SITA introduces natural dyeing techniques to East African handloom stakeholders

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By Devika Jyothi

Eco-fashion and green textiles are in vogue these days. With the increasing awareness of the health and environmental hazards of synthetic dyes, the market for natural dyes is growing. It is a niche market that yields high returns.

Richly endowed with diverse natural resources, India has a long tradition of using natural dyes. Natural dyes are colourants extracted from the roots, wood, leaves, flowers and fruits of plants and trees as well as minerals. However, while Africa is also rich and diverse in its resources, the commercial potential of using natural dyestuffs has not been exploited. Most of Africa’s research remains at an academic level, and weavers and textile manufacturers have used natural dyes with limited success, until now.

As part of its efforts to strengthen the East African handloom value chain, SITA promotes the introduction of natural dyes. The use of natural dyes would ensure a sustainable and healthy production process, and also enable the branding of those handloom products to target the high-value international niche market. As a first step, SITA organised a 6-day orientation workshop and training programme at the Creative Bee Dye farm in Hyderabad, India for a team of 12 participants from East Africa. Participants included researchers, trainers and weavers from Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda.

Set up by professional designer couple, Mrs. Bina Rao and Mr. K. Siva Kesava Rao, Creative Bee is a Design Studio with diversified activities in the fields of textile & fashion design, production and promotion of handloom and handicrafts. Mr. Rao also runs an R&D and production facility for natural dye-print. Creative Bee’s dye farm attracts researchers and textile enthusiasts from all over the world.

Commenting on the commercial potential of natural dyes, Mr. Rao said, ‘There is big potential for income generation and employment opportunities, with literally zero investment. Once you locate the available raw material, all you need are a few big vessels and a stove for extraction and application.”

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“As part of my research, we have identified over 40 plants that bear dyestuffs in Uganda,’ said Prof. Aaron Wanyama of Kyambogo University. ‘But, we’ve never tried commercial application. The task now is to create awareness of the potential benefits of natural dyes among policy makers, mobilize the community through the Ministry of Trade to produce and use natural dyes, introduce natural dyeing to local textile producers and institutionalise the learning through short-term certification courses.”

On the learnings from the programme, Prof. Wanyama said, “The training offered very simple, yet key insights that can be very useful in colour fixing. Before now, practical tips such as keeping the dye for a certain time after mixing to improve and fix the colour better were never known to us.”

“Getting the indigo in dry, powder form was a challenge. I learnt the technique here,’ added Mr. John Khafafa, Sr. Technologist at the University of Moi, Kenya. ‘We can now demonstrate and encourage local producers to use natural dyes.”

With a PhD in Natural Dyes, Dr. Abera Kechi of Bahir Dar University, Ethiopia has identified over 20 plants with natural dyestuff in Ethiopia. “Prior to this programme, I found little practical guidance on commercial feasibility. Coming here, I’m inspired to work in the area. I will now present a proposal for a natural dye farm, which could be used as a Centre for Research and Training to promote the use of natural dyes in the country.”

Representatives from the various training institutes were emphatic of the need to add natural dyeing to their respective curricula. ‘We would need SITA,ITC to help us garner government support for this,’ said Mr. Wubishet Afework, a trainer at Bahir Dar Polytechnic College, Ethiopia.

“This training was comprehensive, though there is much to learn before commercialising the application,” he said.

“Natural dyes are cost effective even if we have to import from India, and it is easy to adopt. We could also look at developing a full value chain from cultivation to extraction and application – a potential job creator,” commented Mr. Herry Shamte Seif, a trainer at the Vocational Education & Training Authority (VETA), United Republic of Tanzania.

“Chemical dyes are toxic to one’s own health as well as the environment. We discharge the textile effluent into the soil directly, which is very harmful. Natural dyes are a cost-effective, eco-friendly alternative, as effluent need not be treated,” observed Ms. Elizabeth Wanaswa, the National Industrial Training Authority (NITA), Kenya.

A member of the Shime Sana Cooperative, Machinga, Ms. Rhoda Stephen Chacha plans to adopt natural dyes due to its various benefits. “There is much demand for natural dyed garments due to the hot weather conditions in Africa,” she said.

“It has been a very useful programme. I have already started my trials,” said Ms. Alnaz Aychiluhm of Goe Fashion Design, Ethiopia. A member of WISE (Women in Self Employment), Ms. Aychiluhm is keen to experiment and train other WISE members: “I will now conduct workshops and spread the knowledge. I can also create my own brand for exports. There is so much opportunity,” she said.

‘We use only natural fibres of banana and cotton. So it is important for us to also use natural dyes. A lot of clients specifically ask for naturally dyed products,’ said Ms. Scovia Mukundane of Texfad, Uganda. “In around 5-6 months we should be able to adopt natural dyes. We have enough resources, we just need to identify and experiment.”

‘We at Tosheka have been using natural dyes since our establishment in 2010. Our trouble has been with colour mixing and getting the right shade. With this training, I am now confident of producing all natural primary colours, as well mixing colour for the ‘in-between’ shades,” said Ms.Teresa Njue, Production Coordinator.

‘There is so much to learn. I have always used synthetic dyes. I will gradually add in natural dyes, with a limited colour range initially,’ said Ms. Helen Kelly, the owner of Handmade from Tanzania which employs around 15 local workers in Tanzania. Ms. Kelly has been working in Tanzania for over 20 years, with 5-6 years in fabrics. ‘I’ve recently opened a pop-up shop in Europe as the Tanzanian economy is struggling. There is a growing appreciation for organic cotton and natural colours in Europe – it is a high potential niche market,’ she remarked.

“Researching into the region’s natural resources to identify dye-bearing raw material is the first step toward commercialisation’ Mr. Rao said. Obtaining a natural colour palate with acceptable colour fastness and reproducible colour yield and deriving standardised dyeing techniques and procedures can be challenging initially. We have designed the programme to cover all of these aspects – a continuation programme will help them overcome the challenges. We will also set-up an online communication group, so any queries can be addressed,’ he added.

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“The simplicity and affordability of the process makes it immensely commercially favourable,” observed Prof. Wanyama. “And, there are the readily accessible European and US markets, with agreements such as AGOA of which to take advantage.”

Voices of SITA
Voices of SITA

This blog provides a window into the SITA project. Through stories from India, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda and the United Republic of Tanzania, this blog showcases the project’s progress and impact.