Marissa Saints, owner of Dsenyo—a Boulder, Colorado-based, fully committed fair trade wholesale and retail business—has always enjoyed the process of creation.
“I really love the act of starting with nothing and turning it into something,” she says about the work she does in her studio. This work includes designing the custom handbags and accessories she sells through her store as well as forming fair business partnerships with women and artisans in Malawi, a small country in east central Africa.
The idea to partner with these women came to Marissa while spending her days as a volunteer in Malawi with her husband Jon Saints, who was awarded a Fulbright scholarship to work with nearby Mzuzu University. She coached a girls’ soccer team and worked with schools to help them to build libraries and develop a mural painting program.
“I really went there more as a painter than as a purse maker,” she explains, noting the people, scenery, patterns, and other imagery she loved and tried to capture in her own personal paintings—especially the women who caught her attention.
“Women are said to be the backbone of African society,” she notes, “and that’s because they do all of the hard labor. It’s really empowering for them to learn an employable skill and to have a job where they’re bringing home an income.”
An entrepreneur at heart, Marissa started thinking about ways to take meaningful action.
“I came up with a million and one business ideas, but I really fell in love with African textiles. While I was there I would by a few pieces of fabric a week—whatever caught my eye or spoke to me that day—and at the end of my trip I brought it all home. It wasn’t until I got home that I put two and two together and thought, hey, I could start a business with this.”
Marissa started Dsenyo in 2008 designing handbags that celebrate the rich, cheerful feel of traditional African fabrics which ignited her creative side in Malawi. The partner groups she works with assemble fabrics and bags and earn a stable income for themselves and their families. Dsenyo has since expanded her line to include a number of women’s’ accessories that incorporate these textiles into their design.
Since Dsenyo’s start, Marissa has experienced a number of milestones that remind her of her initial mission.
“Theres one co-operative group in particular called Mwayiwathu that started from scratch with us,” she says. “It’s been really exciting to see them grow and learn that they have a voice… It’s been rewarding to see their children be able to go to school. Right now we’re their only source of income, which isn’t ideal, but Malawi is really off the beaten path.”
This year, Dsenyo started working with a new co-operative group in Brazil. “We want to expand beyond Malawi and we felt it was time to extend our reach,” she explains, “So were starting with a great group we’ve developed a connection with… Brazil is still a developing country, but the people we’re working with don’t have access to a market—just like the groups in Malawi.” Products developed with this new group are already available on Dsenyo’s website as of 2013.
On what makes her fair trade store unique, Marissa comes back to her early creative vision. “I think at Dsenyo, we really try hard to have a strong and authentic design aesthetic and to make sure we’re keeping up on trends,” she says. “We also really work hard with our producers on quality. When people wear a Dsenyo bag, I just hope they feel unique and special and beautiful.”