susie and Andy, Do It!

Neema Crafts:

 Copyright © Nikki and Rob Wilson 2011