The story starts in September 2008, when Newman and Potter drove across the Limpopo River at the dusty Beit Bridge border between South Africa and Zimbabwe, in search of what remained of a once thriving craft industry. The country was still reeling from a violent and bruising election, exacerbated by widespread famine and untenably high HIV rates. Their goal was to find opportunities to revive income for basket weavers in Zimbabwe through product innovation and regional and international marketing. It was the start of The New Basket Workshop.
Travelling through Zimbabwe the two women found impoverished villages where exhausted people were more concerned with scratching a mean living from small plots of land than in making crafts for vanished markets. Sales of Zimbabwe’s basketry had evaporated with the death of Zimbabwean tourism. The situation was worsened by Zimbabwe’s general economic meltdown and global record-breaking inflation levels. As Judith Ncube of Zimbabwe-based craft producer BHI (Bulawayo Home Industries) explained: “It’s better to sell tomatoes on the side of the road than to wait for someone to buy your basket. Your work is worthless by the time it is sold!”
The few products dribbling into regional markets had lost much of their aesthetic value. Almost inevitably, they had become stale and badly made after years of neglect. Loss of quality started a downward cycle, which saw traders demanding lower and lower prices for already discounted items.
Non-governmental organizations, often the force that steps in to address issues unattractive to the private sector, could not intervene. During the worst of the political repression in 2008, most NGOs had been banned from the country. Informal craft organisations and small businesses had been destroyed in the notorious “clean-up operation”, Operation Murambatsvina.
Nonetheless, in remote Binga in northwestern Zimbabwe, six hours by road from Bulawayo, Potter and Newman found that the Binga Craft Centre – due to the tenacity of director Matabbeki Mudenda -- had managed to keep its doors open. In Bulawayo, BHI was also limping along in the hope that one day things might improve.
By November 2008, Potter and Newman had organized workshops to improve quality and design. For most of the women it was the first time that they had attended a workshop around their products and skills. They were delighted to get to work on new products and completely understood how the markets had grown tired of the existing ones. Their response was immediate.
But design was only one facet of the workshop. More important perhaps for families whose cash incomes had been founded on crafts were the difficult issues of pricing and marketing. Rural women had long since stopped taking money in exchange for their work. With hyper inflation running at millions of percentage points a month, Zimbabwean currency lost its value immediately. Deep in the countryside -- far from electricity and any other services - it was pointless for them to keep track of the daily changing value of the local currency. Valueless notes in denominations of millions, even hundreds of trillions, were often seen blowing around homesteads. Even the family goats rejected the money by refusing to eat it.
Binga’s BaTonga weavers enthusiastically worked their palm weaving into new bowl (nsosa) and pot (nongo) shapes. The same keenness was applied to weaving beautiful Tonga patterns over metal frames, creating a sort of African-Missoni cover for stools and tables. Further south, in Bulawayo, women from diverse urban and rural backgrounds wove huge baskets from a wider list of materials - banana leaf, various grasses and reeds - using a variety of traditional Ndebele weaves.
Buyers were charmed, especially at the Tonga-weave-covered furniture and curvy pot shapes. At South Africa’s top creative expo, Design Indaba in Cape Town, trend and décor leaders picked out the new forms as the most exciting products in the show. Follow up orders are a satisfying acknowledgement of TNBW’s efforts to renew and redesign traditional products into objects with deep appeal to the contemporary market. Among the purchasers is US chain store Anthropologie.
Big orders have led to a fundamental test of production management. Rusty production management methods and shocking logistical challenges are not made easier by the fact that communications by email and text messaging work only sporadically. More effective is word-of-mouth, still it’s not easy when it takes a vehicle three hours by dirt roads and tracks to reach some of the far-flung groups.
But Newman and Potter see the Ford Foundation-funded pilot as successful beyond imagining. The best reward of all has been the weavers’ reaction. The income flowing into their communities is the first real cash they have seen for years. Watching the more stable South African Rand notes being paid over, some of the men have said that they, too, would like to learn to weave. This in a traditional society where, for generations, weaving has been women’s work! Baskets making change for the good is possible…basket weavers weaving bread baskets in more senses than one.
The satisfaction of being paid stable currency for their work is augmented by a sense that, politically speaking, the worst is past in Zimbabwe. Artisans and their communities are determined now to move forward out of the crisis that was thrust upon them.
The next steps for Potter and Newman? Despite its limited initial funding, The New Basket Workshop is planning to extend its activities in Zimbabwe - to bring in other weaving groups. The difficulties can be surmounted, and these two white South African women are committed to making the case for the baskets of Africa.
For more information about the project, see www.thenewbasketworkshop.org.za.