Los Angeles, California (The Hollywood Times) 12/23/2020 – COVID-19 has hit small business owners across the globe. In many areas of the world, it isn’t just about business it is the gift of life. Mana is a quarterly subscription box featuring handcrafted, one-of-a-kind pieces created by local women artisans in South Africa and the United States. Many women in Africa are often the primary income provider and very often this tends to be the grandmother. Mana’s Founders, Anni Wilhelmi and Michelle Klassen Merrigan share their philosophy behind their mission.
What happens when strong women with big ideas and bigger hearts come together?
Big things happen, unimaginable things that most would have said were impossible to achieve during the lockdown. Keeping 1800 women with an income to sustain their families and their communities, during the lockdown, is no small feat. And in no small measure, very much due to the dedication and love poured into the project by these 1800 women. They overcame almost insurmountable obstacles to deliver the 33 000 products in an 8-week time frame, where raw material supplies were difficult to source and COVID was rampant.
Tell us about the Mana boxes.
Mana boxes are about the joy of passing on Mana from the maker, the joy of receiving Mana by the box recipient, and the joy of providing mana as the purchaser. All resulting in the joy of hope created in the most untenable of times, because of Mana.
Why is storytelling so important? Share some of the stories of local women in South Africa who have given their products for the Mana boxes.
The stories are multiple and very difficult to summarize. Some women involved in the project had already lost loved ones to the pandemic. Many came from difficult and deprived circumstances. Women in Africa are often the primary income provider and very often this tends to be the grandmother. It was especially trying times for women – there was an increase in gender-based violence, children needed to be homeschooled in untenable circumstances, housework and cooking chores remained, whilst they undevoured to make an income.
The stories of how these women overcame are many but however difficult their background stories are, this equipped them to stand up and step up during such a trying time. So typical of women in general. What I can say for all of them is that Mana was a story of pride to each of them. Pride in being involved in this project, in creating beautiful items, pride in the business lessons learned, and the pressure of making a minimum of 1000 products in an 8-week timeline. The income was a blessing – they have told us over and over how grateful they were to be able to pay for essentials. The main story for me though is the tangible hope that was created. Many suppliers shared with us the songs of joy during the many hours of work. You know the songs…those beautiful African voices in harmony. They sang as they worked. That is the story – the story of hope.
Share some of the stylish accessories, decor, and fashions in the Mana boxes.
These are not your traditional African curios. We went stylish! Ostrich skin purses, fine silver jewelry inlaid with pieces of the fence that held Nelson Mandela prisoner. Chic little knitted ponchos. Luxury soy candles. Hand-knitted mohair scarves. Gorgeous goodies for a picnic including a waterproof reversible blanket. Exquisite handcrafted and individual pottery items and embroidered dinner napkins – I could go on and on.
Share your philosophy behind Mana?
Anni Wilhelmi: My personal philosophy though is I am where I am because other women helped me. Women like MK. For this reason, I will never stop helping other women. It would have been inhumane to try to pretend that MK and I did not tangibly feel the desperation the pandemic caused. It gnawed at us. So much so, that without a business plan, any risk analysis, or too much thought, we dived straight in. MKA provided the funding and I found the women and projects managed the 33 000 products in the middle of lockdown. In retrospect, the philosophy was life-giving Mana for 1800 women. As time went on, we knew we could make it a sustainable model. But that was afterward. At the time, it was about what was NEEDED there and then.
Tell us about the ecosystem that extends its hand across borders.
Well, this is the greatest story of women supporting women. The idea was born in Michigan, conveyed and discussed via WhatsApp to Cape Town. Women-owned businesses and nonprofits that supported women and who had women creating beautiful hand-crafted goods came from the Congo, Rwanda, Malawi, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and South Africa. The work was done across South Africa, a geographic roundtrip of 7 days to get to each supplier. From Wellington in the Western Cape to Cape St Francis in the Eastern Cape, Johannesburg in the North and Durban further east – literally a crisscross over South Africa. The goods left the Cape shores bound for NYC and final destination Battle Creek! THAT is a geographical ecosystem!
What have the artisans taught you about yourselves?
It’s more what the project taught us as the artisans are just superb in every way. It taught MK and me that we were not superhuman though we convinced ourselves we were. Months of very little sleep. Working on a 7-hour time difference may not sound like much but MK and I were talking most days from 3 AM on both time zones after falling into bed past midnight. The logistics to get cash and raw material and paperwork and export documents in place in 8 weeks, was a logistical nightmare. It took MK and me to absolute burnout. It taught us that we too needed self-care. We were so driven to provide the cash and logistics that we made ourselves ill.
Share your vision for 2021.
Vision 2021 is about the ear of women in the US market who are willing to hear the gratitude of women from another continent who did not want a handout. The vision is for US women to feel the beauty in the products, made for a first world market by artisans in a 3rd world country. Women who worked their butts off with pride. The Vision is an ear to ‘listen’ to the stories we captured and printed. For them to know about the hope they created when they purchase a subscription box.