How women in northern Kenya are beading their way out of poverty

From beads of bondage to beads of joy

What you need to know:

  • The beadwork industry in Kenya has become a hot spot for revenue in the dry north; a number of initiatives are transforming the lives of women here by providing markets for their beads locally and internationally
  • Two groups of  pastoralist women from Turkana and Marsabit are empowering themselves to be more financially independent and contribute to their family earnings, through beadwork business.

Have you ever looked at the bracelet with Kenyan flag colours that you proudly wear on your wrist, or the beautiful beaded sandals on your feet, and wondered about the story behind them or who made them?

For many people, the elaborate beadwork made by Kenyan women, including the Maasai, Turkana, Rendille, Borana, may seem nothing more than a colourful decoration. But for these pastoralist women, beads represent their deep devotion to creating a better future for themselves, their children, families and communities.

The beadwork industry in Kenya has become a hot spot for revenue in the dry north, with a number of initiatives transforming the living standards of women here by providing markets for their beads locally and internationally.

In Marsabit County, Samburu and Rendille women have, for years, made beads for prestige and aesthetic purposes. Girls wore them to attract men in society. The more beads they wore on their neck, the more they attracted men, and the more the reverse dowry paid to the parents when they got married.

Some made a few beads for the small-scale markets.

Today, however, the narrative has changed, thanks to the Ushanga Initiative introduced by the government and local NGOs, which have equipped women with skills to improve their bead-making skills for income generation.

Here, at least 135 women’s groups made up of more than 1,200 members have turned to bead-making as their full-time employment.
Among them is Rambase Lealo from the Merille location. She tells Nation.Africa that many women in the region have abandoned the risky cattle-herding jobs they engaged in previously.

“BeadWORKS team has created a star beader model where selected women leaders in villages train others to work at home during their free time, earn income and retain their traditional, semi-nomadic lifestyles,” explains Ms Lealo.

Their design, training, and sourcing processes deliver high-quality products, which international customers require, while respecting and supporting the needs and demands of pastoralist cultures.

Initially, beadwork never seemed to them a business opportunity till they were trained by Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT) and placed under Melako Community Conservancy where they were formally registered as beadWORK Kenya.

Through the training, they were able to improve the sale of their products internationally to countries such as Dubai, the UK, and even USA, among others, on a digital platform called an e-commercial market.

Also read and listen: Samburu beads of bondage

The digital platform also helped cut off middlemen who exploit beaders as NRT has made their learned representatives help with the marketing process on their behalf.

The adoption of this improved supply chain and digital marketing platforms has seen phenomenal diversification of incomes among these ordinary women as they have all become economically independent.

Nalisi Lasaasa, a mother of four, praises the beadwork initiative for empowering them economically, and cushioning them against the climate change shocks such as drought. They can put food on the table with minimal struggles even amidst the biting drought in Marsabit County.

They are also able to educate their children effortlessly, without much reliance on their husbands.

Ms Lasaasa says the beadwork project has restored their dignity even in the eyes of their husbands who no longer view them as burdens, but as key complementary components in their marriages.

One of her children is currently a university student, two are in local high schools, and one in primary school.

The women’s economic empowerment, through the beadwork initiative, has accelerated the adoption of climate-smart and sustainable environmental regenerative practices among the beneficiaries.

Instead of focusing on increasing their incomes, these women have decided to give a portion of their revenues generated annually, to go into environmental and wildlife conservation in Laisamis sub-county.

Fatuma Lenyekopiro boasts of how increasing women’s access and control over finances, tools, and markets can reward their climate-smart leadership in the communities.

She narrates how they have become the frontline advocates of environmental conservation. They no longer support logging, charcoal burning, or any form of environmental degradation, knowing only too well that women in this region bear an outsize burden of global warming or drought-driven crises, largely due to gender inequalities.

Giving back to society

She explains that for the last three years since their businesses picked up, they have been channelling five per cent of their income to Melako Community Conservancy to help in climate mitigation and adoption of strategies to starve off any crises. For instance, they have contributed at least Sh8 million to the conservancy in the last three years.

Andrew Dokhle of Melako Community Conservancies confirms that they have been receiving contributions from eight members of beadwork women’s groups.

Mr Dokhle details that they use the money to pay rangers, and construct or repair boreholes just to ensure there is no water scarcity.
They have also constructed offices for the beadwork groups and the Melako Community Conservancies headquarters in Laisamis town.

The beadwork women’s groups recently presented a cheque of Sh795,815, an equivalent of five per cent of their income for the year 2022.

BeadWORKS Kenya is also committed to conserving natural resources and wildlife through self-governed, community-owned conservancies and sustainable, social, and ethical enterprises by promoting peaceful community partnerships.

Marsabit Deputy County Governor Solomon Gubo, who attended the presentation ceremony lauded the women’s efforts. He observed that such powerful testimony from local women who struggle daily with climate change, was attributable to the right economic empowerment they have received.

“Achieving a gender-just approach to climate change in economic empowerment will require concerted efforts by multiple government agencies and stakeholders. There is no time to waste,” Mr Gubo said.

Since 2005, participants have grown to include more than 1,200 women earning increasing incomes through BeadWORKS.

This income enables the women to survive and improve their families’ lives without resorting to environmentally damaging activities such as charcoal production or overburdening their fragile grasslands with sheep and goats.

The beadwork magic is also happening across Turkana County.

“A teenage girl in Turkana walks around with Sh100,000 beads around her neck to attract potential suitors, while an elder has a Sh20,000 hut made with ostrich feathers worn on special occasions, but such a family primarily rely on relief food and no child goes to school because of poverty. This was our wake-up call,” Mercy Ekaran, the secretary of Aberu Kori Ushanga Cooperative Society tells Nation.Africa when we meet her during the launch of the first ever women-led cooperative society in Turkana.

The registered organisation is made up of rural women from Lokichar town in Turkana South. They are on a mission to eradicate poverty using their cultural identity—beads.

They formed the group to help them market their bead products locally and internationally.

Ms Ekaran, a founder member, says they realised that as much as beads are an essential component of everyday dress in the community, they are of financial value too. The beads are worn to signify age, marital status and influence in society.

Furthermore, the women are talented in making beads, hence decided to explore it as a business.

They started as a group a decade ago when they could sell products such as bracelets, necklaces, belts, rungus (mace), belts and earrings. At the time, a belt of a market value of Sh5,000 at Lokichar would be sold at a double price of Sh10,000 to a non-local customer. This motivated the women to hold on to the enterprise.

Their commitment attracted support from the county government, Ushanga Initiative Kenya and World Vision Imara programme who supported the group with training in how to add value to their products, modern beadwork machines and market linkages.

“Our products are dictated by the market demands. There are women who wish to wear traditional Turkana regalia made from animal skin, but due to intricacies in maintaining the skin, we make modern ones that are beautifully designed from attractive clothing materials,” she adds.

Ms Ekaran says she has been able to educate her children through high school, catered for their health needs, and put food on the table.

The chairperson of the cooperative, Josephine Akiru, says the county government and World Vision, which helped them throughout the registration process, have sponsored them to various trade fairs and exhibitions since 2018.


She explains that they started off as 10 friends from Lokichar, each with a unique specification of beaded attire.

“There are those who specialised in basic products for Turkana people like huts, belts, walking sticks, traditional chairs, and bracelets,” Ms Akiru says.

The consistency of the 10 members earned them the name 'master beaders', attracting women from neighbouring villages and Turkana West who visited to learn how to earn a living from the community’s normal activities.

As part of the market linkage strategy, the women were part of the beneficiaries of Ushanga Kenya Initiative link where Africa Women Entrepreneurs and Baraka Women Centre bought Sh3 million beaded ornaments and baskets in November last year.

Teresia Njora from Baraka Women Centre says they have been working with the Ministry of Culture to export the products from such cooperatives to other African countries such as Tanzania, Burundi, Uganda and Rwanda.

Lore Lolio, the brand ambassador of Ushanga products from the cooperative society, says they are embracing digital marketing to sell the products to the global market as many buyers have moved to digital platforms.

Mr Lolio says all the 66 registered members are currently tech-savvy after undergoing crash training in digital marketing.

The manager of the Imara programme, Dr Charles Odhiambo, is encouraging the women to embrace integration and venture into eco-tourism, peace and conflict resolution and conservation of natural resources to forestall climate change-related shocks.

He describes the registration of the unique cooperative society as a new beginning towards financial and economic inclusion of women and girls in Turkana South and the entire county.

The members of the cooperative are all trainers of trainers from their villages, with Ms Ekaran stating that she trains school girls when they are at home for holidays.

“The girls make bracelets, necklaces and belts that they sell locally. They spend their earnings on books, sanitary towels and pens. This protects them from tempting situations of trading sex for such basics,” she says.