Mothers at the Market: Catherine R. Shembilu

Catherine R. Shembilu - Vikapu BombaPhoto Courtesy of Vikapu Bomba

We had the opportunity to interview Catherine R. Shembilu, a mother and the founder and managing director of Vikapu Bomba, an inspiring social enterprise based out of Tanzania.  Learn more about Catherine below.

I was born in 1987 in the Usambara Mountains in Tanzania. I come from a family of six and I have four siblings — two sisters and one brother. Growing up, my parents taught us to care for other people. I believe that a lot of what I’ve learned in life comes from my parents and seeing their desire to help other people.

I moved to Iringa, Tanzania in 2007 to go to university, where I graduated in 2010 with a degree in Psychology. I’ve always been inclined to support women and worked in public health after graduating.

In 2010, I worked with my friend Liisa from Finland who wanted hand-woven baskets. I went to the nearby village of Lulanzi to see if I could buy baskets directly from the weavers in the village instead of wholesalers in town. That day represents the very beginning of Vikapu Bomba. I bought several baskets from one woman and soon thereafter, I employed six women.

Nine years later, I continue to work with rural women in Iringa, helping them generate an income from their baskets. Today I am the proud mother of a beautiful little boy and I have a loving and supportive husband. Raising my son has showed me how important it is to be able to provide for your children. The work I do today means that much more because I see how the ability to weave impacts not only the women in the Vikapu Bomba family, but their children and families as well.

1. What do you love most about what you do?

What I love most about what I do is the ability to empower women and to have a positive impact on their lives and well-being. Whenever I go to the village to meet with the women, give them new basket orders, buy their products or to speak with them, I am humbled by how strong they are and how hard they work. I’m also very happy to see how their lives have changed for the better. They are proud of their work; they have the means to support their families and they have overcome many obstacles.

In March, through some of the Vikapu Bomba proceeds, I was able to purchase solar lighting for two of the women in the community. I surprised them that day, and all the women gathered to watch the installation. The fact that I can do that for someone is more than I could hope for. Vikapu Bomba exists for this reason, so that’s what I love the most about what I do.

2. How has working with Vikapu Bomba and The Little Market impacted your life and your family’s life?

The Little Market is one of Vikapu Bomba’s primary clients and represents a significant channel for promoting and selling our products. This has impacted us greatly because the more baskets I can sell, the more orders I can take to the rural women in the Vikapu Bomba family. In turn, the more income they generate, the better their quality of life — from purchasing household goods and home renovations, to supporting their children’s education — this is something they rely on.

3. Who in your life has inspired you?

My mother was my very first source of inspiration. When I was young, I saw her perform acts of kindness for other people and I think that lead me to wanting to do good things for people.

Today, I am continuously inspired by many people; however one woman in particular really keeps me going when I start to feel overwhelmed or self-doubt. Her name is Maila and she is one of the women of Vikapu Bomba. Maila had an accident when she was 30 years old and she can’t use her legs. She has five children and has endured a lot of social stigma and physical hardship from her disability.

Maila has never asked for anything but the opportunity to work to make a living like everyone else. She weaves gorgeous, flawless baskets and works very hard, and since I’ve known her, she’s been able to purchase land, build a house, buy livestock, and support her children’s education. And she does it with a smile across her face. I think about her when I feel like things are hard. When I see her she is always smiling and positive. She is one of the reasons I keep going.

4. What are you most proud of, personally and professionally?

I believe that when women work together and support one another, great things happen. So, what I’m most proud of, is to be able to share this vision in my personal and professional life, to help women regain their sense of pride and self-worth and to empower them to rise above their challenges and also help and teach other women.

When I started Vikapu Bomba, I did not know where the path would lead, but I chose to follow it. I started with one woman, then six women and today I employ 91 rural women. I intend to keep going.

We loved learning more about Catherine and the Vikapu Bomba team. To see our collection from Vikapu Bomba, visit our site

A special thank you to Catherine and the Vikapu Bomba team for contributing to our Mother’s Day series!

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