Prior to 2004, WomenCraft’s founder, Heidi Christ, had been working with the UNHCR and with Lutheran World Federation to assist Burundian and Rwandan refugees in Tanzania. She found that both local Tanzanian women and refugee women have no way to earn a livable wage, yet feel the pressures of taking care of their families. WomenCraft works to shepherd the region’s cultural history of basket weaving and optimize it as a modern business opportunity, giving women a safe working space to practice their craft and opportunity to earn a steady income.
Please tell us about WomenCraft.
In 2004, WomenCraft was designed to bring Rwandan and Burundian refugee women living in Tanzanian refugee camps and host-community women together into a social enterprise, allowing women from both populations a chance to earn a sustainable income. Although about 25% of our artisans are now returned refugees who have gone back to their home countries, they continue to be active weavers for WomenCraft. Their income has given them the means to buy land to live on and rebuild their lives. We hope that WomenCraft’s structure can offer a new model for bringing self-reliance to post-conflict communities.
WomenCraft is peace-centered; the working relationships between women reduce tensions between former refugees and refugee-hosting communities and build unity in a post-conflict region. WomenCraft is market-driven; our business model and product line are based on the results of a market feasibility study. We design, produce, market, and deliver beautiful products in order to operate effectively. Finally, WomenCraft is artisan powered; we have helped 24 artisan groups form and structure themselves. WomenCraft artisans serve as psycho-social support for their group members and they are recognized as community leaders.
What materials and techniques does WomenCraft specialize in?
WomenCraft is located in a beautiful, remote part of the world: Mafiga Matatu, the tri-border area of Tanzania, Rwanda, and Burundi. The area is defined by a verdant river valley, misty hills, and resilient communities. WomenCraft’s product line is designed to reflect the natural beauty of the land and people. Artisans take the traditional weaving technique of intricate coiling with fine grasses and elevate it by incorporating other natural grasses, banana bark, recycled materials, and vibrant local fabrics to create colorful modern designs with quality finishing.
Our artisans love their work and are proud to use a skill taught by their mothers or grandmothers to earn money and improve the quality of their lives. In a time when many young people are flocking from the villages to the big cities only to be disappointed with limited opportunities, our artisans are delighted to be able to pass on the basket-weaving tradition to their daughters as an income-generating opportunity.
Who is WomenCraft’s ideal customer?
WomenCraft’s targeted niche export market is high-volume, mid-high to high-end direct retailers, especially those who will maintain WomenCraft’s brand and help share our story. Demographically, our customers tend to be western, educated, and female, 25 years old and older, in a medium-to-high income bracket. Our customers make ethical purchases informed by their values of social and environmental awareness. They enjoy learning about authentic local cultures in far-flung parts of the world that they hope to visit one day.
While we’re a proud member of the World Fair Trade Organization (WFTO), we aim to create products that are attractive to the mainstream home décor market.
Can you tell us about the launch of your “artisan designed” products?
We hold an annual Artisan Design Competition, which serves two purposes: it builds our artisans’ capacity in product design and it generates fresh new ideas for our product line. First, we train our artisans in international design trends and then ask them to use their creative energy to submit entries for the competition. The results are incredible and inspiring!
Our new white recycled product line, which we just launched at Ambiente in Frankfurt, was inspired by the Artisan Design Competition. We had been intending to do a natural and recycled product line, so when we received an entry made from unraveled grain sacks we knew it was time. This technique recollects our history when refugees were confined to the camps. During this time, women were unable to harvest grasses for weaving, so they used one of the only raw materials available to them: recycled grain sacks.
What are WomenCraft’s goals for 2016-2017?
Looking ahead, we plan to continue our work on our natural and recycled line, experimenting more with natural dyes and incorporating recycled materials to add pops of color.
We will also make significant steps to ensure our leaders are assuming greater levels of responsibility in the enterprise. To make this happen, we are expanding our job shadow program. This allows artisan leaders to work alongside our local staff to gain the experience they need to fully participate in all aspects of WomenCraft’s operations. Though it’s quite an investment to take someone with limited formal education to the point that they are able to coordinate production planning, it is worth the effort, especially considering that our ultimate aim is that one day WomenCraft will be artisan-owned and operated.
For more info, please visit: http://womencraft.org