A collaboration between the National Institute of Design and various African nations is changing the lives of hundreds of rural women through improved design and marketing of traditional African basketry – now magically morphing into everything from beautiful lampshades to strong storage containers.
Two years ago, at the second India Africa Forum Summit in Addis Ababa, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced several collaborations between India and Africa. One such project, the first of its kind, was for the National Institute of Design (NID) to train rural craftswomen from various African nations to create and design traditional crafts with an eye to selling them in the international market.
With the motto “Crafting a Better World through Design”, this ambitious project focuses on empowering the artisans (currently from rural Zimbabwe, with four other countries in the pipeline) by using “design as the tool for capability building”.
Two groups of Zimbabwean artisans – from Honde Valley and Masvingo – went through three training programmes along with a team from NID. Two of these workshops were held in Zimbabwe and the third at the NID campus in Ahmedabad.
The NID team, led by Shimul Mehta Vyas, Activity Chairperson, Outreach Program, trained twenty-five women to use their traditional basketry skills to create new and innovative products such as hanging lamps, multi-coloured baskets in various shapes and unusual containers that have a global charm. The team used only locally available materials – fruit, tree bark and roots to create natural dyes for the colourful baskets.
The bamboo and sisal from the interiors of Zimbabwe have long been used for commercial purposes. While the bamboo was mostly used for packaging material, the sisal was used to create “crude trays” for local use. The learning curve was steep – from being used to creating flat weaves, the artisans were trained to create taller and wider objects like lamps and stools.
The gorgeous finished goods are contemporary in design but do not shy away from their roots – they are unabashedly African in design.
The NID recruited expert weavers, professors and design students to conduct the workshops in design and product development. The endeavour of the project is to give these products an international market and to break the poverty cycle of the region.
The participants were specifically chosen for their leadership qualities and they could, in turn, train hundreds of other women in the future, thus generating tremendous income-generating possibilities for rural Zimbabwean women. The group of twenty-five came to India in 2012 and visited various entrepreneurial organisations involved with hand-made design such as Fabindia and Sewa.
‘The New Basket Workshop’ is an African NGO that is involved with restructuring the lives of African women through basket weaving. It collaborates with South African designers to develop traditional basket-weaving techniques and sell products to high-end retailers.
Styles specific to various regions which were in danger of dying out are now being revived. An exhibition in Harare called ‘The Basket Case: Traditional meets Contemporary” (2010) received international media attention, thanks to the innovative designs.
Since the summit, the project has come a long way. ‘Basketry Dialogues: Connecting Cultures’, an exhibition showcasing the project and the products that the women have created was held in New Delhi.
For India, this has been a unique opportunity to influence lives in another nation, another culture. But for the women who had difficult lives and faded dreams, this project has been an eye-opener and an adventure that brings hope and the promise of a secure future.
Text By Chryselle D’Silva Dias