Though Shanley Knox began her career as a journalist covering human interest stories, she eventually realized she could no longer write without working to shift the narratives she created.
Her work took her to Uganda, where she spent five years building a portfolio within the not-for-profit sector and providing cultural analysis and market strategy for large retail chains and mainstream brands. She then launched Olivia Knox brand of horn products from Uganda with her close friend and co-founder, Olivia Byanyima.
Our friends at AOW Handmade recently caught up with Knox, who shared her experience in the field –along with the highlights and challenges of running a social enterprise. This conversation took place at Frankfurt, Germany’s Ambiente international trade fair.
Read below for the full Q&A and for a link to AOW Handmade’s comprehensive report from the show.
Out of all the materials you could have specialized in, why horn?
Such a good question! Horn was a product with huge potential that was only being manufactured in very small amounts. It’s been used for beautiful local products for decades, but it has yet to make its way into mainstream markets. We were inspired by how Ankole cow horn (the only horn we work with) was completely different from any other horn in color, size, strength, and consistency. We felt we could put Uganda on the map as a sourcing destination by growing a manufacturing industry around this material in particular.
What makes the horn you work with “sustainable”?
The horn we work with is a byproduct of local markets. We help ranchers utilize the entire Ankole cow, rather than just using it for milk or meat; they are able to grow their profit, which sustainably grows the local economy. The Hima tribe’s culture is celebrated, which protects the history of many of East Africa’s people, and the biodiversity of cattle here is preserved by raising the market value of the Ankole as a breed. We see these three factors creating comprehensive sustainability.
What are some business strategies you are going to focus on in 2016?
We’re going to focus on growing our ability to reach markets that haven’t incorporated horn before, rather than limit the material’s capability by my own capacity to imagine what it can do. For example, we are very excited about our recent collaboration with Hoffmann Natural Eyewear in Germany to make beautiful horn eyeglass frames. And we’re working with a tech company right now, and I never would have thought of that.
So in 2016, I want to think bigger. What I mean by this is to take time and explore other industries. Think through new applications and test out new ways of using the material that haven’t been thought of before. This takes space to play and wonder and ask questions, instead of just rushing to close the next account.
For those interested in working with Olivia Knox and developing products, please tell us how your products and services are unique.
We’re unique in the sense that we’re almost exclusively business-to-business, and we focus on working alongside our clients to craft products that they know will work for their target markets and unique aesthetic.
What insight do you have for those who are considering starting up a social enterprise of their own?
Become a student of the culture, the environment, and the people. Learning takes longer than you think. Take time with your questions. The year and a half I spent developing knowledge of our material, the industry, the people, and the culture have laid the foundation for everything to come.
My biggest challenge has been my own impatience, bias, and perception: thinking I already have the answers. I have to remind myself every day to slow down and remain a questioner and a student of what’s around me. This is how I discover our best opportunities and stumble on solutions to our biggest problems.
Moving to Uganda for a few months! I’m excited to spend more time on the ground and in the workshop this year.