Lucy Rhodes, a trainee solicitor at BWB is setting up a social enterprise which will sell specially designed jewellery made by women ex-prisoners in Kenya.
Lucy Rhodes is working with a team in Kenya both to establish a workshop for the enterprise on the outskirts of Nairobi and to create a legal structure in the UK, which will fundraise and sell the jewellery to boutiques.
Kwera Kenya - whose name comes from a black and yellow Kenyan bird that makes unique spherical nests - will train women in prison and employ them when they are released to make the designer jewellery.
The roots of Kwera go back to 2011 when Rhodes, then a paralegal at BWB, became a trustee of a UK charity which raises funds for its namesake, Philemon, a Kenyan charity whose mission is to support current and former prisoners in the East African country.
On a month long visit to Kenya in the summer of 2012, Rhodes saw and heard about the iniquities of the Kenya prison system and was taken aback by its underfunding and overcrowding in the prisons.
She talked at length with former prisoners. “I was interviewing lots of ex-prisoners and talking to them about their journey – how they got into prison, what their experiences were inside and how they experienced getting back into the community and getting a job,” she says. “And many were women ex-prisoners. The more ex-prisoners I met, the more I felt that the women seemed to have had a harder journey and were more hampered by their previous existence in prison.”
But Rhodes noted that very few organisations provided after care for ex-prisoners “and none as far as we are aware, have a remit to provide job opportunities for, and address the complex and unique needs of, women ex-prisoners”.
Plans for Kwera came out of conversations with three other women - Kenyan fashion designer, Lilian Maira, Church of Scotland prison minister, Sheena Orr, and the award-winning founder of a Kenyan export business and former chair of Philemon, Eunice Mwongera.
Sheena, who is based in Nairobi, visits the inmates of Lan’gata Women’s Prison, a maximum-security facility for approximately 700 female prisoners, on a regular basis. She has also recently been invited to sit on the prison’s Discharge Board where various “stakeholders” consider the individual cases of long-term prisoners who are due for release and assist in the process of reintegrating them back into their families and communities.
A location for the workshop has been found at the Paa Ya Paa art gallery on the outskirts of Nairobi. “After a fire destroyed the main building and its works of art, the owners reinforced the basic structure but didn’t restore the gallery to its former state,” says Rhodes. “Interspersed in the remnants of the burnt down building are brightly coloured murals, installation art works and the trees and plants that have grown up through the cracks. We felt instantly that it would be a restorative place for the women”.
British goldsmith and jewellery designer, Peter Page, has joined the team and is designing the first range of six necklaces for Kwera. At present, the team is hoping to interest small boutiques in Kenya and the UK and is confident that they will be popular in their own right, not just because of the story behind them.
Rhodes is currently engaged in marketing and fundraising for the start-up costs of Kwera in the UK. She is also thinking about the appropriate legal structure for the organisation; whether it should be a charity or a CIO.
She feels that her experiences at BWB have equipped her well for her role in setting up Kwera. “Trainee solicitors at BWB are expected and supported to take on a significant amount of responsibility during their training contract,” say Rhodes. “My experience as a trainee has given me the confidence to take on challenges outside of my day job. This particular challenge is not so daunting with some of the UK’s top charity solicitors working down the corridor.”
Rhodes has ambitious plans for Kwera. “We’d like to be able to employ all the women that come out of prison that want to be involved. But we’ll have to start off with a small number. If the jewellery sells well and business is thriving then there is no reason why we shouldn’t keep expanding,” she says.