Reviving East Africa’s handloom industry: Weaving the warp and woof

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By Devika Jyothi

East Africa has the potential to emerge as a major global destination for handloom and hand-woven textiles and apparels as well as other niche products.  However, the path ahead is not easy as weavers in the region lack the product design and marketing skills, as well as the international exposure required to be competitive.

It is here that SITA plans to step in.

In its second year of implementation, SITA aims to strengthen the export competitiveness of the handloom sector as part of its cotton-to-clothing strategy in Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda.  SITA recently concluded a mission to assess the real potential of East Africa’s handloom sector.

The project will support the existing handloom clusters in the region to enhance product quality, productivity, and to help them venture into new markets. This will be achieved by facilitating knowledge and technology transfer from India.  India has a strong legacy in handlooms with well-structured handloom weavers’ clusters.

Based on the findings of the mission, activities will now be charted out to develop the handloom sector in Kenya, Ethiopia, Tanzania and Uganda.  In the upcoming year, the delegation will:

  • Conceptualise SITA’s handloom approach and outline activities to strengthen and specialize weaver-clusters, through the transfer of best practices from India
  • Identify 1-2 women weavers’ clusters per country with the potential to grow and export
  • Identify master weavers and entrepreneurs who will participate in an exposure visit to India, including a plan for the training of trainers
  • Assess the skills-development needs of the clusters, so that they can expand, diversify and export
  • Spot opportunities for specialisation and drive value addition, with a focus on niche markets (viz. the luxury segment, alternative fabrics such as silk and wool, destined for export markets in Europe and the US)
  • Establish appropriate market linkages
  • Initiate collaboration with local support institutions to boost the productivity of the African handloom industry

This is not the first time that SITA is supporting weavers in East Africa.

During the design phase of the project, in February 2015, SITA supported a pilot initiative led by SEWA Bharat. SEWA Bharat – the all India Federation of Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) – works towards achieving the full employment, economic empowerment and self-reliance of women workers in informal sectors. The initiative facilitated the participation of six Ethiopian weavers in India’s Dastkar event, a national crafts fair and exhibition. The pilot was part of the SETU-Africa programme, a Government of India initiative that aims to introduce Ethiopian traditional handlooms and other handicrafts to the Indian market.

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With the support and guidance of SEWA Bharat, the Ethiopian artisans selected and shipped an assortment of their products to India. They presented traditional handloom fabrics,handicrafts, modern dresses, carved leather bags, purses, and jewellery at the sale-cum-expo.

The artisans also participated in a designer workshop and a buyers-sellers meeting. The event gave them insights on how to diversify and expand their business, and how to meet the demand of the Indian market while retaining their artisanal traditions. Moreover, the event offered Ethiopian artisans the chance to interact with Indian designers and buyers, and assess what they could improve in terms of design and pricing.

‘We would definitely look for long term business opportunities with India,’ Ms. Misrach Mekonnen, the Project Coordinator for WISE and the team leader of the artisan group, had said at the time. WISE is the Organisation for Women in Self Employment, an Ethiopian NGO dedicated to the realization of sustainable livelihoods among poor women.

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‘With more designer-artisan and artisan-buyer interaction, I feel our women artisans will be more equipped to provide the right quality of hand-woven textiles and handicrafts for the Indian buyers, which will eventually provide increased business value and create jobs and income opportunities, enabling sustainability,’ she added.

That is exactly what SITA endeavours to do: enhancing the export competitiveness of weavers in East Africa and establishing market linkages, by collaborating with India, to create more jobs and income opportunities in the sector.

This will pave the way for a successful revival of the East African handloom industry, enable the handloom clusters in the region to grow, and provide a more secured life and livelihood to the weavers.

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