Just yesterday, I realized that I have been taking far too long to share my story. In January 2016, I officially started an Artisan cooperative in Ghana. We have been selling our products online through my independent store and Etsy since February, but strangely enough my mission for change in Ghana’s Artisans craft industry has been met by some unwelcome hands. Previously, our Etsy shop was reported and closed. This week alone, I have been attacked on social media by competitors who called me everything but legitimate. These attacks were followed by emails and threats.
In September 2015, I finally moved back to Ghana after completing law school. The legal field has admittedly failed to catch my interest or dedication, but advocacy and entrepreneurship have. In the past few years, I have worked on a few concepts that I hoped would bring opportunity to marginalized people in Ghana, this is by far my favorite. I started a design company that creates innovative designs from traditional crafts to make beautiful gifts and home decor. Through this I created an initiative called Fair Market Day, which gives rural independent artisans an opportunity to join a cooperative that gives them access to resources and large purchase orders.
A study released by the G-Lish Foundation in 2014 revealed that Bolga Basket Weavers in the Northern part of Ghana found it difficult to earn income from basket weaving. This is because the baskets are sometimes purchased from the weavers at unfair prices. Many organizations in the region operate from overseas, leaving the purchase of baskets in the hands of local agents. The price paid, which is usually fixed for a very long period of time, does not always take into consideration the costs incurred by the weaver in production and sales.
The basket weaving process is done completely by hand and very time consuming. Each weaver buys their own materials, then uses gas and water to color the grass with the dye. The weaving process for market baskets can take up to 2 days, Moses Baskets can take 4–6 days. After the basket is completed, they use their funds to get to the market to find a buyer. It is at the market where they are approached by agents who purchase the baskets for resale. After purchase, agents sell to wholesalers who then sell the baskets to retailers around the world. Many organizations proudly display fair trade stamps but may be unaware of how the items they sell are acquired. Bolga baskets have been sold in popular stores such as Whole Foods, West Elm, and Urban Outfitters.
Design Dua and The Fair Market Day program make it possible for Retailers to order high quality products from a team that works directly with artisans and makes sure they are treated fairly. In a short amount of time, we have gathered teams in three of Ghana’s ten regions. In the Ashanti Region, we acquired 9 acres of land, which we will use to build a large training facility, trainee housing, and factory for our project. We will offer opportunity to hundreds of unemployed artisans throughout the country. Our goal is to bring innovation to an age old industry and awareness to thousands of artisans who remain rife in poverty after years of basket weaving and other craft work.
Fair trade goods are very popular, but making sure suppliers are buying fairly is not an easy task.
It may seem alarming to you that a project with such a positive impact is not favored by others in the industry because it should be. Although retailers of handmade artisan goods love to market their products as Fair Trade, the fair trade process is not so easy. To make sure we make a positive impact in the industry, we have team members on the ground working with the artisans every day. We believe opportunities for training are necessary to help improve the industry. Since we started, we have been able to train over forty artisans to create our products. This training will give them the opportunity to weave more styles of baskets. In the long term, this will not only benefit our company, but the industry as a whole.
As a result, another small shop selling Bolga baskets online is unhappy with our presence. Without any middlemen, our pricing is not just fair but also more affordable for the consumer. While popular users on Instagram promote our beautiful items, and other shops form partnerships with us, this user creates new accounts every day just to troll the posts and spew lies about our business. It is appalling how companies that purport themselves as Fair Trade supporters, will do anything to stop others from selling the same products that offer opportunity to more people. The user TheGypsyWolfBoutique, (Story Here), went as far as to post rants on several pages about the lack of authenticity of our baskets, our business, and my credibility. She later emailed me more complaints and let me know that she made up a fake user account on my site to order a basket. After this, her supplier, Afropacific Baskets, sent agents to report us to the Weaving Association for sharing our story.
As someone working in Ghana to advance our craft and the lives of our local artisans, this competitive practice is disturbing. My goal is to advance the craft trade in Ghana through training artisans to create items that are more marketable internationally. Our artisan crafts should not be marketed as charitable goods, but as beautiful handmade commercial items. Our artisans won’t need hand outs if they are given a fair opportunity. The average basket weaver can make more than Ghana’s Minimum wage, if producing baskets at a fair wage. Basket weaving is not easy, Each one of them works hard and deserves that wage. Ghana’s Upper East region has nearly 1 million residents, a good portion of which weave baskets for a living. No one person can offer opportunity to all of them alone.
It is often said that change will always be met by challenge. As said by Steve Jobs in his “Think Different” Campaign:
“Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.”