Hamilton immigrant entrepreneurs empower women abroad

Local immigrant and refugee women collaborate to sell crafts from their home countries at the International Marketplace.
Selbina Mwendwa sells soapstone crafts from her home village, Tabaka, Kenya. (Julia Chapman/CBC)

Selbina Mwendwa, a Kenyan immigrant who now lives in Hamilton, is using her import business to empower women from her original village while also empowering herself. 

Mwendwa's family is from a village in Africa where women have few rights.

"The woman is not recognized by society," she said of Tabaka, Kenya. "The woman is just there to cook and take care of the children. And when you start doing something, you're going to get real beatings from your husband."

She tears up as she tells a story of a woman she heard about who died from childbirth complications because there were no health care resources available to her. A 16-year-old girl was helping her give birth.

Mwendwa's business is helping to put an end to these types of stories.

Since coming to Canada, she's started importing and selling items sculpted from soapstone unique to Tabaka. She coordinates with her aunt, who still lives in the village and collects the crafts from local women.

"By doing this, we liberate them," Mwendwa said, as she sells her crafts from an international marketplace organized by the Immigrant Women's Centre.

Mwendwa said 20,000 people in Kenya make a living from the soapstone. When the women who craft the soapstone are able to come home with money, their husbands treat them differently, she said.

"That's how they earn respect there," she said.

International marketplace

One of the places where Mwendwa sells soapstone is the Immigrant Women's Centre's international marketplace, open Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the Immanuel Christian Reformed Church in Hamilton. The group has organized the marketplace for the past eight years, said Ines Rios, executive director.

This year's event has 35 vendors, all immigrant and refugee women who sell their own crafts or import items from their own countries.  The women represent countries mostly in Africa, South America and the Middle East.

"It gives them a platform to test out the market," she said of entrepreneurial women.

The women's centre helps clients with tips on how to sell online, customer relations and displaying products. Rios said what's most important about starting a business is networking.

"You meet a lot people and build community," Rios said. "It's very important for new comers to start this."

That's what lead Mwendwa to start her business. She met Cassandra Dorman, selling Ugandan-made jewelry for Nurture a Child Uganda at a similar event.

"I could do this myself," Mwendwa thought.

Back at the show, Mwendwa and Dorman's tables are next to each other. They chat while waiting for customers. Mwendwa has lived in Canada for about eight years. She married a Hamiltonian she met in Kenya while he was travelling the world, and they have three children.

Even though she is 12,000 km away from Kenya, Mwendwa's heart still travels there each time she makes a sale and tells the story of her hometown.

"There are little groups of women who are changing society," she said. "I believe changes comes from me as an individual."