Since we started trading in Africa over a decade ago, we’ve expanded our artisan network far beyond Africa's Swahili coast, often with the help of development organizations like Aid to Artisans (ATA)
and the West African Trade Hub (WATH)
. ATA allocates development funds to artisans around the world in the form of small business grants and cross-cultural business education and exposure, and the WATH is an African-based arm of US-AID that works specifically to promote international trade in West Africa.
When ATA opened a door into Senegal
in November 2007, Leslie happily accepted the opportunity to check out and chime in on the state of craftsmanship in this West African nation.
Leslie spent a week in and around Dakar
, Senegal’s capital city. She visited craft markets and artisan groups, and quickly discovered that a week was far too little time to take in Senegal’s impressive artisan panorama. However, one item hooked her and wouldn't let go: beautiful African basket and laundry hampers
woven from a local grass and plastic strips recycled from used prayer mats.
Before she left Senegal, Leslie met a Peace Corps volunteer named Pete, who helped make an order of these baskets and hampers possible by serving as liaison between Swahili and the six villages where our first order of baskets were woven. With the help of a few other key individuals, Pete helped coordinate 100 women in six villages to produce 1500 hampers, baskets and trivets.
WOLOF BASKET WEAVING
This coil style of basket weaving has been practiced in Senegal for generations, and Wolof girls learn weaving technique from their mothers and aunts. Traditionally, Wolof women crafted baskets by binding njodax, a thick local grass, with thin strips of palm frond. Palm fronds were difficult to work and very hard on the hands of the weavers, so about 20 years ago an anonymous creative party introduced large needles and strips of plastic purchased from a mat factory in Dakar. This simple change in material dramatically reduced discomfort during the weaving process. Today’s Wolof baskets reflect this merger of traditional crafting techniques with contemporary materials.
Among the Wolof, basket weaving is specifically a woman’s craft. In many rural villages across Senegal, the men of the family must work in major cities or abroad, and send back money to the family. In some cases, this income alone is not enough to fully meet the family’s needs, so the women of the family supplement that income by weaving baskets.
Wolof women work basket weaving into their day between other household duties. Swahili orders are welcome, as baskets otherwise have to be sold locally, where inconsistent profits are further reduced by the time and cost of transporting even just a few baskets to the local market.
Cooperative spirit is a hallmark of the artisans we’ve met and invited to become a part of the Swahili network thus far, so we weren’t surprised to find the same spirit alive in Senegal. Wolof women work in association, proud of the consistency in their traditional craftsmanship and their ability to help stabilize their communities with a traditional skill.
EXPANDING HER REACH
Swahili’s unspoken part of the deal is to find customers in the U.S. and abroad, expanding each rural woman’s reach into the world market far further than her feet could ever carry her. We seek thriving, long-term relationships with African artisans, as consistent orders increase stability in families and communities and meet the growing demand for Swahili products.
The Jan/Feb 2010 issue of ELLE Decor featured Wolof laundry hampers in a highly coveted What's Hot layout. There's a beautiful image of two Wolof hampers nestled in the pages of every magazine distributed, a gracious gift to both Swahili Imports and the growing community of Wolof weavers. The feature has already helped secure homes for many baskets in the U.S., Canada and Great Britain.
COMMUNITY AND COMMERCE
Across Africa, artisan associations provide a safety net for individual crafters. By working together, artisans can produce larger orders for export, better negotiate and stabilize pricing and apply proceeds generated to projects that benefit members.
Swahili works in cooperation with the Association And Suxali Sunu Gokh. In Wolof, the name means work together to make our villages flourish
. The association organizes orders for craftspeople in 26 rural Senegalese villages, facilitates fulfillment and artisan payment and helps apply a portion of profits to education, reforestation and community betterment projects that benefit all member villages.
Over 100 weavers from six villages in the association worked on Swahili's first order. It took two containers to hold our second order, so even more weavers were able to help craft hampers, small baskets and trivets to meet the rising demand for their handiwork.
Since 2007, Swahili has worked to enhance a relationship with Senegalese artisans. We've hired a permanent export agent to orchestrate orders, communicate with the association and individual artisans, coordinate transport of baskets from rural sites to port, provide quality control and dispense fair and timely payment to the ladies for their work. With an export agent in place, Swahili can continue to enrich our selection of modern Senegalese crafts and increase positive exchanges between Senegal's artisans and the world.