AfricanCraft.com Generating Pride and Publicity for Africa's Artisans:
A Case Study of Mohair Weavers in Lesotho
Written by Siiri Morley
and Manthabiseng Rammalane
Project Background & Introduction
This project is a collaboration on the parts of two separate organizations: the Elelloang Basali Weavers in Lesotho, and Africancraft.com, a website initiative in the United States. To begin, the Africancraft.com website was launched in 1999 by Louise Meyer and John Nash. Their paths crossed unexpectedly in the early 1990s due to their mutual friendship with Bobbo Ahiagble, an Ewe Kente weaver from Ghana. Meyer and Ahiagble worked together both in Washington DC and Cote D'Ivoire on educational weaving initiatives. Nash encountered Ahiagble while living in his village as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ghana and returned to the United States with a weaving for Meyer from Ahiagble. With the encouragement of Meyer, Nash's interest in weaving developed and the pair began exploring ways of documenting and marketing Ahiagble's work. In 1996, they created a website for him and his weaving brothers entitled DaviLojo. Seeing the great diversity of art and craft in Africa and the invisibility of the artisans, they decided to widen their horizons to incorporate all of Africa, and thus, in 1999 Africancraft.com was born. Their mission states the following:
We wish to provide a venue for all African artisans to showcase their work. Additionally we will showcase product designers whose work incorporates African materials or designs; and will
provide information on books, articles and educational materials of interest. In the great linking tradition of the Web, we hope that this site will link together disparate sources of information - from the people who
work in the traditional crafts and those who are influenced by them.
This site aims to recognize and give publicity to the talent of African artisans and to support efforts of fair trade, sustainable development, and women's empowerment; and additionally to instil pride and hope in disadvantaged craftspeople. As Meyer states, "The website works as a meeting place between artisans, artists, designers, shops and educators... It has social, environmental and financial benefits."
Elelloang Basali (Be Aware Women) is a women's weaving business that specializes in fine hand-woven mohair bags, rugs, tablemats and wall hangings. In response to Lesotho's crisis of high unemployment, expensive school fees, women's economic dependence on men, and household food shortages, they came together to create an alternative for themselves. In 1997, fourteen women registered Elelloang as a partnership, a business that is run by a committee of partners, or (as they call themselves) members. Despite initial financial difficulties, the seven members of Elelloang are now providing work to over forty women, who in turn support hundreds of children. This employment is crucial, as the prevalence of female-headed households is high and employment options are scarce. Many Basotho men work as migrant laborers in South Africa and never return or send home remittances of money, or come home to die of AIDS-related illnesses.
Elelloang has had since its beginnings serious difficulties with publicity, communication, and the ability to share their work with overseas customers. Due in part to the efforts of Siiri Morley, a United States Peace Corps Volunteer in Lesotho since 2001, the work of the Elelloang Basali Weavers and Africancraft.com came together. Morley began working with the weavers as a community economic development volunteer through the Peace Corps. The United States Peace Corps is a grassroots development initiative that places American volunteers in communities throughout the world for two-year contracts. Volunteers aim to share skills and build capacity within various sectors of society, including: education, public health, environment, agriculture, and community economic development.
By November 2002, Nash had established a website for the weavers that included a portfolio and detailed information on the group. This site has greatly supported Elelloang Basali's efforts in building their export capacity and, in turn, has led to the success of a number of other efforts in grassroots sustainable development. Elelloang's benefits from their partnership with Africancraft.com are indicative of the great potential and vision of the site, which is helping dozens of individuals and groups throughout the African continent. Their efforts are enormous in pushing African handicrafts into a global forum and helping them receive international recognition.
"What makes us happy so much is the customer that we now have from overseas and all over the world because of your web set. So for that reason our tapestries are known and bought by so many customers and we also, are families with the world."
- Members of Elelloang in their thank you letter to John Nash.
When one conjures up an image of Africa what comes to mind? Is it war, famine, disease, hopelessness and despair? How many people would imagine very opposing images of hope, art, and strength? How many would additionally think of the many artisans spread throughout Africa sustaining their families, communities and culture through the creation of handicrafts?
Throughout the African continent, people are manifesting their dreams for a better life by putting their determination and skilled hands to work. Multitudes of unsung heroes exist: artisans who are creating work in poor communities, sending their children to school, paying for much-needed doctor's visits, and, often, maintaining traditions and creating pride in local culture. Perhaps more importantly, they are a great source of hope for communities with few jobs, poor health and deteriorating environments. These individuals, quietly and humbly pursuing their work, are true catalysts for grassroots change.
Yet, these artisans are often invisible and disconnected-- living in remote areas with little infrastructure and communication. Many artisans sit in their communities pondering the future of their craftwork. They are convinced that someone must want their work, but are unsure of how to find them. Tired of corporate exploitation, increasing numbers of consumers are leaning towards fairly traded items - those that support the producers directly and encourage environmental sustainability. They want products that are representative of cultural traditions and contribute to poverty alleviation. These same people are interested in buying and learning about these handicrafts, but live oceans away.
Africancraft.com is one effort that is trying to help bridge the gap between the two worlds of artisans and western consumers. This innovative and original website showcases the work of craftspeople, artists, and designers and additionally hosts retail catalogs, all with an African theme. A cohesive and easily navigable site, it brings together the work of Ghanaians, Nigerians, Zimbabweans, Basotho and Americans, to name a few. Weavings, beads, sculptures and paintings are displayed proudly next to photos of the creators.
Unlike so many online craft venues that sell anonymous items disconnected from their local context, Africancraft.com is not about consumerism alone. It also celebrates and recognizes the arts and artisans of Africa. Providing full recognition to each individual and group, they seek to stimulate collaboration between diverse groups, giving artisans the publicity they need to receive invitations to trade shows, conferences and workshops. Africancraft.com gives visibility to the skills and innovation of African artisans and shows people throughout the world an alternative view of Africa.
Only a few years old, Africancraft.com is today surprisingly well known and comprehensive. Each link leads you to multitudes of information, such as online catalogs, details on traditional designs, related articles and books, and slideshows of artisans at work. On one of these rich pages, under Craftspeople you will find a link to the Elelloang Basali Weavers, a group that Morley is proud to work with in Lesotho.
As volunteer with Elelloang, one of Morley's main roles has been to help build capacity in terms of product development, marketing, and exporting of their weavings. With few overseas orders and limited local sales, the weavers wanted to, in their own words, "find the market," but were unsure of how to specifically pursue and locate these abstract overseas clients.
In addition to working with the weavers on local marketing initiatives, Morley began to look into online resources and recalled Africancraft.com (which she had first discovered while researching Ghanaian crafts prior to her visit to Ghana in 2001). Interested in the site, she contacted Nash and from there the two projects joined hands. After seeing their work, he generously offered to establish a website for the weavers for free. By November 2002, after sending Nash stacks of photos and information, their site was running and business began to change.
The Elelloang Basali link now includes a homepage with introductory information, a portfolio with over twenty weavings that customers can order, a photo gallery of images of the weavers at work, their price list, a map, and Elelloang's contact information. The site also includes a mailing list, which aims to document consumer interest in the product. Nash hopes that these lists will help convince vendors to carry the products, based on the demonstrated interest. Yet, any interested parties can email or write to the group directly with queries and orders.
Put simply, their new "webset" (as they call it) is extraordinary. A look at their humble beginnings and diverse range of work helps put this achievement into perspective. The website helps Elelloang provide much more than an income for its employees. As the center also serves as a supportive women's community, the site assists them in providing their weavers with interest-free loans and money for medical visits in times of need. The members are also supporting orphans of deceased weavers.
Further proof of Elelloang's investment in their employees is their commitment to keeping their workforce healthy. After a series of tragic losses of key employees, the members realized that business success is dependent upon good health. With a shockingly high HIV prevalence, the chance of skilled workers dying is high. As health continues to deteriorate, fatigue, financial and emotional stress, and a general decrease in efficiency take a great toll on the business. In response to this, the members have coordinated public health and HIV/AIDS speakers, distributed condoms, and have encouraged HIV testing with their employees. They are now branching into home-based care in their communities and have made frequent home visits to the homes of weavers who are ill.
Still, the success of Elelloang is reliant on their ability to get their high-quality weavings into the hands of customers. Without the Internet, this was an enormous challenge. One of the major difficulties was their inability to quickly share products and prices with foreign customers. Every time the weavers wanted to solicit new customers, they had to amass and send a complicated assortment of items, as their budget is too small to print a catalogue. This process was tedious and allowed for many mistakes. It also drained Elelloang of time and money, as they had to travel to the capital city to make expensive photo reprints. Often customers were dissuaded by the prospect of a jumble of photos and sometimes informational packets took months to arrive. Thus, Elelloang pursued the connection with Africancraft.com in order to gain more visibility and to establish an online catalogue, which would allow the business and its projects to prosper and grow.
Results of Africancraft.com's Initiatives
Elelloang's website was created just over one year ago, yet they have already seen tremendous, tangible benefits. The objectives they had in working with Africancraft.com were met and exceeded, as the site has led to connections never foreseen. It is clearly advantageous for such a small group to be linked to well-travelled site such as Africancraft.com.
Since November 2002, they have received high praise for the site. The weavers have received inquiries and orders from individuals and shops around the world, including Sweden, Lebanon, the United States, Canada, Japan, South Africa and the United Kingdom. Most of these contacts came from people browsing the web who otherwise would have never known about the group. Africancraft.com has also facilitated new orders with Elelloang's old customers in Namibia, Scotland, South Africa and the United States, raising their confidence in the group and making it easier for them to see new designs.
One such contact is a potential collaboration with a South African performing artist in New York City who is looking to sell handicrafts to benefit AIDS orphans in South Africa. Another example is the connection with a South African website Alternate African Art (www.alternateafricanart.co.za). Recently established, this site aims to help Southern African groups market their work. After seeing the weavers' site, they contacted them about a posting, confident that Elelloang was capable of fulfilling and shipping orders. Alternate African Art will act as an agent for them, taking orders and a cut of the payment.
In Elelloang's recent quest to build their new solar-powered tin-can weaving center they have found donor assistance to be quite helpful, and this assistance is easier to attract with their website. The site confirms that Elelloang is a well-established, serious group and they thus stand out among applicants. Photos of weavers give a face to the otherwise anonymous beneficiaries. Likewise, with visitors to the workshop and potential customers, they have seen that the site gives confidence in the groups' capabilities and makes people feel good about their purchases.
Due to their web exposure, the weavers have received numerous emails informing them of various international trade shows. Although most are too expensive for their budget, they are beginning to think bigger about sales promotion due to their heightened exposure to exhibitions. It is clear that trade fairs keep Africancraft.com's artisans on a targeted mailing list.
The website has also proven useful, if not crucial, for attendance in international conferences. A Lesotho weaver from one of Elelloang's partner businesses has attended an AGOA (African Growth and Opportunity Act) conference for handicraft development in Washington DC in December 2003. She represented the six weaving businesses (including Elelloang) which compose the Lesotho Women's Mohair Exporters Association and prior to her departure the organizers asked for a website address. As the group is recently established, they have not yet developed promotional materials, let alone a website. Elelloang's site on Africancraft.com was able to serve as a sample site on behalf of the entire association. Their website inspires additional confidence in the group, as it confirms their ability to market themselves and follow-up with customers.
In October 2003, at another conference in DC organized by the Kellogg Foundation entitled "Fading Cultures, Emerging Innovations", Elelloang's website actually created quite a bit of contention. An urban Mosotho woman was chosen to represent Lesotho's crafts at the exhibition and asked one of Elelloang's weavers to come and demonstrate mohair weaving. Under the impression that they were a desperate, ignorant group, she decided to work with them, as she thought she could easily take control of prices and marketing. Once she discovered the website she became concerned, as she realized Elelloang has much more independence than she had anticipated. Despite some existing problems with the agent, the site gave the weavers increased confidence in demanding a fair working relationship with the agent and made them even more determined to continue developing their own business capacity. It also taught the agent not to underestimate the capabilities of determined and savvy, even if uneducated, village women.
One of Africancraft.com's goals is to portray the richness of traditional African designs. Elelloang's work stands out with its use of Basotho Litema designs. Originally, Litema patterns were drawn into the walls and floors of traditional Basotho homes (made from stone, dung and clay, with thatched roofs). As Litema becomes more scarce, due to the proliferation of cement block and tin roof homes, Elelloang has incorporated these designs into their portfolio. Africancraft.com has helped document and celebrate these designs and will soon be home to detailed information and photos depicting Litema. This is an important contribution for the Basotho cultural heritage.
Another one of the Africancraft.com founders' goals is to give school children in industrialized countries up-to-date and accurate information on African artists and artisans. Through Elelloang's link, this goal has been achieved. An American second grade teacher in Massachusetts, who Morley corresponds with regularly, uses the site to use in her class to supplement their annual study of Africa. In addition, American teachers in the Washington DC area have put the site to use as a research tool to learn about African art. It has also served as an easy way for tourists and expatriates to reconnect with their time in Lesotho and share their experiences with friends and family.
The site has helped Elelloang save time and money in soliciting new customers and support. As one weaver commented, "We used to send so many photos to our potential customers, usually more than twenty to each person. This took a lot of time and cost us a lot of money. We had to find the negatives, see how many photos we needed, and go to the capital [over 1 hour away] to print them. It was easy to make mistakes while labelling these photos. We would become confused. But it is better now because we can tell customers about the website and send a few sample photos."
The site has also supported the potential of another upcoming project - Elelloang's own computer and email account. In the next few months the weavers will purchase equipment and establish an Internet connection and email account in their office. The website has reinforced the importance of online communication and has increased the members' commitment to becoming self-sufficient in this form of communication. Africancraft.com has generously supported them with the donation of a digital camera, which will further enhance the weavers' ability to sustain and update the site.
"We are very proud about the website because everyone can see our work and we have received so many letters. We are very proud about John Nash and Louise Meyer. We don't have words big enough to speak about them. We were surprised that they didn't want any money to make the site; they only wanted to help us. We trust that the website will help Elelloang grow more and more." - Members of Elelloang Basali
Perhaps the most important result of the site is one that is difficult to quantify, that of increased pride. In Lesotho, weaving is often seen as a low-status occupation, despite the fact it is sustaining families and takes great skill. Africancraft.com and the enthusiasm of Meyer and Nash have shown Elelloang that their work is worthy of great praise and should be shared internationally. For the women to see themselves online in a respectful and beautiful format is an extraordinary thing, as they feel that the website is like television or an international film about Elelloang. The significance of the site and all its future potential overwhelms them and they all agree that Meyer and Nash are the best friends that Elelloang has ever had. Without the site, Elelloang would struggle for visibility; with it they are linked to a wider network of customers and African art enthusiasts.
The impact of the site is extraordinary and far-reaching, as seen by the example of Elelloang Basali's association with the site, one of many groups assisted.
The success of Africancraft.com is largely due to two things: Firstly, their free online "bulletin-board" philosophy. The site is committed to a realistic portrayal of African art and craft and they have realized that a service charge would hinder this goal, as many craftspeople have few financial resources. The second key to their success is the fact that Meyer and Nash are dedicated to providing full disclosure on each group. This is empowerment. Putting a face and name next to the product makes an enormous difference to customers and artisans alike. Artisans deserve to be respected for their work, yet many websites and catalogues showcase dangling items with no context or credit for the producers.
Africancraft.com's dedication to free services and providing detailed information on the producers instils pride and hope in the artisans. This is so important, as many young people throughout the world view handicraft traditions as "low" work and attempt to seek out jobs that they see as prestigious (mainly office jobs). In Lesotho, many people would rather be unemployed than weave, as generations of "educated" people have been teaching them to work for others, not for themselves. Thus, this pride is crucial for success and it allows Africancraft.com to establish long-term relationships based on mutual respect.
With regards to Elelloang's work, they have learned many lessons in working with Africancraft.com. Necessary to their work is the understanding that exporting success cannot be found through a website alone. There are many factors at play. Thus, for Elelloang, keeping the project flexible and multi-faceted has been essential. In addition to pursuing the development of a website, Morley has been working on building the weavers' exporting capacity. This has been a lengthy process - helping the women become comfortable with fulfilling orders, communicating in English, checking quality and shipping weavings. All these skills are necessary to exporting and without them a website would do little to improve the business.
In addition, the weavers have known that a convenient and financially sustainable email account is necessary to working with international customers, few of whom have patience for "snail mail". After looking into local email options and finding none, the weavers solicited funds from the United States Embassy's Ambassador's Self-Help Program to purchase a computer and printer, and to subsidize the first year's Internet connection. An Internet connection in their office will ease communication with customers and will provide access to online fair trade resources and catalogues. In short, it will connect them to the wider world and enable them to sustain sales connections.
They will soon be purchasing this equipment and commence training. As Morley is responsible for their current Yahoo account, their own email account will make their work sustainable and create a direct link between the website, customers and the weavers. Without this communication gap resolved, the full benefits of the website would be impossible to realize.
Another lesson learned is the importance for any business or project to look for untraditional methods of making the work sustainable. There are many factors that lead to long-term success. In the case of Elelloang, this has meant incorporating health education for employees, with a focus on HIV/AIDS. How crucial this is in a country with an estimated HIV 31% prevalence among adults aged 15 to 49 (UNAIDS 2001). Also with an eye to health, the partners have plans to create a permaculture nutrition garden at the worksite and have learned how to keep themselves healthy using food as medicine. Additional plans are in the works for the creation of solar box cookers to use at the new tin-can weaving center. These hand-made cookers will help save both time and money to cook and dye mohair wool. Elelloang's partners are thinking creatively about diverse ways to support and sustain their work.
One often overlooked consideration in development projects is the significance of having passionate and determined people leading a project. Africancraft.com and Elelloang stand where they are today because they followed their dreams and found ways to succeed despite numerous obstacles. Without the love of their work and conviction that they could find success, neither group would exist today. No amount of money, tools or education will create change if motivated individuals are absent.
Yet, perhaps the most significant lesson from the collaboration between Africancraft.com and the weavers is the importance of exploring all options and looking for links between diverse parties. The situation with this project is ideal. Its success has come from hard-working, talented weavers and a team in the United States with web experience and a global perspective, linked by a dedicated volunteer who is comfortable in both worlds and has found common ground between the two. All of us have a large vision for our work and our inspired energy has been contagious. These types of unlikely partnerships are crucial for success in a global economy that discourages such small business initiatives. There are many challenges ahead, no doubt, but creativity and openness are needed to find viable and sustainable development solutions.
The Elelloang Basali Weavers are a model of community economic development for their ability to address the many poverty-related issues facing women in Lesotho. Due to their work with HIV and AIDS, interest-free loans and orphan care, solar electricity and tin-can building, permaculture ideas and upcoming plans for expanding the number of employees and their salaries, they have far exceeded the expectations of development organizations. There is little optimism about the viability of handicraft groups in Lesotho, as many fall apart once independent from foreign owners or funding. But Basotho women have always run Elelloang and the members are determined to prove all the skeptics wrong.
Elelloang is already becoming an inspirational catalyst of change. Rural village groups take heart in Elelloang's successes, seeing that uneducated Basotho women can determine their own future. The weavers have trained dozens of women throughout the country in spinning and weaving with mohair wool. In addition, the weavers are ambitious in their determination to reduce the prevalence of HIV, assist sick individuals, and reduce HIV stigma and discrimination. Their business, due to its financial viability has proven to be an ideal community for education and activism. In fact, Elelloang will soon be creating their own HIV and AIDS support group and hope to be doing home-based care training in their villages soon. About one third of the women have been tested for HIV in the past year. This is extraordinary coming from a group that two years ago wasn't convinced that HIV existed. These changes will continue to empower the women and will keep them healthy to maintain their skills and help the business grow.
Thus, without realizing it, Africancraft.com has not only helped Elelloang improve their sales, they have also supported women's economic empowerment, increased education, public health and HIV prevention initiatives, alternative building structures and solar energy, permaculture, improved nutrition, interest-free credit, the revival of indigenous Basotho designs, a strong women's support center, and a powerful example of truly grassroots, self-initiated sustainable development. Africancraft.com has provided the link to the world that Elelloang needs to sustain their project in the future.
Africancraft.com has received similar feedback from diverse beneficiaries around the globe. According to Meyer, many artisans on the site have said that the site is their only source of publicity, advertisement and hope. The UGAN Cooperative of weavers in Cote D'Ivoire has commented they would have little success without their online catalogue, especially due to the current absence of tourists in the country. In Mali, artisans have expressed that the site has given them visibility, and in one case, with Maoua Kone (a puppet maker, painter, and theater teacher), her association with Africancraft.com led to an invitation to facilitate workshops in Switzerland.
Further, Haoua Cheick Traore, from Mali, was able to build a virtual shop on the website (African Creations), and due to her success she has been able to create a real shop and has been invited to give lectures on being a successful African businesswoman. She also won an award from the Women's Business Center in 2002 for women's entrepreneurship, where Hillary Clinton handed her the award. None of these connections could have been made without the publicity she received from the site.
Africancraft.com has also benefited designers, American and African alike, and many of them use the Africancraft.com website on their business cards. A quilt made by Hollis Chatelain in the U.S. (entitled "New Day") was discovered on the site and was reproduced as a poster for a cultural program in London, which aimed to promote tolerance in the community. E.G. Carmen Eliam, a jewelry maker from Cote D'Ivoire, has been able to build up her career and lead workshops due to her association with Africancraft.com.
As evident, this site is assisting with the career and sales development of dozens of groups and individuals, but it doesn't aim to stop there. As the mission states, the founders plan to expand
the website to become "a venue for all African artisans to showcase their work". They also plan to shift the focus of the online retail shops away from managing sales directly. Instead, this section will become more focused on
advertising with direct links to vendor sites. As Nash says, "This is more in line with our main goal which is to be a web portal for African art and crafts, and will allow us to get away from being seen as a shop." These upcoming
developments have enormous significance for global handicraft development, as no other such forum exists.
Africancraft.com's unique role in handicraft development has been recognized in several international forums. In June 2000, they were recognized as a finalist by the Stockholm Challenge Award for, in Meyer's words, "being a pioneering website giving exposure to those who benefit little from the Internet." Africancraft.com was invited to exhibit at the UN Conference on Social Development +5 in Geneva in 2000, and CoopAmerica featured the site as an innovative site that promoted fair trade, sustainable development and a level playing field. They have attended the Association of Women in Development Conference held in Mexico in 2002, to speak about how the site benefits African women artisans. "Craft News", published by the Crafts Center, has also profiled the sites' work. Clearly, Africancraft.com is breaking ground in a powerful way.
Artisans around the world are in need of support to sustain and evolve their traditional crafts. In a world where lifestyles and material goods are becoming increasingly homogenous and industrialized, handicrafts have the ability to give meaning to consumerism and, at the same time, sustain cultural identities and support struggling communities. Yet, historically most handicraft development projects have been inappropriate, as they are planned with a top-down approach. True development means empowering people and building capacity. In order for successful handicraft development to have a chance of success, the artisans must have a voice and be the project managers. Power and representation has to be in the hands of the grassroots "beneficiaries" instead of distant development agents.
A balance can successfully be met between artisans' and consumers' needs and desires if projects are pursued appropriately and carefully. Often, this balance has been found through the support and encouragement of fair trade ideals. An increasing number of Western consumers are leaning towards responsible consumerism and the marketability of fair trade shops is increasing. Africancraft.com is providing a forum for communication and discussion and is opening the way for artisans, development organizations, and customers to find their own solutions. They are humble in their efforts, yet they have created a venue for empowerment, fair trade, sustainable development, and links between two often distant worlds.