“See how many products there are here! We want the others in Bolgatanga to see these and we will teach them how to make them. This is much more than the cheap copies of our baskets from Vietnam.”
– Akabare Abentare, master weaver
The project in Ghana and Ethiopia was part of a larger programme funded by the Government of India. At the India Africa Forum Summit-II held in May 2011, India’s Government offered a major design intervention to women basket weavers in five countries in Africa. The project was implemented by the National Institute of Design (NID), India, under India’s Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion in the Ministry of Commerce and Industry, and was supported by the Ministry of External Affairs.
The project in Ghana aimed at reviving the traditional international markets for the Ghanian basketry crafts which used to be very big but had almost collapsed due to cut-price copies from Vietnam while in Ethiopia the aim was to establish new export markets for the newly developed craft products.
The experiences and insights gained during the Zimbabwe project, which was NID’s very first engagement with the craft sector in Africa, helped NID to formulate the methodology which was to be followed in Ghana and Ethiopia and the other two countries. A needs assessment survey and the first in-country workshop were conducted, in the northern Bolgatanga region, which has been one of Ghana’s center of basketry for many generations. A similar workshop was conducted with the basket weaving groups of Ethiopia. The field survey gave important insights about the existing levels of skills and the nature of products made by the artisans, the raw material resources, production infrastructure, and market linkages. One-on-one interactions with the artisans and the associated NGO’s or basket exporter groups, which formed the mainstay of the field study, enabled the NID team to gain valuable insights in respect of many aspects of basket making in the Bolgatanga region of Ghana and in a number of craft clusters spread across Ethiopia.
The soil around Bolgatanga region of Ghana is not fertile enough for extensive agricultural activities. The region has an erratic rainfall pattern and generally harsh weather conditions. The grass weavers, mainly women, from Ghana’s Upper East Region rely on basket sales as their sole source of cash income to supplement livelihoods based on subsistence farming. Their established markets for baskets had been flooded by cut-price copies from Vietnam. The result was that the Bolgatanga basket industry almost completely collapsed.
And when Bolgatanga baskets were recently reintroduced to international buyers, the market depressed the prices to rock bottom levels. The low prices paid to the weavers meant that quality was compromised. Producers were left wondering whether continuing to supply handcrafted items was worth their time at all.
After talking to various stake holders in the sector including government officials, NGO personnel, exporters and artisans themselves, going through basketry trade reports and conducting the first workshop, the design team felt that the although the artisans had very good weaving skills and the products had an established market in North America and Europe there has been little design diversification in the sector. And the existing product category was threatened with the cheap copies coming from Vietnam. In spite of the dexterity of the weavers they were only making baskets and fans as products. These could not compete with the cut-price copies from Vietnam and were not generating as much revenue as could be earned from producing other kinds of high-end lifestyle products, which could be made using the same materials and techniques, and these new products would not have to face competition with the Vietnamese copies. So it was decided that the second and third workshops would be focused on design diversification generating an entire new range of products. Considering the complaints about the colours of the products fading away over time,the raw material and dyes were sent to Ahmedabad Textile Industry’s Research Association (ATIRA) and accordingly a new and refined process of dyeing was established. The leather workers from Ghana were also given training in leather detailing and trims and each was presented with customized tool kit developed for the same. They were shown how through systematic methods of prototype development, the use of technical drawings, jigs, molds and dies, that their products could be adapted to meet the design and consistency demands of the higher value segment and the also the production can happen faster. The weavers traveled to India for the second workshop at the National Institute of Design and the last workshop of product development was conducted back in Ghana at the Aid to Artisans Ghana (ATAG) premises. On their visit to India the artisans were accompanied by representatives from Ghana’s Centre for National Culture in Bolgatanga, a basket exporter, the director and a senior staff member from craft NGO Aid to Artisans Ghana, and an academic from the Department of Integrated Rural Art and Industry of the esteemed Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology. The main purpose of this workshop was to align the training received by the Ghanaian weavers with the mandate of related stakeholders, such as their NGOs, marketing experts and government officials. Moreover the workshop exposed them to some of the different craft models existing in India. They met and interacted with selected craft enterprises, which helped them to develop an idea of craft development in India.
A parallel and similar approach was followed for the product development in Ethiopia except for the fact that the Ethiopian basketry craft sector did not have an established export market. The research including one of the reports by WIPO (World Intellectual Property Organisation) suggested that among the country’s limited tradable goods, coffee alone generates about 60 percent of Ethiopia’s total export earnings. Indeed, coffee is closely tied to the culture and society of Ethiopia and an estimated 15 million people are directly or indirectly involved in the Ethiopian coffee industry. So it seemed quite a good idea if we can somehow club these basketry products with the biggest export product category i.e. Coffee. The newly developed baskets were proposed for the outer packaging of coffee beans or to be sold as gift baskets at Starbucks outlets and their online store, and other major importers.
At the qualitative level, the workshop greatly succeeded in developing new design and technical skills and also upgrading the existing weaving skills of the weavers. It is encouraging to mention that the artisans who trained in India started sharing and teaching the new skills attained by them to the other weavers in their communities generating a multiplier effect. The Training of Trainers’ approach too seems to have worked to an advantage of the trainers assuming a leading role in the process of product development and mentoring other artisans to upgrade their skills. The products developed at the culmination of the third workshop were exhibited at the Aid to Artisans Ghana in Accra on 13th & 14th May, 2014. The main reason for the exhibition was to share the project’s outcomes as well its methodology with craft experts, craft enterprises, NGOs, policy makers and diplomats. The key beneficiaries of the training programme including the artisans attended the exhibition where they shared their views about the learning and rich experience gained during the course of the workshop. Since the exhibition ATAG has received several orders for the newly manufactured products. Now the project moves into the next phase of developing a brand identity for the initiative and the products developed in Ghana. As the newly developed products in Ghana cater to both high end and middle market segments and don’t have to compete with copies from Vietnam the exporters have already started getting orders for the newly developed products. The local organisations like ATAG and exporters are taking care of the quality control and completion of orders on time.
and then we celebrated