WomenCraft: Building Business out of Baskets

Imagine you were uprooted from your home, separated from your family – forced to flee not only war, but in some cases, genocide. You find yourself on foreign soil, with no money, no food and no way to support yourself.

Enter WomenCraft. WomenCraft was formed in 2007 to help groups of refugee women in rural Tanzania become successful fair-trade entrepreneurs.

Where WomenCraft Works

WomenCraft focuses its work in Ngara, one of six small districts in the Kagera Region in north western Tanzania. For the past two decades, the region has received a steady influx of refugees – nearly 300,000 in total – fleeing civil wars in nearby Burundi and Rwanda. Because they are so far from the capital city of Dar es Salaam and the tourist trade of Mt. Kilimanjaro, residents of Ngara are some of the poorest in the country. Most families live on less than $150 USD per month, or 41 cents per day, which they earn from subsistence farming.

kitwaro basket

You may think that with numbers like those, becoming a small businesswoman would be the last thing on the minds of these women. You would be wrong. In fact, building upon a cultural skill passed down for generations, these women are becoming heads of household in record numbers.

What WomenCraft Does

From its inception, WomenCraft was based around fair-trade business practices with a strong emphasis on environmental sustainability.

WomenCraft sees these women through all aspects of the business process. They provide the weavers a space in which to practice their craft. Then they help them find fair-trade markets in which to sell their products. Along the way, the women also learn practical business skills, such as how to negotiate prices on raw materials for making the baskets, as well as how to set fair market prices for when they take the finished product to market.

WomenCraft doesn’t just provide business skills training for these potential entrepreneurs. They also provide them with other programs to help ensure their success, such as: early childhood education, medical care, health education seminars, life skills training, micro-loans, and other forms of financial assistance.

maua basketWhy Basket Weaving?

WomenCraft artists create handcrafted products that are rooted in their culture. Basket weaving was a family tradition, a craft passed down from older generations of women to the younger generations. Says WomenCraft director Maria Ellis, “women who made high quality baskets were sought after as brides, therefore women would take particular care in becoming high quality weavers.” It was something women did to fill a household need. Baskets were used to carry and store food, particularly nuts, seeds, flour and meat. They were also used as gifts, or to bring goods to market.

Now they are being used as a way for these weavers to become economically self-sufficient – which they are doing in record numbers.

For example, a girl in one of the eight artisan groups WomenCraft works with recently lost her mother, who died in childbirth. The girl, who was only fifteen years old, had several siblings and wanted to learn the art of basket weaving to maintain some source of income for her family. From working with WomenCraft, she was able to master the traditional art of basket weaving and gain the business skills she needed to sell her baskets. She is now able to earn a small income to help support her family.

Twifashe groupOr take the example of another WomenCraft group made up of 22 women who are working together as a sort of basket weaving collective. The women weave baskets from a particularly complicated pattern, which makes them more valuable at market. By working together, and pooling their resources, they have been able to drastically increase the standard of living for all families in the group. They have even opened up a shared bank account to help save for harder times, or to use as micro-credit for members of the group.

How You Can Help

WomenCraft was originally founded with the support of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, however when the UNHCR decided to instead help repatriate refugees in the Ngara camps, WomenCraft lost a significant portion of their funding. A number of public and private sources have stepped in to help, and WomenCraft does make some money from the sale of baskets, but now more than ever, they need financial support.

You can learn more about WomenCraft by watching their video on YouTube.

Consider giving a gift to WomenCraft by visiting their website, or consider purchasing one of their products.

Image Credit: CJ Lemky

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