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The phrase ‘Trade, not Aid’ has gained popularity recently (and has been actively encouraged by the WTO). There has been a clear shift in global development policy. Why the change?
- For many years, aid has flowed into developing countries. This approach seems to have created a culture of dependency by the recipients. Research conducted by multiple sources have come to similar conclusions.
- Grass roots entrepreneurship projects provide significantly more sustainable solutions. Nowadays consumers are urged to support development through the purchase of products originating from developing countries.
A Collaborative Process
Historically, Kenya certainly has always been known for its spirit of entrepreneurialism. Also, Kenyans have a ‘can do’ attitude. Kenya has a well established informal sector of artisan workers, known locally as Jua Kali. (Kiswahili for ‘Hot Sun’).
- Baobab aims to create high quality products through collaboration of grass roots artisans both internally and externally. Additionally Baobab tries to use locally and ethically sourced raw materials.
- Kenya is certainly not known for its factory cattle farming. In fact, most Kenyan leathers are from pastoral herds. By only purchasing locally sourced leathers, Baobab also provides vital income for one of the most marginalized communities in Kenya, the Maasai.
- It also only uses hand made brassware from local artisan makers. This is a sizable sub-sector of the bag making industry, with dozens of small grass roots businesses competing for the tiniest of contracts.
- Even the fabrics used for the insides of the bags are sourced from individual vendors and not large retailers. Baobab goes out of its way to work micro-businesses. By using this philosophy, it ensures that there’s a trickle down effect providing sustainability to many.
Founder, Justin Kirton arrived in Kenya as a volunteer for VSO. It was a life changing experience even after a previous career in the global apparel market. In the early nineties, he co-founded a textile design studio: Fabric 8, with friend and business partner of fifteen years, Kate Smith. Baobab is his attempt to build upon his prior experiences in a new and exciting environment.
Kenya, The Melting Pot of East africa
Kenya’s economy has historically been linked to tourism. This can be traced back to British colonial rule. Significantly, Kenya became the primary beneficiary of a railway line linking the port of Mombasa to the interior of the country and beyond. In fact, the city of Nairobi owes its existence to the railway. From the early 1900s, thousands of Europeans flocked to experience the natural beauty, amazing wildlife and the pleasant climate enjoyed around Nairobi and the Central Region. Significant numbers decided to settle. This in turn led to Kenya establishing itself as the first true safari destination. The colonial period spanned approximately seventy years. Finally, after several years of bitter struggle, Britain lost its grip on power and Kenya gained independence in 1963. It had the fortitude to capitalize on its position as the most popular destination for big game safaris. By this time, the Jua Kali infrastructure of artisans producing and marketing tourist-aimed products was well established and continues to this day.
These range from tribal art to functional items, including:
- Sculpture including: Metalwork & Wood-carving
- Textile Art
- Furniture making
- Tent Making
- Bags (of course)
Bag making in Kenya
By and large, Kenya’s bag making industry originally evolved as a by-product of safari tent making. More recently however, the market has changed. New talent has emerged as the primary driving force of Nairobi’s increasingly competitive leather goods sector. Additionally, people’s tastes have also matured through the increasing influence of the internet which provides instant access to the latest trends.
The kiondo, (kiswahili for ‘basket’), is an East African item of cultural significance, which predates the kind of bags mentioned above. Kiondo making is a centuries-old tradition. They are woven entirely by hand in a spiral without the use of a loom. The result is a seamless rounded bucket-shape design which is highly durable and elegant in its simplicity. Essentially, an extremely practical solution for carrying produce from the shamba (kiswahili for ‘cultivated land’) to market. A kiondo is both robust yet flexible and can also be folded flat for storage when not being used.
Now, kiondos have earned themselves a global reputation for their simple beauty and practicality. They have become a significant Kenyan export.
We chose to create a kiondo for our first collection, giving it a new twist. Kariokor was adopted as obvious starting point. We sought the help of two ladies: Beatrice and Alice. The basic structural design was modified from a circular spiral to an oval which we felt better suited as a messenger bag, whilst still retaining the basic design DNA.
We also decided to exclusively use baobab twine rather than the more commonly used sisal, and this led to us arriving at the name ‘Baobab’. Sisal is originally from Mexico and therefore not indigenous to Africa. It is safe to assume that historically, kiondos would have been made from the fibres of baobab bark. Subsequent collections have been focused more on leather but we are planning to re-introduce kiondos to our up-coming collections. Watch the video below, showing the Baobab team busy adding the leather handles to a bulk order of Kiondos, bound for the USA!
The many uses of the Baobab tree
This fascinating and iconic tree is indigenous to Africa, Madagascar and Australia and is affectionately known as the tree of life. The baobab is sacred in most African cultures. In fact, the baobab is a giant succulent which can withstand severe periods of drought. It is able to store upwards of 100,000 litres of water at any given time in its cactus-like trunk and main branches. Baobab wood is quite soft and mature trees often hollow out, providing a natural shelter for wild animals. The largest recorded example measured about 47 metres in circumference making the baobab a true giant.
Often called the upside down tree, (remaining leafless for much of the year), its branches give the appearance that its roots are sticking up into the air. The fruit is now widely regarded as a super-food, possessing many medical benefits too. Moreover, the bark can be harvested and then processed into fibres which are then turned into rope or a coarse twine.