Written by KATHERINE JONES
Her passions take her around the world to make a better community back home
Her business wasn’t even fully a business yet when the order came in. It was too big; it was impossible to fill.
She says: “And there was no way I was going to say ‘no’ to that order.”
Rosebill Satha Sambo learned to weave rattan and bamboo when she was 14 in Malawi, Africa, where she lives. Weaving was merely a fun hobby that produced nice things to give as gifts. When her friend got married, Rosebill made wedding baskets for her, which was the beginning. Not too long later, a friend-of-her-friend wanted baskets for her wedding— and then another friend did, and another.
When her supplies ran out, it dawned on Rosebill that she needed to start charging for the baskets, at least to cover expenses, and — well, maybe, perhaps, during the wedding season, weaving might be a way of generating a little bit of extra income.
And then came the order.
It was from the state president’s daughter, so that carried a lot of weight. She wanted small baskets to fill as favors for her guests — heart-shaped, spray-painted silver.
One thousand of them. Plus 10 flowergirl baskets.
In three weeks.
“Which I couldn’t do.”
The year before and after this point was, in retrospect, leading up to this point in Rosebill’s life journey — one that launched an entrepreneur, empowered both a woman and her community, and planted seeds that would take Rosebill half-way around the world and land her for six months in Boise, Idaho.
But those 1,010 baskets …
Originally, Rosebill thought there must be other weavers in other cities who could help her fill the order, and she could put a little markup on top. But instead, she decided to find people in her community who needed the money — and taught them to weave. So they did. Intensively.
“I delivered the baskets and the wedding was a success; I got a thank-you email that I printed and put in a picture frame, and she was like, ‘Thank you, you made my day; (you made) beautiful baskets and I’ll recommend you to anyone.’ And she has.”
The huge order was the serious beginning of JARDS Products (an acronym from the names of her daughters, Joanna and Amanda; plus Rosebill; her husband, Dali; and their last name, Sambo). The business is dedicated to helping underprivileged youth learn skills to make income. It started with weaving baskets and then beautiful furniture — sofas, chairs, tables, rockers — and has evolved to include carving and beadwork.
“If I help one person, that person is coming along with five other people — immediate people like maybe a brother or sister or a mother. And those immediate people are also coming along with maybe five other people. So it’s a chain. You’re helping one person; but you don’t know you’re actually helping 30.”
In Malawi, Rosebill is an amazingly busy volunteer with her church, in her community and in the business community. She does training and business development for and about women entrepreneurs and she raises awareness about HIV/AIDS.
“As long as you have breath in you, you can do something, basically. That’s what I always say.”
Rosebill’s first job was at a private business college, where she convinced five colleges to give two scholarships each to local youth. She reflects on the success of that program: a houseboy, now a secondary school teacher; a boy who sold sweets, now a banker; an orphan, now a journalist.
“When you get success stories like that, you always look for any option for helping everybody. … There’s always a sense of enrichment when you see somebody else doing better.”
The world economic crisis, coupled with the country’s internal financial turmoil, hit Malawi hard. The scholarships dried up, and with that, dreams of those youth — who often had many siblings, and whose parents were domestic workers and could not afford college.
“That’s when I thought of teaching (youth) how to weave. …
“And (they can) also branch out on their own and become entrepreneurs. If I have work I can pass on to them, I do; maybe they can find their own work. … The markets I have won’t be the same markets (they) might have.”
Mixed in with the evolution of her business, Rosebill attended a world and youth congress in Glasgow, Scotland, in 2008, which connected her with activists around the world. A year later, she was accepted in a six-month community project in the Philippines, working with people who make their homes on garbage heaps.
For context, Malawi itself is among the 10 poorest nations in the world, with 53 percent of the population living below poverty level. That figure is 15.1 percent in the United States and 26 percent in the Philippines.
“Malawi is always on the receiving end. Even though I’m from a developing country, I always want to say I contribute to society. So I think volunteering, for me, was a way to give back. ...
“(But) I have never seen such poverty (as in the Philippines). I never thought that would be possible. ...
“That’s one thing that you learn through travel. You see documentaries about scavengers living on dump sites (in the Philippines) — but I taught theater to their children, did day care, taught community leaders how to use the computer. I spent close to six weeks on that dump site. During the rainy season.”
With connections from her international experiences, Rosebill applied to be a Community Solutions Fellow, which is a U.S. State Department-funded program for young leaders. She will spend four months working with Boise’s META, a nonprofit that supports micro-enterprise training and assistance to new Americans, women and minorities.
“Meeting as many people as I can and establishing friendships and networks that will probably last a lifetime.”
To her surprise, Rosebill has been able to be both mentor as well as student in Boise. For instance, for a META fundraiser, she arranged an African vacation as a prize (see sidebar), and through her contacts was able to connect a local entrepreneur with a cloth importer.
“Life is all about give and take, and it doesn’t matter if you’re from one of the poorest nations in the country or one of the most super powers in the world. Everybody can learn from somebody.
“That’s what I’ve learned from my travels. …You can always give. It (might be) small, but it will be appreciated.”