Meet the Maker: The Basket Room

This month on Meet the Maker I’m so pleased to be talking to Holly and Camilla, founders of the brilliant ethical homewares supplier The Basket Room.  Established by Holly and Camilla after years of experience in design, production and retail, the business works with weaving communities across Africa to support their traditional craft and bring beautiful, ethically made homewares to the UK and beyond.  I’m particularly excited to also be able to include the words of some of those traditional weavers here, talking about their experiences.

Tell us a little about the background to The Basket Room

HOLLY: The Basket Room is an ethical homeware company specialising in baskets! We work with weaving cooperatives in Africa (Kenya, Ghana, Rwanda, Tanzania and Swaziland) to produce beautiful, fair trade baskets for the home. Our current range spans from baby Moses baskets and bike baskets to mats and floor runners, planters, laundry baskets… and everything in between! Camilla and I studied fashion together at university and then went on to work in different areas of fashion and retail when we graduated. It was when I was a buyer and business development manager for an African charity and Camilla was working in fashion production that we both began to dream of running our own business – and we’ve always had a mutual interest in ethical fashion and handicrafts.

How do you find the weavers that you partner with, and how does a cooperative work?

HOLLY: We work really hard to seek out the very best, most talented weaving groups to partner with, and often we first hear of them by word of mouth. Each cooperative is run as a business, so our first point of contact is usually the chairlady who manages the basket orders and each weaver’s workload, and negotiates prices per unit with us, on behalf of the group. From that point forwards we would send over specific designs and any special materials needed to produce the new order, and then we keep in touch via WhatsApp as prototypes are made up and photographed for us to check over. Camilla and I try to visit every group as often as possible.

Tell us a bit about the future for The Basket Room

CAMILLA: Looking forward, we hope that The Basket Room will become a household name that resonates with people in years to come; a social enterprise that will partner with artisans all over the world, changing and leading the way for the homewares industry. The fashion world is currently under increasing pressure to operate more ethically, and I think that the world of interiors has yet to catch up on this. We’d like to keep pushing from the front on this matter, flying the flag for transparent supply chains and fair trade in interiors. We visit as many cooperatives as we can throughout the year and we’re in daily communications with most cooperative chairladies during the dry seasons when the weaving steps up a gear. As well as for practical reasons (like delivering materials and training) it’s vitally important to us to spend time with the people behind the baskets and really understand each basket’s beginnings. We were in Zambia back in September meeting new weaving groups, and at the end of November we’ll be visiting the Ghanaian co-operative that make our Moses baskets and bike baskets.

Answers supplied by Dorcas Ndinda, aged 48, a part time farmer and green grocer, and the leader of her village weavers’ cooperative in Kenya. 

How did you become a weaver?

My village is located in a very arid area, therefore harvests are not guaranteed. However, I decided to double the crops I usually planted so that I could manage to feed my family and sell off the rest. The income from selling the produce wasn’t enough to cater for all of my young family’s needs. I knew about a few women from my village who would weave baskets and sell them. So I befriended these ladies, who taught me new weaving styles, and helped me perfect my skill. With the money I was earning from selling farm produce and the income from weaving, I was able to feed and clothe my family, and with the help of government bursaries and scholarships I was also able to educate my children.

How did you come to lead a co-operative of weavers?

Together with the other women who were weaving, we decided to form a cooperative, an act that later on caught the eye of area government leaders. Pretty soon I was attending government conferences on group leadership, community health and hygiene forums, trainings on agricultural practices, as well as others. Members of our cooperative also attended weaving training, where we were instructed on numerous things relevant to weaving as an income generating activity. We were taught how to weave by following a guide that included measurements and styles, as well as quality control and marketing.

In 2007, members of our cooperative chose me to be the new chairlady. We have since had two other elections and they have voted me back each time. We’ve come to rely heavily on basket weaving, especially because of the changing climate and the unpredictable rains. And with the growing membership numbers, larger purchase orders means that everyone is guaranteed work.

What has basket weaving enabled you and your co-workers to do?

I wouldn’t have been able to raise and educate my children if I gave up and didn’t believe in myself, especially after the death of my husband. Proceeds from weaving helped educate my children. I am now able to clothe and feed myself and my family from the income from weaving. Sometimes I find that I even have money left over, which I save or invest in my grocery business. In my village, there has been an increased interest in ventures that aid the independence of women, like weaving. In fact, our cooperative membership has been on the rise. It makes me happy when I interact with fellow members of our cooperative and see visible results of basket weaving in their lives – one  member is able to purchase medicine for her child, another can afford a new dress, more are able to educate their children and feed and clothe their families. Our cooperative was also able to purchase a piece of land, upon which we plan to build a community center. Such actions I believe have emboldened other women in this area to get out there, join such ventures and take charge of their lives.  I’ve had to shoulder the responsibility of bringing up 3 children since my husband passed away in 1992. Prior to that, I stayed at home taking care of household chores while he provided for us. Since I didn’t proceed with my education beyond the primary school level, I knew that my chances of getting employed in a big town were very minimal, so I decided to try my luck at other ventures.

What does weaving mean to you?

(SNIPPETS FROM INTERVIEWS WITH KENYAN WEAVERS DORCAS, PENINAH AND FLORENCE)

DORCAS: A lot of things bring me happiness. If my family has good health, I am happy and thankful. If the rains are in plenty, I am happy because I know that the harvest won’t fail. When I am leading a project and it is flourishing and the lives of the members are positively impacted, I am happy. Weaving, as well, makes me happy, especially when I look back and see how much my family and I relied on the income from the sales of baskets that I wove, when the rains failed and I had no produce to sell at my green grocery.

PENINAH: Before I joined our weaving cooperative a few years ago, I used to rely on my husband for everything we needed at home. Back then, I felt I couldn’t even ask him for money for a new pair of shoes because there were just too many more important things for the home that we needed first. But when I started weaving with our cooperative, I had the means to not only help support the family, but also to surprise my husband with new things for him, like a new hat or a pair of trousers.

FLORENCE: I never travelled much before, but since we started selling the baskets in Nairobi, I’ve realised how much I enjoy travelling. I am now able to travel all over Kenya with my work, and sometimes I take my family with me. I also don’t have to rely solely on my husband’s income in running my household anymore.

To find out more about the fantastic work of the The Basket Room visit their website at www.thebasketroom.com and say hi on Instagram at @thebasketroom.

All Images: The Basket Room