Weaver Lizzy Atinlebine poses with her one of her baskets
Weaver Lizzy Atinlebine poses with her one of her baskets

With NGO assistance and consistent efforts, the bold, richly coloured baskets had penetrated the international export market. Well-made and solidly marketed, they appeared as a rare success story in the fraught haggle between remote rural African weavers and a competitive global market.

And then, quite suddenly, the entire market collapsed.

The explanation, it transpired, had nothing to do with buying trends: an identical but much cheaper range of Bolgatanga lookalikes, made from less durable sea-grass, had flooded the market. They were made in Vietnam.

While such plagiarism is common, its speed and devastating impact were alarming.

Many perceive African basketry as little more than a hobby creating functional vessels for traditional use, yet, faced with strands of sisal or Ilala palm and some berries for colour, few would know where to start. Equally few realise that basketry is actually a complex and highly competitive industry, reliant on technical savvy, market access and innovation.

Often, the livelihood of entire communities is generated by commercial weaving, with increasingly sophisticated products made by hand for export. While the artisanal skills are ancient, design plays as key a role here as it does in, say, the motor industry.

By and large, many so-called craft-development projects operate with scant knowledge of the communities or processes they enter. "Designers are often popped in and out without grasping scarcity of resources or what's culturally appropriate," says Frances Potter, a development specialist, who recently facilitated an unlikely collaborative project funded by the Indian government between the Ahmedebad-based National Institute of Design and weavers in Ghana, Zimbabwe and Ethiopia.

"So often the design interventions have little lasting impact," says Potter. But this project proved extraordinary.

"I think the process set it apart," she says. "The Indian designers began by making the local baskets and deconstructing the original designs. The results were exciting, but also resonated with the weavers in a lasting way."

Each community was identified with specific challenges - some logistical, some economic, some aesthetic - but the design institute's directive remained paramount: use design to resolve problems.

The project distilled design to its transformative, purest essence: design as problem-solver. Design as development. Design as a real alternative to subsistence for remote, marginalised artisans. And, significantly, design as India's long-underestimated resource.

Weaver Adams Attiah applies goat leather to the handles of a 'dip-dyed Nyariga' baskets
Weaver Adams Attiah applies goat leather to the handles of a 'dip-dyed Nyariga' baskets
Image: Gregory Maccarthy

Spearheaded by IT, India's export of its intellectual capital clarifies misconceptions of India as the planet's bargain sweatshop, and design - and weaving in particular - recalls Gandhiji's reverence for nature cures.

The project's apparent endurance begs the question: why might one developing country have more success in assisting another than developed countries appear to?

Often stereotyped as a sweatshop for Western products, here India offered its expertise to resolve socio-economic challenges.

Students from the design institute spent long periods in remote villages grasping the difference between design as decoration and design as problem-solving, which clearly had a lot to do with the project's successes.

"It amazes me," says Palash Singh, one of the key designers involved, "that the women artisans who make sisal baskets in Berejena, Zimbabwe, have an entire palate of natural dyes.

"From a vibrant yellow to a pitch-dark black, all comes out from the same tin can on the fire, using dried fruits, roots and bark of the trees.

"I have known expert dyers who measure every ounce of dye and minute of time and are still not satisfied with the outcome. For these artisans, their hands are the measurement - and intuition is their timer, and the yellow sisal which emerges is no less than gold.

"It has to be a process of co-creation. The artisan is the teacher and the designers must assume the role of students first, learning the language of craft and its possibilities and also the environment.

"Then innovation is possible in any of these areas. The next step is to figure out the possibilities of forms."

African baskets have evolved from functional vessels to expressive decorative pieces
African baskets have evolved from functional vessels to expressive decorative pieces
Image: Gregory Maccarthy

The results speak for themselves. Clearly the conceptual shift from functional vessels to expressive decorative pieces happened quite easily for the weavers: in Bolgatanga, the baskets evolved quickly from traditional forms to complex free-form sculptures - which, importantly, are harder to copy.

In Zimbabwe, new forms were developed by weaving over moulds to create wave-like shapes. Less visibly, a new technique was devised, interspersing regular stitches with knots so that the products were finished faster and consumed significantly less material.

In Ethiopia, the weavers learnt to work off a grid, making it possible to work from patterns, and so, for the first time, standardisation became possible. This resulted in vast improvements in quality control, from sizing to colour and design.

In all three projects, weaving enhanced entry into a cash economy, and the empowerment for women in these patriarchal societies was tremendous. Still, little could have been more ambitious than the journey 25 weavers from each country made to the design institute in Ahmedabad for a skills workshop.

As Tstsi Nyabando, a weaver from Zimbabwe's Honde Valley, says, "Before the workshops we thought inside the box, but afterwards, we were thinking outside - so we could modify our products and make new items.

"We all see and think differently now. After the visit to India, we realised that quantity is not the answer. We look at quality and what appeals to a customer."

The real measure of design's power to change lives, however, is economic. "Previously I earned $1 [about R13] for my baskets," says Nyabando. "Now I earn $5."

Says Potter: "Before we began I was concerned the results might be beautifully made Indian products! But, as can be seen from the final products, [ the team from the design institute] showed great sensitivity in absorbing local design ethics - they have retained a strong sense of their place of origin."

Skills can be adapted by the weavers, who have a much better idea of their own capabilities and materials.

"Personal growth for the weavers, and I have to say for me too, has been huge. This was largely possible because the programme was not treated as a box-ticking exercise, but implemented with great sensitivity and thoughtfulness and an academic rigour. And so, a somewhat surreal passage to and from India proved an enriching journey that will continue to unravel on a number of levels."

This article was originally published by the Sunday Times.You can view the original article here.

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