India’s basket programme empowers African women (Feature)

Addis Ababa, Feb 22: India is helping in the empowerment of African women through a unique initiative being undertaken in coordination with the internationally-renowned National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad.

As part of the India-Africa Forum Summit-II held in Addis Ababa in May 2011, the Indian government offered a major design intervention to women basket weavers in five countries in Africa.

The project is being implemented by the NID, Ahmedabad, under India’s department of industrial policy and promotion in the ministry of commerce and industry, and is supported by the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA). Its thrust is to empower rural weavers in Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, Ghana, Malawi and Zambia.

The NID, in association with South Africa-based NGO The New Basket Workshop (TNBW) as project consultant, commenced the project in Ethiopia in November 2013. Approximately 50 new products have been developed, which have promising market potential, both domestically and internationally.

The project programme comprised three training workshops for Ethiopian basket weavers: the first being a scoping field trip in November 2013; in December 2013 representatives from five associations from Ethiopia’s Oromiya state as well as from the retail and NGO sector travelled to India to participate in workshops at the NID; the final workshop took place in February 2014 in Addis Ababa and included weavers from Harar is eastern Ethiopia.

Ethiopian basket weavers and associated support personnel exchanged views and expertise with Indian artisans, academics, NGOs and retail specialists. The final session was held at Salem’s Design studio-space in central Addis Ababa. Salem’s, which has an excellent reputation for designing, supporting and retailing Ethiopian craft, is known for handicrafts and is spreading the learning to the wider community of Ethiopian weavers.

The combined detailed knowledge of local conditions, available materials together with sensitive design collaboration, makes for sustainable outcomes with vastly increased income generating possibilities. After the completion of training, their products have been displayed and were open to visitors and different officials in Addis Ababa.

At the opening, India’s Ambassdor to Ethiopia Sanjay Verma said that the purpose of the initiative was to sensitively adapt the basket making traditions, practices and challenges facing Africa’s women basket weavers, through drawing on the experience and knowledge of India’s traditional craft and highly developed design sectors.

This programme has brought together fantastic elements and ideas from NID, one of India’s finest institutions and probably the greatest designing school in Asia, he said, adding that the government of India supported the move to empower women in Ethiopia.

“We are thankful to the Ethiopian government for having partnered with us in this programme. But this in many senses was the easy part of the project of injecting skills, creativity. Now bringing that to the market, commercialising it and sustaining it is what is required,” Verma told IANS.

The products are beautiful and creative and the projects and experiments that touch people at a grassroots level become an elemental aspect of the larger cooperation between the two countries and is an example of dedication.

“My friends and colleagues at the NID and we hope that the support of the Ethiopian government will continue to this project through Addis Ababa Chamber of Commerce and Sectoral Association (AACCSA) and Ethiopian Chamber of Commerce and Sectoral association (ECCSA), the businessmen, and the middle class,” the Indian envoy said.

“We all need to support traditional art because this is part of our identity, our essence of culture. India can be an example in this time of machine-produced mass consumer goods but there is also space for indigenous products.”

According to Verma, the same socio-economic process that India went through a few years back to get here is happening in Ethiopia now. “We can adopt modernity and convenience but we can also keep alive our culture at the same time,” he stated.

With the aim of increasing income generation opportunities, the project scope includes training of trainers, collaboration on product development and product range diversification, and brand building. In all, 125 weavers will be trained at the NID’s campus during the course of the programme; 25 from each of the five countries.

The workshop at the NID’s Ahmedabad campus involved a two-week-long exchange of technical skills, comparison of marketing experiences and roundtable discussions.

The initial outcomes of this great cross-cultural project have yielded results that go beyond a range of new techniques, forms, colours and designs. Although the products are in the early days of their marketing cycle and it is too early to give sales feedback, the participants said that what they have learned was far more important than new products and techniques.

The weavers also stated that armed with their new knowledge of techniques, materials’ capacities and some adapted better tools, they can continue to extend the product ranges themselves and teach others how to do the same.

“The India basket programme has given me confidence to my creativity. Importantly, my personal growth through the travel and the time at NID has enabled me to take on stronger roles in my communities,” said Meseret Edeo, a mother of six who is one of the trainees from a small town called Debre Tsion in Ethiopia.

“I am so happy that I was part of this training and I know it will change our lives because now we know how to professionally weave,” Meseret told IANS.

“The training we took was in detail and we now even know the technical way of making baskets. Before, we only used to use three colours but now we can just buy the grass and paint it in a way we want, which would make the making easier and we will be able to make our own products with our taste and according to the customers’ orders,” she added.

(Hadra Ahmed can be contacted at hadraahmed@gmail.com)

IANS