Mulberry Mongoose is a handcrafted jewellery business whose works reflects the grace and ruggedness of the Luangwa Valley in each product they make. The business is made up of eight women and one gentleman. Located along a well-worn elephant path within South Luangwa National Park, the jewellery makers use only local materials like coins, seeds and snare wires used in poaching to create handcrafted extraordinary accessories.
The name Mulberry Mongoose is inspired by an animal found in the Luangwa Valley and by founder Kate Wilson’s English roots. Kate was born and raised in England and had a mulberry tree in her garden. As for the mongoose part, Kate explains, “The name perfectly captures the brand’s business purpose. The banded mongoose is a wonderful animal found here in the bush. They chatter incessantly just like myself and the Mulberry Mongooseteam. They also survive in the bush by being a community; one mongoose keeps watch while the others feed or take care of their young. Similarly, we grow as a business by creating invaluable employment in rural South Luangwa and by helping to protect our wildlife.”
Every piece of jewellery sold by Mulberry Mongoose gives back to wildlife conservation helping to fund anti-snare patrols. The company has contributed over $100,000 to conservation efforts since its inception. More recently the brand has earned a lot of attention from celebrities and leading international publications including National Geographic, Marie Claire US, Departures US and British Vogue due to the repurposing of snare wire, collected by anti-snare patrols and used in their jewellery. Kate explains that “transforming brutal snare wire into beautiful jewellery requires innovation, strength and tenacity and it is a testament to our team.”
A key priority for the brand is to add value to people’s lives and give back to Zambia with their jewellery, allowing people to buy a product that can make them feel good about themselves while contributing to conservation. Living in South Luangwa Kate had heard the horror stories of snare poaching and she knew the wire was an issue because once it was confiscated it was merely being stored. She turned to Conservation South Luangwa, the Zambia Carnivore Programme and Conservation Lower Zambezi to make her vision of turning snare wires into a positive thing a reality. “It just made sense to me to transform it into a positive and ensure that our jewellery was unique and has a positive Zambian story to share,” she tells me.
Since the idea to repurpose the snare wire, Mulberry Mongoose has removed a huge amount of snare wires from circulation as they have sold over 30,000 pieces of jewellery. Kate adds, “Over 30,000 pieces of jewellery, which is 9,000 snare coils taken out of circulation. I must admit we haven’t counted so it’s a conservative estimate. I deeply admire these teams of people who have committed their lives to conserving wildlife that belongs to everyone. They make huge sacrifices for us all. Rangers risk their lives to protect the wildlife.”
The project employs local Zambians, the majority of whom are women. Kate explains that this is not by chance. She believes, “Women in South Luangwa are hardworking and dedicated and yet find it hard to get work and are not often given the chance to finish school. It only felt right to employ women; the jewellery creation world has given them a chance to grow, learn and blossom into these confident beautiful women who are supporting their families and are respected in their village. It is a source of huge pride. I have learned a lot from my team and I have been humbled many times.”
Clera, a 21-year-old South Luangwa local started off as a sales associate for Mulberry Mongoose but has since been promoted to assistant production manager. She has always had a passion for creativity and design and used to make jewellery at home and sell to local lodges before working for Mulberry Mongoose. Clera lives 20 kilometres away from work, but this has not gotten in the way of her commitment to Mulberry Mongoose. Instead, it has provided her with another family and a community with the same goals in mind.
Naomi is a 33-year-old mother of three and one of the jewellery makers who have been trained in retail at Mulberry Mongoose. She was forced to leave school in Grade Nine due to lack of funding and being orphaned. Like many others in Mfuwe, Naomi wakes up very early to prepare meals for her children, clean her home and surrounding areas, all before catching her bus to work at 6am. Naomi has the task of transforming tough steel snare wires into beads. This form of skilled work can take hours to complete.
When it comes to creating the pieces, Kate reveals, “We use natural materials from the Zambian bush where possible. This makes our jewellery truly unique to this beautiful country. It also enables us to put more money back into the local economy. Giving back as we grow is one of our key business principles. We incorporate semi-precious stones and pearls to accent the natural materials we use, showing people how truly exceptional those Zambian handmade pieces are.”
The team usually looks to create eight new designs or products each year. Kate loves repurposing and upcycling anything negative into something positive. She sees no limits to what can be made from anything, litter and poaching tools included.
Kate thinks of themes ahead of design week. Stories, the natural environment of the Luangwa Valley, conservation issues that touch her or ideas visitors have passed on all inspire her. Kate adds, “We have all these broad themes and pre-make our snare shapes then we design from there. Once we start my head can really fill with ideas and I find it harder to sleep.”
Some of the products in the works for Mulberry Mongoose are inspired by the endangered pangolin. Kate is smitten with the animal and eager to learn more about it. She is inspired by its beauty and looks forward to playing a role in its conservation.
Visit the Mulberry Mongoose store (aptly named A Shop Less Ordinary) and workshop if you are in South Luangwa National Park. You can also purchase Mulberry Mongoose products at their online shop that ships worldwide (mulberrymongoose.com), from 37d Gallery or at Lusaka Collective.