Q&A with a tea farmer: Ruth realizes her inner business flair

By Sarah Fox

Ruth Wangui is asked to create a budget. On a fresh page in her brand new notebook, she lists out all her expenses for the month. With one of her four kids entering college, she fills the page. On the opposite sheet, she’s asked to write down how much she could save after expenses.

“Will I always be at zero?” she asks the trainer.

The short answer was no, but it wasn’t that simple. Wangui’s teacher, the WE trainer, gave her an assignment: find a way to prioritize savings.

Wangui has worked as a tea farmer in rural Kenya for 20 years. Last spring, Wangui and her fellow female tea workers were given the opportunity to attend bi-weekly classes in financial literacy at the farm. The two-year program, created by Lipton Tea in partnership with WE, offers training in budgeting, financial management, savings, investment, business planning and more.

The training has inspired one of her co-workers to start a jewellery business with her daughter, and another to rent a plot of land to grow her own tomatoes and sell them to her community. For Wangui, it got her thinking about how to use her ingenuity to her advantage, and she remembered how much she used to love to knit as a kid. That week, Wangui put needle to wool and began stitching. Within a month’s time, she started selling.

Starting with leg warmers and moving on to hats, Wangui found a market selling the merchandise to kids in her community to wear to school (it can be chilly in the tea region). Soon, Wangui’s clothes were so popular the school called in a bulk order. Even a trip to the supermarket to buy more wool turned into a business deal for the needle worker.

In our conversation with Wangui, she tells us how she just received a large order for scarves from a local football team, and how she’ll continue to use her new skills in financial literacy to expand her empire. Next up on the list: wigs!

Q&A with Ruth Wangui

We heard a local football team made an order from you for your scarves! How did that come about?

I had made a scarf for myself and I went to the supermarket to buy wool to make more. While I was there, some of the boys from the football team were there. One of them approached me and told me, “I like your scarf. Can you sell it to me, or make one for me?” So, I sold the one I was wearing. And then the boy said, “There are five more players who want this.” So, I brought five more to them. Then they said the entire team wants one, so I made one for every member of the team. I sold around 20-something.

How do you find time to do the knitting?

I do it in the afternoon or evening. I come home at 1:30 in the afternoon, make lunch and rest, and I can be knitting by 3:00 p.m. Sometimes, when I’m a bit busy, I start knitting after dinner and knit through till 9:00 p.m.

Were you doing any of this before the classes started?

Everything I started once we started the classes. I’m constantly busy, and it keeps me young

What are your goals for the future? What is your big dream?

I feel like I was always meant to be a business woman! I have so many ideas about businesses I would like to start. One of them is selling wigs. I actually make them. Like this one! [She indicates the one she’s wearing.] That’s a business opportunity I am exploring.

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