Weaving Livelihoods: Assessing East Africa’s Handloom Potential

So, tell me what you want, what you really really want
May 10, 2016
“I am on the road to success,” says a little ‘voice of SITA’ from northern Uganda
July 29, 2016

By Devika Jyothi

‘We have the finest cotton, and yet we have no access to the market,’ said a woman weaver in Uganda. ‘We wait for the markets to come to us,’ she added, hinting at the futility of the wait.

She was speaking to the SITA delegation that was on a mission there, to assess the potential of East Africa’s handloom sector and to enhance the export competitiveness of women weavers in the region – one of the strategic priority areas of SITA.

True, East Africa produces some of the world’s finest cotton and has a long-held tradition of handloom weaving. The region is however yet to emerge as a global destination for handloom and hand woven textiles and apparels, as it struggles with the organisation and professionalization of the sector. Most of the weaver-groups are challenged by the lack of access to high quality yarn in smaller amounts, the lack of product design and marketing skills and the lack of access to domestic, regional and international markets. Limited institutional support is also a challenge for some of the groups.


For a first-hand assessment and understanding of the market situation, a delegation, led by Ms. Carolin Averbeck, ITC SITA Task Team Leader for Cotton to Clothing, Ms. Kidest Teklu, ITC Programme Officer for Cotton, Textiles and Clothing, and Ms. Sharmistha Mohapatra, IL&FS India Head of Livelihoods and Rural Enterprise, convened a series of meetings, consultations and field visits in the four focus countries – Kenya, Ethiopia, Tanzania and Uganda.


From May 30 to June 17, 2016, the team met key Government institutions, industry associations, producer groups, marketing partners and civil society organisations and vocational training institutions to gain a holistic understanding of the existing status and strength of the value chain.

Potential for development of export competitiveness

Of the four focus countries, Ms. Mohapatra observes that Ethiopia has the largest base of handloom weavers. The country has well-established clusters and a longstanding tradition of hand-woven textiles. The products have strong demand in the domestic as well as export markets, largely driven by the Ethiopian Diaspora. Moreover, the sector has registered a marked shift in the demand pattern towards value addition, contemporary designs and styles, and better quality products.

The team visited cooperatives around Chencha town, in Southern Ethiopia. More than 10,000 weavers work in and around Chencha. Most of them work home-based and in difficult living conditions. According to the women weavers, the production of hand-spun yarn is very profitable, and there is potential to train more women to take up weaving.

The handloom sector in the other focus countries is relatively smaller, in terms of organisation, scale and the number of persons effectively engaged. However, each of these countPicture4ries has a distinct textiles tradition, a specialised skill set and a specialised product offering, says Ms. Mohapatra.

In Kenya, the delegation met with the Principal Secretary of the State Department for Cooperatives, Mr. Ali Noor Ismail. Mr. Noor stated that the Department was in the process of reviving Kenya’s cotton cooperatives. Kenya has the strongest cooperative movement on the African continent, with 20,000 registered cooperatives and 14 million members. Kenya has the capacity to produce more than 700,000 bales of lint cotton annually, but is currently under-performing. According to Mr. Noor, there is a need for county governments to allocate more funds    towards cotton promotion and value addition, including handloom.

While Kenya has a strong base of bead artisans, boasting of an innovative range of craft and textiles based products with beaded surface ornamentation, Tanzania has distinct skill in tie – dye, printing and batik techniques, presenting an opportunity for the development of niche high value products.Picture5

The delegation also met with Uganda’s Cotton Development Organisation. The organisation highlighted the need for value addition activities for women involved in cotton production. The women have little to do during the off-season of cotton production. Enabling value addition would help them to transform Ugandan cotton into a high-value premium product.

Mission Outcome, Onward Plan

After further consultations with institutions engaged in the development of the handloom sector in India, an action plan for the development of the handloom value chain in Kenya, Ethiopia, Tanzania and Uganda will be developed by the SITA team and shared with national stakeholders.

SITA will support and expand existing handloom clusters through cooperation with India to enhance productivity, product quality and design, and it will support the clusters to venture into new markets. SITA will collaborate with relevant partners in India, as well as with leading institutions in the US and EU, to design the action plan and gain insights on the designs best suited for these markets.

According to Ms. Mohapatra, ‘There is significant potential to further develop the East African handloom value chain. India has a strong tradition in handloom and it has professional handloom weavers’ clusters. It will be beneficial for the East African weavers groups and support institutions to learn from the Indian handloom legacy, including from the policy support that is provided to help it succeed.’ Picture7.jpg