BY K. BINKOWSKI | DECEMBER 2016
Meet Katie Hile, Founder of Totonga Bomoi
In an age of global connectivity, consumers are presented with myriad products from diverse geographical locations. We can buy shoes from Peru, hats from Uganda, or - as is the case with Totonga Bomoi - bowties from Congo. When Katie Hile finished her Masters in International Relations she took the degree quite literally and headed to the Democratic Republic of the Congo where she built relations with local artisans. It’s safe to say that several years later they are changing the trajectory of one another’s lives. Today, Totonga Bomoi is committed to connecting global consumers to artisans in the Congo as a way of inspiring conscious consumers and alleviating poverty - one gorgeous fashion accessory at a time.
You have built a gorgeous and global line of accessories. What was the inspiration behind Totonga Bomoi and why did you choose to work in the Democratic Republic of the Congo?
Life in Congo is often defined by poverty and inequality. It’s a place where families struggle to survive because of economic and political instability, horrific (or nonexistent) healthcare, and an antiquated education system, all of which cultivate a culture of hopelessness. These realities are what motivate me to serve in the Congo. It’s time for our global community to think and work creatively so that we can eliminate poverty and restore dignity to families.
Initially I ended up volunteering in Africa after earning my MA in Diplomacy and IR. While there, my local friend asked for $1,000 to build a home for her family. As a talented seamstress, I requested that she make 25 handbags for me to sell to family and friends. On my flight home, I imagined all the opportunities ahead, if we were to create a business together. Later that year, my grandmother helped me sew a few sample bags, which I sent to Congo with a simple business plan: connect – serve – inspire.
In 2014, I returned to my friends in Congo where we held our first cooperative meeting with ten local women. It was at this time that we started to create a global line of handmade accessories with the purpose of connecting Congolese artisans and global consumers.
It’s likely that your customers have never been to the Congo. If you had to paint a picture for just how different life is over there, what would it be? Why should they care about a country so far away from their daily existence?
First, I would say take everything you know and throw it out the window: from the food you eat, to the clothes you wear, and the conversations you have. Time spent in Congo turns everything upside down. At first you might find novelty in the differences and perhaps develop a routine of the unknown, but pretty soon you’ll crave everything from the bhakti chai at your favorite café to skimming junk mail that you swore you already unsubscribed from. Second, I would say be patient. We value time so differently from our peers in Congo that when you adapt to the local rhythm you open yourself up to exciting new realities. Third, I would say never forget. The people we meet and experiences we share along the way impact our lives forever and you don’t have to travel to Africa to be part of the change. It’s something that you can do everyday by becoming a conscious consumer. Your purchase increases income, builds community, strengthens talent, and encourages confidence for every single artisan of Totonga Bomoi. That’s pretty powerful if you ask me.
Totonga Bomoi is clearly committed to employing and empowering women as a means to long-term empowerment and social change. What impact can a customer expect to make in the lives of the women you work with?
Well I think that when we talk about sustainable development in the West we focus mostly on the economic impact, right? It’s certainly how I looked at our own artisan initiatives in the beginning. And while Totonga Bomoi tracks their personal income growth and its impact on the individual, household, and local community, our work represents a higher purpose. When I returned this past May, I encountered beautiful, confident, and courageous young women, who had literally trusted me with their futures, as I promised to simultaneously create a DRC-based artisan cooperative and U.S.-based social enterprise that would open doors for economic, social, and cultural advancements.
There was of course no guarantee that our products would sell, or that American buyers would respond to our mission, nor did I have an international business background. I’ve come to understand that it was our trust in each other and the loyalty of our customers, which have made the collections of Totonga Bomoi possible. Moreover, the vitality generated by our artisans as they work together to create beautiful products is incredibly powerful, and for that we have our awesome network of partners, retailers, and online customers to thank!
Running an international business, especially in rural Africa, is no small feat. What are some of the challenges you’ve faced and how have you overcome them to build a truly international brand?
Our families in Congo face unthinkable poverty every day. Ask yourself: How many times must we pick up the pieces after disease and displacement? How many homes and schools must be rebuilt because of violence and political oppression? These are the defining realities of our artisans, yet at the same time they’re the very reasons we carry on.
My greatest obstacle today is how to meet their rapidly expanding capacity. When I return to Congo, individuals, who want to join our cooperative, are constantly approaching me. Others seek information on starting a business or NGO in their village. They want to know how to connect with international businesses and buyers. They want books and resources to learn from, phones that connect to the Internet, and clinics that provide quality healthcare. It’s an incredibly difficult environment and when I’m feeling overwhelmed, I sometimes remind myself of this African proverb: If you want to go fast, go alone but if you want to go far, go together. So that’s our plan: to build a community of loyal consumers so that in solidarity with our peers in Congo, we can build a brighter future.
Over the past year you’ve begun to transition your product line from bags to men’s accessories. What influenced this choice and what’s in store next for Totonga Bomoi?
Yes! What we wanted was to capture a new segment of consumers by designing a meaningful product, so we took a closer look at the fair trade market to determine what sells and how Totonga Bomoi can be different. When we tested men’s neckties and bow ties last season, we received tremendous attention and now our online shop will be launching these new accessories with pocket squares. We’re also privileged to present a line of ethically traded head wraps for women. One of our intentions with this product line is to connect Congolese and American women facing diverse challenges, including cancer. Despite the elements of poverty experienced by our artisans and their families, they care very deeply about our customers and the obstacles that they face. It’s truly a gift for me to facilitate this beautiful connection of women across cultures.
We don’t doubt that the values you’ve built into your business are reflected in other aspects of your life. How do you minimize your footprint, give back, and cultivate a conscious lifestyle in your day-to-day routine?
While I often struggle with the distance between my work here in the U.S. and our artisans, who live halfway around the world, I’m blessed to have a part-time job at a local non-profit here in Denver. Each week, I teach English and Citizenship classes to refugees and immigrants who have resettled in our city. It’s another passion of mine, and work that I’ve been involved with since high school. Serving in this capacity allows me to give back to our community here at home. It’s also a powerful reminder that we are all on a journey, and that all of us face obstacles amid joy. Rebuilding one’s life in any country isn’t easy but their gratitude, humility, and ingenuity inspires me everyday.