FREE Woman is a project that empowers women using one of Zambia’s most abundant resources, copper. FREE trains women to make stunning jewellery and home décor that is sold in Zambia and beyond, and in the process helps them transform their lives.
The Zambian fashion industry has been growing at an impressive pace over the last few years, with many Zambians choosing to ‘wear Zambian’ with the utmost pride. The jewellery industry has been a notable part of this growth.
FREE Woman, located in Lusaka’s Ng’ombe township, is an organisation dedicated to empowering women and equipping them with the skills to create beautiful jewellery, copper bowls, chandeliers and other home décor, all made from copper. One of FREE’s missions is to add value to Zambia’s natural resources through handcrafted copper products. Copper is one of Zambia’s best known resources and is coveted around the globe.
The FREE project house was founded almost nine years ago by Dawn Close. She first moved to Southern Africa in 1984. Her interest in women’s empowerment led to studies in international development at the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs (GSPIA) where she earned a master’s degree. While at GSPIA she founded the Foundation for the Realisation of Economic Empowerment (FREE) to use social entrepreneurship as a means of creating income for women in disadvantaged communities. FREE is a reflection of her own struggles as a woman, to find value, purpose and identity.
Dawn chose Ng’ombe as a working base to empower and help women up their skills to sustain their livelihoods. Most of the women at FREE were chosen after word of mouth recommendations. Currently FREE has 13 women working at the project house.
“Something that gives me great satisfaction is seeing the women make real money and grow in their confidence as a result, realising there are people out there willing to pay top money for what they made with their own hands. That does something to them. It also instills something in me, to realise that my dream is becoming a reality and that others are benefitting,” Dawn says.
At FREE all the jewellery, copper bowls, chandeliers and home décor are handmade by the 13 talented and extremely creative women. These items are made from copper wires and geysers.
The copper from the geysers is cut to different sizes. The size and thickness of the piece determine what it’s used for. For example, the thin copper found on the geysers is used to make chandeliers and earrings. While the thick ones can be used to make bracelets or finger rings. Everything is made at the project house, including the blue patina.
Lumbiwe Phiri, who joined FREE near its inception in 2012, is in charge of skills development for new members of the group. Lumbiwe has developed a three-month training programme, covering all the skills of working with the copper, including cutting up and cleaning the old geysers that are recycled; making rivets by hand; running copper through a rolling mill to flatten it; intricate soldering with a torch and a myriad of other skills. It is truly fascinating to see the women at work, the depth of their skill set and the ease with which they use tools normally considered only a man’s domain.
Memory Kunda, who has been with FREE since 2017, shared how “FREE has empowered me in the sense that I know my place in society and I can stand on my own. I’ve learnt a lot of skills here and different courses. I am currently doing a business plan. I also did financial literacy, which has taught me how to best use my money.” But it goes deeper than this. Memory shares that girls in her community see her as a role model and are inspired to pursue their dreams.
Margaret Phiri was one of the first members of the group in 2012. She served as a skills trainer and workshop supervisor. Margaret got married and moved to the 10 Miles area four years ago but is still active in the group, coming in to help produce orders. She is using the money she earns to grow her own business in her community, operating a mobile money booth. Increasing her float allows for greater transaction volumes, which earns more fees.
Chishimba Mukosa’s face was radiant as she described how her participation in the group had taught her much more than she anticipated. “I’ve gotten out of my comfort zone. I discovered I had creativity I didn’t know about. Before I came here I had never made anything using my hands. I’ve learned how to make different kinds of things which has boosted my confidence,” Chishimba shares.
One of the former members of the project is now studying at UNZA to become a teacher. She came back to help with an order from Australia over the Christmas holidays.
FREE’s incredibly beautiful handmade jewellery can be found at Lusaka Collective and Link Pharmacy at East Park. They can also be purchased through several websites, including Swahili Modern, Arise Africa, Kaleya, Artisans Thrive and Day by De.
Some of the challenges FREE faces include improving brand awareness and weathering the storms of the current economic times. However, the brand is growing and the small team has managed to achieve a lot from their base in Ng’ombe.
Supporting local artisans means supporting their dreams. It empowers them in several ways. It even improves livelihoods for the next generation and grows the country’s economy. FREE is an example of this, improving lives with one copper piece at a time.