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Empowering Women Artisans In Africa: It’s Not Just a Basket

A plateau basket made by an artisan from sisal in Rwanda.

A sisal plateau basket made by a Rwandan artisan who received training through Aid for Africa member Indego Africa.

It looks like a basket—a beautiful blue basket.  But don’t be fooled–it’s food, electricity and school fees for a family in Rwanda.  It’s a mother’s hope for her children’s future.

What started with a simple idea—empower women who had survived Rwanda’s genocide to use their artisan skills to make a living and support their families—has become an empowerment program that puts women in charge of their own lives. Oh, yes, and enables them to provide for their families.

Following the Rwandan genocide, the country’s population was 70 percent female and its economy was in shambles. Women were left to rebuild the country, yet most lacked formal education and although they produced unique handicrafts, they struggled to gain access to international export markets. They were producing beautiful items, including sisal peace baskets and animal horn jewelry, but their products were sold primarily to the tourist trade in Rwanda.

In 2007 Aid for Africa member Indego Africa began working with 22 women from Rwandan cooperatives. The women were talented artisans, but they didn’t know how to build and expand their businesses or how to reach and compete in international markets. They needed to understand business cycles, their customers and quality control.

Indego Africa focused on providing artisans with access to markets, vocational training and education. The organization worked with the artisans to improve their technical skills and to teach them basic business skills.

Today some 800 women working in 25 artisan groups throughout Rwanda provide international boutiques and designers with a steady stream of quality products thanks to Indego Africa.

Mavis sells her bolga baskets through Indego Africa and now is able to send her children to school.

Mavis of Ghana sells her bolga baskets through Indego Africa and now is able to send her children to school.

Rwandan women artisans have taken their traditional skills and new knowledge to create “unique, beautiful items that appeal to the modern design-driven consumer,” according to Haley Donor, Indego Africa’s development and communications manager.

We started out as a handicraft company, we are now providing products for Nordstrom, ABC Home, and,” Donor said.

These items are also sold through Indego Africa’s online catalog.  All profits from sales are used to fund the organization’s ongoing artisan education and training programs.

This year the organization expanded their economic empowerment and education program to Ghana, West Africa, where in the poorest areas women earn less than 50 cents a day, according to Donor.  As in Rwanda, artisans produce a range of unique items that include kente cloth, rustic bolga straw baskets and handmade ceramic beads.

Indego Africa’s expansion into Ghana currently focuses on about 35 women artisans who are turning their passion for creating traditional products into futures for their children.  Mavis, who lives in the Kusami area, is one of them.

“. . . I want both my children to have a good education. With education, they can get good jobs, become leaders in society, and prosper in the world,” she said.

Mavis’s bolga baskets are not just baskets, they are her children’s future.