QÄSA QÄSA is an online lifestyle store offering ethical homeware and gifts handmade in East Africa. Each handcrafted item empowers artisans and comes with its own unique story. We spoke to founders Aniqah Moawalla and Naeema Anjarwalla about their passion for supporting traditional African crafts.
Hello! Tell us about yourselves and how you started your business together.
Naeema: Aniqah and I are cousins. We had both left our previous careers and were each looking to do something that gave us purpose and allowed us to be creative. Our East African heritage led us to start a business that would support artisan communities and showcase their incredible artisanry.
At the time, we had not come across many handcrafted products from East Africa in the UK. We wanted to make people aware of the craft and more importantly, give artisans who would not otherwise have the opportunity, a platform to connect with the global marketplace.
Aniqah: I’d also recently been to Nairobi and seen the effects of the terrorist attacks on the small skilled artisans there who relied on tourism. It inspired us to want to offer these craftspeople a wider platform.
What does QÄSA QÄSA mean?
Aniqah: QÄSA QÄSA stems from the Amharic (Ethiopian language) word to mean ‘inspire, awake and motivate. We loved the meaning and that it sounded like ‘casa’ as our items are homewares, and they reflect our heritage and home.
You say you take inspiration from your heritage. Can you expand on that?
Naeema: I was born in Tanzania and lived there during the early part of my childhood but continued to visit every summer after we moved away. We are of Indian origin (our ancestors moved from India to East Africa in the late 1800s) and my parents were both born and raised in Tanzania and Kenya. I have a very close connection to East Africa and despite living away for many years, it is still ‘home’. So to follow our heritage back to a place that means so much to me personally gives me purpose.
Aniqah: My parents were born in Tanzania. Originally of Indian origin, my British upbringing has been a real mix and blending of cultures and traditions. I knew very little about my parents’ home in Tanzania, and so was keen to explore this side of my heritage. We’ve visited parts of the East African region and love to learn and utilise the local materials in our designs.
What are the benefits of running the business together?
Aniqah: They say to pick your business partner as wisely as your marriage! It’s very true – we are very dependent on one another and are across every decision together. It’s great to have someone to check in with, pick up when you need a break, and bring diversity into decision making.
Naeema: We work across everything together and our skills complement each other. There is no formality and we appreciate the flexibility it gives us. It’s great to brainstorm together, discuss different perspectives and share the roles equally. It allows us to make more informed decisions and it’s nice to have someone else to chat with!
How do you source your products and what criteria must they meet?
Naeema: We design our wooden utensil collection ourselves and work closely with our small group of woodcarvers in Tanzania to bring our designs to life from concept to creation. We also source from established social enterprises, fair trade companies and NGO’s who have good systems in place. We do our due diligence to ensure artisans are paid fairly, the products are handcrafted using local materials and keep alive age-old traditions.
The product has to be handmade, priced by the artisans themselves, so that it is a fair wage, use local materials and artisanal techniques to make. Design is also key, as we work to ensure that the items are functional, beautiful and timeless. The product has to essentially ‘do good’ for its community of makers and beyond.
How important is it to keep these handmade home crafting alive?
Aniqah: Part of the journey for us for QÄSA QÄSA was to discover more about our heritage through the local crafts, arts, materials and makers of the region. Once we opened this door, we learned so much about these traditions. From the incredibly complex hand spinning and looming of our textiles to the age-old wood carving skills, we continue to be blown away by what hands can achieve.
Naeema: It’s really special working with artisans and hearing their stories about how they learnt their craft. Many skills such as wood carving and weaving are passed through generations from father to son or mother to daughter. It is such an important part of their livelihood and in most cases, allows them to survive.
So much is mass-produced these days, so to have a product that has been hand made from start to finish and bears the unique personal story of its maker is so meaningful.
How has the Covid19 pandemic affected the business?
Aniqah: Both the pandemic and Brexit have posed significant issues and additional costs to us both on the ground and in terms of logistics. We provided extra funds for our carvers to buy hand soaps and masks. We provided them with health and safety advice in Swahili to ensure they understand how it is transmitted and how to avoid catching it.
The pandemic also affected our supply chain as many grounded flights meant that our stock did not arrive.
Our bestselling Blantyre Jars are made from collected wine bottles from bars and restaurants. With many of these being shut, we were not able to produce these as quickly as before. As you can see, lots of issues cropped up that we hadn’t anticipated!
Are you creative yourselves and do you enjoy handicrafts?
Aniqah: A real love of mine is crafting. My background is in the Arts and so my heart is with visual crafts and art. I love the focus it gives you away from screens. Crafting allows you to focus on yourself and your project, which is a lovely slow-down from my usual hectic schedule. I also love that handicrafts are a constant learning process of trial and error. You can improve but there isn’t necessarily a right or wrong way of doing something, so creativity and mistakes are encouraged. It’s a very quiet rebellion!
Naeema: I’ve always had a love for interiors and items that are unique and not commonly found in places. I’m forever flicking through interior magazines, pinning photos on Pinterest and browsing through small independent shops for inspiration, particularly ceramics and textiles. I love natural materials and enjoy pottery and painting when I get a chance to dabble in it, which is not as often as I’d like!
You have plans in 2022 to plant a tree for every customer that makes a purchase. Can you tell us more?
Naeema: Yes. For every order we receive we will donate to the International Tree Foundation, which has a strong presence in the East African region, to plant and grow trees. This will allow us to make a tangible difference to restore and conserve forests, while positively impacting the communities and livelihoods of the people who live there.