By Nzuki Waita, National Coordinator, SITA Kenya
The air in the room was thick with growing tension. It took the courage of an experienced handloom weaver at the far end of the room to stand up in front of the 40-odd handloom weavers and government cooperative officers in the room, and ask, “How will you build the confidence of the delegates gathered here today that their cooperative will work?”
There was a general hum of consensus in the room as all eyes turned to the government cooperative officers for a response. It was a valid question. After all, Becky Nyagah, founder of Handloom Weavers Association, had lived through a time when cooperatives in Kenya once thrived then collapsed. Many cooperatives had failed due to a myriad of challenges including mismanagement, skills gaps and lack of technical capacity.
The good news is that recent studies show that cooperatives in many developing countries including Kenya are experiencing a remarkable renaissance. The cooperative movement in Kenya has become vibrant and dynamic and is a key player in the economy, controlling about 43% of Kenya’s GDP. It currently employs more than 300,000 people, and provides opportunities for self-employment to many more. For example, savings and credit societies (Saccos), the fastest growing sub-sector in the movement, have mobilised savings of more than US$220,000,000 to date.
The handloom weavers now gathered in Nakuru had met two months earlier at a workshop facilitated by SITA where they were introduced to clustering approaches and its success in India, familiarizing participants with the advantages of a clustering model, including improved access to raw materials, finance and markets; joint marketing activities and joint orders. During the workshop, the weavers from different parts of the country agreed on the urgency of establishing a national umbrella framework for weavers. As a result of the workshop, participants agreed to create the “National Handloom Weavers Marketing Cooperative” – an important step to strengthen Kenya’s handloom segment.
Handloom weaving and spinning is a subsector of the textile sector that produces fabric from a variety of yarn using a hand spinning wheel or automated machine. Being the oldest method in the world to produce clothes, handloom weaving and spinning were introduced in Kenya in the 1970s, starting in Nairobi and later spreading to other parts of the country.
Currently there are more than 300 weavers in Kenya according to the Handloom Weavers Association. They weave as individuals, in groups or as an association producing various items such as carpets, kikoys (sarongs), shawls, bed covers, bed sheets, tablemats and other household soft furnishings.
However, the sector’s potential has not been fully reached, as there has been no cohesive national handloom weavers’ cooperative society to promote its development.
In India, the handloom sector is well known for its tradition of superior craftsmanship. It has steadily provided livelihoods to millions of weavers and craftspeople. The industry has not only survived but flourished over the decades due to its inherent strengths like flexibility of production in small quantities, an openness to innovation, low level capital investment requirement and immense possibility for designing different handwoven fabrics. India has continued to accord a high priority to this sector and major steps have been taken by the office of Development Commissioner – Handlooms, Ministry of Textiles, and Government of India, to promote and develop its exclusiveness for the international market.
This is exactly where the Kenyan weavers aspire to take their industry once they form a national society.
The cooperative officers from the Kenyan State Department of Cooperatives in the Ministry of Industry, Trade & Cooperatives introduced the gathered weavers to the cooperative model; cooperative values and principles; the cooperative structure; types of cooperatives; and finally, the byelaws that would govern the newly formed weavers’ cooperative.
It was important that the weavers understood that lessons introduced to them were the foundation of a unique business model designed to serve its owners, who are also its users. They set cooperatives apart from other types of businesses. By investing in their own cooperative, the weavers would show their commitment. By limiting the influence of any one member, the national cooperative would become more responsive to the needs of its membership as a whole. And, by providing services at cost and limiting dividends paid on equity capital, its value to members would be determined by use rather than by investment.
The weavers then chose five interim officials to oversee the remainder of the registration process until an annual general meeting (AGM) would be convened in September 2017 to formally elect the first batch of officials and ratify the byelaws for the new national cooperative.
The weavers also agreed that they would form a national marketing cooperative and call it the “National Weavers Marketing Cooperative” or NWMC. Numerous potential markets for handwoven products go untapped because producers are either unaware they exist or unable to supply that market individually. A national marketing cooperative would link the production capabilities of its members with various markets. This successful linkage would not only increase producer incomes, but also benefit the buyer.
Furthermore, handloom weavers often have difficulty realising maximum return for their production. A national handloom-marketing cooperative, initially supported by SITA, will be of major importance in solving marketing challenges faced by handloom weavers.