We continue our discussion about life in the Ngombe compound and the role Sew Powerful plays there. Plus, we get to know the Sew Powerful co-founders, Jason and Cinnamon Miles. Outside of Sew Powerful, who are they? How did their backgrounds and business savvy help launch Sew Powerful? How do they operate their other successful businesses?
Get to Know Jason and Cinnamon Miles
IN THIS EPISODE
We are Sew Powerful, How a Global Community of Seamstresses Is Changing Zambia One Girl at A Time, 2nd edition. By Jason G. Miles and Cinnamon, © 2016 & 2020 Jason G. Miles and Cinnamon, all rights reserved.
ABOUT THE SEW POWERFUL PODCAST
The Sew Powerful Podcast shines a light on the people behind the mission to keep girls in school and create purposeful products in Zambia. Join us every week for a new 30-minute episode to meet new people, hear inspiring stories, and learn how you can join us in this global movement. Whether you sew or not, make purses or not, you will find something to enjoy in every episode. Listen today.
Jan Cancila, Host 00:04
Welcome to the Sew Powerful podcast. This is your host, Jan Cancila. You know the sound of my sewing machine means it's time for another episode. So let's get started.
Today we're continuing our conversation with Jason and Cinnamon, co-founders of the Sew Powerful charity. Last week you'll recall Jason and Cinnamon took us through how the charity was founded and their encounters in the Ngombe Compound in Lusaka, Zambia. We had started to talk a little bit about the purses that the donors make and send to Zambia, but there's a lot of questions about those purses and why that was the vehicle. First of all, can you talk a little bit about the menstrual health program there? And what why are we doing reuseable? The rest of the world is all using disposable products.
Jason Miles, Guest 01:01
Yeah, sure. You want to tag team this or you wanna...
Cinnamon Miles, Guest 01:05
Sure. You want me to start?
Well, I think, um, to start with, when you go through Ngombe Compound, the first thing you notice is, it's very desperate, very rough. There is no garbage collection like you would see in your traditional neighborhood where the garbage people come collect up your garbage. There's big ditches, and just piles of garbage that fill up these ditches. So when you go through there, and I think on one of our first trips, we were thinking about even disposable or, or as with babies, you know, having diapers, and you look at this garbage situation, and you just realize that even if we could get that product donated, that would just cause a different huge problem there, you know. There's no way to get rid of that. So much less the ongoing cost if there's costs involved. Because they do have disposable product in Zambia, it is in the grocery stores. You know, people are aware of it. But again, when you're, I think it's that desperate of a situation and you're living on a couple dollars a day or whatever the actual amount is, something like that is just is unaffordable.
Yeah. And the affordability issue is a reality. And the ecological impact is a reality. These homes don't have running, they don't have a sewage system in Ngombe Compound. They have latrine, you know, pit latrines, outhouses behind the houses. And then yeah, they have big ravines that garbage flows into or that kind of thing. And, and so those, those issues lead to the question of reusable versus disposable. And then the price issue is just a reality. These, these are children, just as context, I mean, these, these are families that might live on $40 to $80 a month. And bottle of ketchup in Zambia cost, you know, $3-4. So it's not as if, you know, it's like everything's super cheap, there doesn't work that way. They just survive on almost nothing.
So many of the children, I mean, you know, a lot of people would say, Well, I thought that government schools are free. Well, they're technically free, but you have to have a uniform to show up. And you have to have books, and there are micro expenses, that would be relatively meaningless to a middle class wage earner, but to an extremely poor household, make it an impossibility. And that extends to issues related to, you know, menstrual hygiene management. And so for that reason, the reusable product is certainly the option that makes logical sense. It's readily made there by the same sources. And it's reusable, of course, so it can be literally gifted, and then creates the opportunity for menstrual hygiene management for, you know, years, a couple years. And so that's the thinking behind the question, but it's a big debate. You know, the Gates Foundation has funded programs that are disposable-based program work. So it's not it's not as if it's a foregone conclusion, it should work one way or the other. But it is our conviction that it's the right solution, a reusable product is the right solution.
Well, there are some charities, in particularly in the US, that make the reusable pads and then send them to various countries in Africa. What's your point of view on that?
Yeah, and it's a great question. So obviously, we, we're not too far away from Days For Girls. They're up in Bellingham, Washington. We heard about their program work. And I think it's fair to say, it's completely fair to say, that their founder Celeste, it really pioneered the messaging and the presentation of this issue widely. I mean, I think you really should say that she's, she's somebody who made this a well known issue through their work. Their model is to have seamstresses around the world make the reusable product.
Our situation that we found ourself in was we had a thriving community of seamstresses in Zambia. And we had the conviction that they wanted, we had hoped and they love this idea. They, they're passionate about this idea as well as we are, that they need to be making purposeful products that benefit or bless their community. And so we didn't really have the question as to whether those pads should be made by Western seamstresses. That was never a question for us. The question for us was, how can Western seamstresses come alongside, partner in a meaningful way, celebrate what's happening together, raise awareness about it, learn what's happening, and contribute meaningfully but not do the work for the Zambian seamstresses
And so, what we found in our model is a nice balance where Western seamstresses have a huge stash of fabric. And a lot of times it's little scraps, you know, you got your just little odds and ends pieces. And, and in Zambia, they can get quantity and yardage of fabric, you know, large, large yardage for, you know, a lot of repetitious sewing. So the reusable pad product made perfect sense for that situation. And the delivery device, the purse was, I guess you could say sort of our innovative, creative idea. And we put them together. And it's clearly, it's clearly worked, where the end product that the girl receives is a beautiful, really life changing gift of a purse. And inside, it's got reusable product, feminine hygiene pad that's made there locally, and the moms are paid for that. And soap that's also made locally. And the moms are paid to make that as well. And so it's creating this local impact with jobs, as well as with the actual, you know, product that's given to the girls. So that's kind of the model. That's how it works. Yeah,
I have a little, I could just add, you know, on the product itself, the girls there will have different versions of what they were trying to do, trying to use, that was reusable that was basically just strips of fabric or in some cases, I think people have said leaves or whatever. But this product in and of itself isn't like an innovation for them. When we went through the first round of sewing with the seamstresses, and they were sewing all day trying to make these, like, shields with the wings that would wrap around and Velcro or snap on the underside of the underwear. And I knew what it was, and we had told them what to make. And then we realized they weren't lining up the snaps in the Velcro, right, and, and went through a demonstration. After I said to Esther, you know, do they understand what this is? And she's like, I'm not sure. I don't even know if Esther understood.
They knew what it was supposed to be used for. They didn't know how it worked.
Yeah. So we I think we had underwear already sourced. And so we, you know, we demoed it for them. And they just went up, you know, cheering and the idea of what it was and how much better that was than what they were trying to do, how much it, like, freed them up to be able to still go to work or go to school, you know, was a huge deal. And so I think when we're asked, like, in the booth or at the sewing shows, like why reusable, and you know, it, it's been tested there, it works there really well for their current situation, and they're excited and happy to use it. It's not like a handout that's just kind of like, oh, gosh, Okay, thanks. You know, like it's actually way better than what they were doing and and they're happy with that product there.
Can I just mention two more bits on this when we first went there to do the first purse distribution in that story where the seamstresses were making the first set of pads? Of course, their first question is we need this can we have? So we said, Yes, you were the first recipients of the first, you know, pads sets that, and so they were thrilled. And then, but Esther the program director said, you know, the problem is that these girls don't have underwear. Like, she said, maybe one pair. And we were like, what now? And so and then in subsequent classes, she's done this for years now with us, she'll, for the new training and the classes with girls, she'll ask them, How many of you have five pairs of underwear or more? Two girls raise their hand. How many of you have you know, four pair? A few girls raise their hand. Then three pair, two pair. So they just didn't maybe have maybe two pair, you know? So we were like, wow, what do we do?
And so, so we did the math, we figured out material-wise, what was the smartest thing. Simplest thing, smartest thing is just purchase the underwear locally and have two pair of underwear included in the purse. And so that was our that was our, you know, additional piece there. And then she said, you know, the other challenge is soap, they don't have soap. And so that was why we started the soap work. Originally, we were buying soap and Zambia. And then there was a miracle that happen, where we now...
Well, okay, oh, okay. So I'll finish the contents of the purse, and then we'll tell the soaps miracle. So then, the other thing that she said, though, was, you know, the moms or the older sisters are just going to take these purses. Because in any household setting, like, if the mom needs to earn money for the household, that's the priority. She's going to need to use this stuff, you know, not gonna let the sixth grade girl use it. And so, we were like, wow, that's depressing. But, but it makes sense. And so what we proposed was that the girls would each receive two purses, one for themselves, and one for their mom, Auntie, older sister, and whatever, you know, whoever in the household. And then, then the girls would also be told if women in the household need more pads come to the sewing cooperative, and they'll, they'll help them get the pads. I mean, they'll basically, you know, sort it out. And so that's a model we went with, and it has worked really well.
The soap story is pretty cool. So we were buying these bars as well. Well, Esther told us at about four o'clock in the afternoon, that we were there, that we need 500 bars of soap.
By the next day
By 9am, the next morning, so, so we went back to the hotel, and the hotel is not too far from a little store, a shopping store Shop Rite. And so um, so we walked over there for dinner in that area, and we went into the store and I was just looking at the soap aisles, big grocery store. And I was looking because all the soap is different than the US type labeling and stuff like that. And I was trying to find like multipurpose soap, you know, like for clothes, washing and stuff. And then I noticed there was a guy with a nice polo shirt on like a bright, like, blue polo shirt, and he had a big pushcart.
And he kind of looked over at me and he said, Can I help you find anything? I said, Yeah, I'm looking for multipurpose soap, like for washing clothes. And he said, Oh, you want this one here. He picked it. And I could tell on the aisle there was, or on the shelf, there were maybe 10 or so bars. And he, I said, Are you the store manager, or? He said no, I'm the regional Unilever Rep, and I stock the shelves here. And I was like Unilever, the giant soap company? Like, Yeah. So um, I said, so if I needed like, 500 bars of this soap by tomorrow morning at 9am, could you actually get it for me? It he was like, Really? Yeah. And he said, Uh, yeah, I could actually do that. So, very nice guy, and between him and the store manager, they worked it out. He got it, obviously from their warehouse. And the next morning at 8am it was there. And I, so it was 59 cents a bar. And so for the first couple years, we just bought the soap.
And, but in 2017, we were there on a trip, we go every summer. And we were doing home visits. And we were interviewing the girls and we were doing, there was a graduate student with us who was doing a thesis work on, on the program. And so she was doing interviews and, and the girls said what was the obvious fact, which is they got a bar. So they used it when they needed it for the you know, menstrual hygiene pads. And then the soap was gone. And so although the pads were designed to last for a long time, the soap was just, you know how it is, a bar soap might last for a week or whatever, if you're using it every day, I mean, less than that.
And I think at that point, that's 2017. And we were up to, like, collecting 6000 purses, so we were already needing 6000 bars of soap.
It's a lot of money.
So now we're thinking, every month, they need soap every month and, you know, how in the world can we, like, you know, accommodate that?
So I was stewing on that. And the home visits are just challenging anyway, in some ways, they're very, very tragic. Like, it's Greek tragedy after Greek tragedy, sometimes, to do home visits. But, but nonetheless, I was just meditating on this. And I got in the car after one of the visits and I said to Esther, we have to find a soap solution. This just isn't sufficient, you know. So we go to the hotel that evening.
We go down the next morning and someone on our team says, Jason, there's a lady here who knows you, from United States, And I went over, and it was this nice lady, Luz Maria, and she works at World Vision, which I worked at for 16 years. So I knew her. And I said Luz Maria, what are you doing here? She's like, Oh, I just got here from, I think it was Kenya. And she said I'm here to visit with Esther and I was, like, Esther M'kandawire, like, our program person? She's like, yeah, yeah, she said, I have a soap-making idea. I want to talk to her about an opportunity. And I was like, What are you talking about? And she said, Well, here's the situation, we have a very, very large donor in the US that gives us that, they are a manufacturer of soap for many brands. They're like the behind the scenes maker of the soap bars for the industry. And she said, they have this product that falls off the assembly line, which they call noodles, which is just shards of soap, little pieces, you know, broken pieces, stuff like that. And she said they have it in these, what's it called a Gaylord, a four by four, pallet-sized, giant, you know, bag. Like, all day long, these things are just being created. And she said, we have literally access to just as much as you can imagine. And I said, Well, I could imagine quite a bit. And so she said, you can, she said Esther could boil it down and reshape it, and then sell it. She said, I don't care if they sell it. Or she said if they just bag it up as just the shards they can just give it away.
And I said, Oh, it's on, man. It is on.
How soon can this happen?
So yeah, I literally said, How soon could you have it here. She said, it's already here. I already have it in the warehouse in Zambia. That's why I'm here, to talk to her. We need to, you know, pilot a program. So we'd envision together a soap cooperative, we already had the sewing team together. And then we envisioned a soap team. And the nice part about it was, the, the soap team, I guess you could say it's a little bit more entry level work than sewing. And although neither of them require literacy, which is really, really nice, because many of the moms are not literate. And so they can be trained on these things. But the soap team gave us another on-ramp to what you might call a more challenging, you know, situation where people who have less skills even, a neat opportunity. And so it started to come together. We created the soap team. We funded it initially. And it has just taken off.
And just to fast forward to the, to the current moment when COVID-19 hit and people said what's the remedy? What's the, you know, what, what do you do? I thought we will wash your hands, like you know, a lot. And we're like, well, we got, like, I've got a lot of soap. And so in Ngombe Compound our mission in the last, you know, two months has been to take free soap to every household in the whole entire Ngombe Compound. And to explain to them social distancing, handwashing, what COVID-19 is, and gift them a bar of soap and they are, just, the whole community is literally just, they're, they're aware.
Yeah. And to think that that was possible because of a chance meeting in 2009.
Well, why don't we take a break right now and when we come back, there's one more aspect I'd like to explore. And that's the Three Esthers Farm.
And then we're going to get into all your other activities. Let's take a break right now.
Have you gotten the second edition of the We Are Sew Powerful book? This updated version of the original bestseller (4.9 out of five stars, by the way) is again authored by Sew Powerful co-founders, Jason and Cinnamon. It is available on Amazon in paperback or for your Kindle reader. This latest edition is packed full of moving stories about how Sew Powerful came to be, the volunteers who make it happen, and the way this small movement has grown into a global mission to break the cycle of poverty through education and the dignity of work. And don't forget, when you place your order, if you use smile.amazon.com and designate Sew Powerful as your preferred charity, Amazon will donate a portion of your purchase right back to Sew Powerful. And now back to our podcast.
Welcome back. We've been talking with Jason and Cinnamon and we're continuing our conversation from last week where we were introduced to the work there that they needed to be done in Zambia that they discovered back in 2009. And we talked about how the sewing cooperative stepped up and is making school uniforms and the reusable feminine hygiene pads and then we transitioned into the soap cooperative and the important role that that's played. But there's another important aspect which is food supply. And, and can you tell us how the Three Esthers Farm is addressing that and how that came to be?
Sure, yeah, happy to do that. The, the top of mind topic for Esther and the principal of school who works there as well as Etay and the teachers. The top of mind topic is that children don't have food. They, they, those community members will have one meal a day.
And many times they don't have that meal. And so food insecurity is a, is a huge issue. Many of the children who are on on anti-retroviral therapies, because many of the children, like a large percentage, are HIV positive. They were born to HIV positive moms. And so they're an anti-retrovirals or, or other medication like immuno boosters type stuff. Their number one issue is that they can't take that if they don't have food to take it with. It'll upset their stomach, and they won't take the, the anti-retroviral therapy pills. So, so food is a huge, huge challenge. That's their top of mind issue frequently, whenever we talk to them. And so we just always lived with that.
On a good day.
It was kind of too big of a problem, too expensive to try to feed. I think at the time when I went there was already 1400 kids in
in one school
in 2015. Yeah. You know, so she's even just trying to provide one meal a day to that many kids every day of the week. What, I don't know the math on that, but it was a lot. And we knew that wasn't something we could just fund. We needed, like with the other things, a way for it to be sustainable, that they could generate a way to make that work there and was kind of another one of those things where we're like, we know this needs to happen. But how do we figure this out? And then I think, you know, Jason's story of, of the experience at World Vision
Yeah, so I, so I, when the purse program was up and running, I had a request to go to World Vision to explain it. Because one of the program details we didn't mention is all these purses are shipped to Zambia by World Vision. And, and it's a huge blessing and they're a distribution partner now, and they receive purses in their community schools where they work. But for the first couple years, they just shipped the purses for us and, and it's a huge blessing. Well, they wanted to know about the menstrual hygiene management program and the purse program. And so they asked me to come in and present and I went and there were probably a dozen director level people in the room. I was like, Oh, my gosh, what is happening right now. But I talked about the program and after the meeting, it was great meeting. After it, one of them came up (his name's David) and, and I knew him from working there again, as well.
And he had mentioned that beyond the menstrual hygiene management thing that we were talking about was that in this community food was what we were trying to figure out, but we still hadn't figured out, but that was kind of all he said. Yeah.
So David walked up to me after and said, you know, Jason, I bought a piece of property right outside Lusaka, Zambia, like, nine years ago, or you know, and he said, my wife, and I've never used it. But we bought (he explained why they bought it) and he said, you know, if Esther could ever use that it, was farmland when they purchased the farm.
He said she could, she could use that if she wanted to, to try to have a, you know, food for the children there. And so it's sort of similar, where I was like, "okay, it's on." So we created what we call the Three Esthers Farm, and the mission and purpose of the farm is to feed the children. And so it produces a lot of vegetable crops, cabbage, and tomatoes, and maize, and, you know, fruit trees planted that kind of thing, poultry program. So those types of program, farm programs, go to the mission of feeding the children as much as possible, you know? Yeah.
It seems like there was sort of some serendipity around who became the manager of the farm as well. Is that right?
Yeah, I mean, you know, it sounds funny to say, but God just shows up so much. It just, there's these little instances where right person at the right time, in that situation. Esther had no idea where this property was; she went and checked it out. She was standing there looking at it and a guy walks up to her from, you know, down the down the dirt road, and says, Can I help you? Are you lost? Did your car break down? And she said, No, this is my property. And he said, I don't think that's your property. So he said, I know that people who own that property, that's not your property. She said, Well, she told him what happened. And he was like, Oh, he said, Well, I'm the caretaker for a property across the road. And it turns, (his name is Nicholas) turns out is a wonderful person and they ultimately, through the process of us developing the land, he moved across the street and became the caretaker, him and his wife, for the Three Esthers Farm property and helped establish it, and has spent, what, four years now more than that, toiling to make that a viable farm. And yeah, this is serendipity or it's God. It's God.
Well, let's, let's take a pivot, and I'm using that term because that's the title of one of Jason's recent podcasts, because in his other life, he, rather than being the victim of my interviews, he is a podcaster along with his partner in crime from Great Britain, and they have a podcast called the
E-commerce Leader. And so that, that's been quite interesting. But as I was doing a little research, I found out that Jason is one of the most prolific authors on the topic of e-commerce. Very popular instructor on the training websites. And he has a website that will astound you called www.MrJasonMiles.com. And Jason, how many books have you written?
Depends on how you classify a book, but with McGraw Hill, like traditionally published? Three, and then they've been reproduced around the world and second editions have come out. Yeah. And then I've done self published books beyond that quite a bit.
Right, right, on Instagram, YouTube, Pinterest, Craft Pricing Power, The e-commerce Seller's Secret, and then Nine Mountains of Traffic. That's, that's a, is this an e-book? What is that?
Yeah, it's a new e-book I just put out, yeah, yeah.
Yeah. And you have an interest in gardening as well. Is that true?
I do. And we have a brand as well. Okay, let's just back up and we'll just kind of describe, because I said I worked at World Vision for 16 years. And then I, I worked at Northwest University for four years after that. But um, you know, in 2007, 2008, we needed money. We were, you know, struggling financially. And so and our youngest daughter was 4
She was 4, yeah, four, just started kindergarten. So I kind of had like, the four hour window, maybe, you know, in the morning, where all three kids were not at home. And so it was that decision for us, like, you know, what, what can I do in those hours? Can I even get a job that will, you know, and not have to pay for childcare? And will that benefit us enough for, you know, for us to meet the need we had? Or was there something else we could do? And I think even then, like, the internet was, you know, still fairly new selling on the internet, you know, eBay and their, I don't even think Facebook was a thing yet. I don't know, you know, so it was a little bit different.
But Jason was pretty dialed into sort of different versions of people that were selling online and, as with everything, has lots of ideas for business ideas, and very visionary, you know what to do. And I think when I made a couple projects that I had sewn for both of our girls, (they had American Girl dolls, it was one of their birthdays, and they finally got an American Girl doll and, and I just made up some outfits to match something we were giving her) so it was like girl-matching-doll and which led into like, I would make matching dance costumes for our daughter that did dance performances. And, you know, I think pretty quickly when we saw some of the reactions of some of the other parents and I realized parents didn't, my age parents didn't really know how to sew and, you know, it's kind of just this idea that sort of just started our business of, at the time called Liberty Jane, which migrated into Pixie Faire, which is all, yeah, sewing patterns.
I mean, the Brownie Troop moms all wanted to buy the stuff she was making. So then I was like, why don't we just sell it on eBay? And if you're gonna sell on eBay, why don't you set it up as an auction, start it at 99 cents and see how much somebody will pay. And so we did that for the first 18 months. And I had always, I guess, I was a longtime non-profit marketer, that was aware of e-commerce emergence, and aware of online selling and wanted to, I maybe I wanted to, like, I was at closet want-to-be entrepreneur, or and, and so when I saw her skill set, I was like, Oh, I think somebody would pay for this, you know, and so we dabbled in eBay. And so I was basically her marketer for the first four and a half, five years, when the evolution from eBay selling to our own website, and then ultimately from physical items to digitally download
sewing patterns, which is the business we run primarily today, so I was the marketer for that. And moon-, just moonlighting, you know, evenings and weekends helping her. And then it just, I mean it, over a few years, it really took off. Pinterest was an incredible help to the business,
Which is kind of lines up with how he got that book deal. And, you know, he was writing about Pinterest, and we noticed all this traffic from this website. And we were like, what's that, what is Pinterest? I've never even heard of this, and, you know, anyway
And so, and so that I started blogging about marketing on Pinterest. And that's really what led to me as a as a e-commerce, you know, writer/podcaster/speaker, that kind of thing.
Yeah. Well, it's, it's, it's amazing. And I'm impressed every time I look at your list of accomplishments. So I think we're going to wrap it up for today. And thank you very much for your time. And we'll be talking to each of you again in future podcasts and I very much look forward to that. So have a nice day. We'll talk to you soon.
Bye bye. If what you've heard today inspires you to want to make a difference, I urge you to explore the Sew Powerful website at www.sewpowerful.org. That's SEW POWERFUL dot ORG. The website has great information about the organization. It's where you can download the free purse patterns, or even make a donation. We hope you will join us again next week when we bring you another Sew Powerful story. Thanks for listening. Now, go out and have a Sew Powerful day.
ABOUT THE HOST
Jan Cancila has been making purses for Sew Powerful since 2014. She serves the organization as Director, Global Volunteerism, the Area Manager for Shows and Events-Mid/South USA and as the Houston Regional Coordinator. She was a public speaking major at Hanover College and holds an MBA from Our Lady of the Lake University. Jan had a 25-year career with The Coca-Cola Company before owning and operating a linen and party rental business in Houston. She is married with two grown sons, a lovely daughter-in-law and two remarkable granddaughters. Jan’s published work includes more than 100 online articles for Examiner.com. Reach Jan with comments or suggestions at email@example.com.