I recently had the pleasure of meeting Cael Chappell the founder of Baskets of Africa when I won a Zulu wire basket at a networking event. As soon as I saw the baskets I was intrigued about them and knew I wanted to interview him about the company.
Tell us a little about Baskets of Africa. What we do is work with thousands of weavers directly in their homes. They supply baskets directly to us through weaving groups and centers; small grassroots organizations. Generally, there’s a village and the weavers self-organize into a group and somebody there communicates with me and we buy directly from them. The weavers set all of their own prices. Sometimes the weaving group will elect their leaders, or sometimes they rotate and take turns. A lot of other companies will buy at marketplaces; you have no idea if the person that made the item ever actually gets paid. So, we only work directly with the weavers, so it’s the weavers, us, and the customer- straight through and as clear as possible. We believe the people who made these amazing baskets should be paid as much as possible, so then they can decide what they want to spend their money on. The number one thing they do is send their kids to school, because they have to pay for the school fees, uniforms, and shoes. You could have everything paid for, but if you don’t have shoes you will be turned away at a lot of these schools.
We are a fair trade crafts company. I had never heard of fair trade when I started, but I was just doing what I wanted to do and doing it the right way to help people in Africa. A couple of years in, one of my customers said “Did you know your mission statement is almost identically to the Fair Trade Federation?” I was like “What’s that?”; so that is when I learned about them and became a member. The Fair Trade Federation says for 2016 that they are going to try to refine their messaging, but things like crafts, for example, can’t be certified fair trade. It is too difficult. Things that are certified fair trade are commodities, like chocolate or coffee. That is because they are usually done on a massive scale on huge plantations, so the people there are often working for multi-national corporations, so it’s easier to look at somebody’s books and say “Yes, you are fair trade.” Then they walk around and certify that it is fair trade.
What I believe is we don’t know what is best for African people. We give the money to them and they know what is best for them. If they need a well, and they are making money, they can organize and sink a well in their village, but near their house, in the best spot for them.
How did the company get started? I worked for an African art gallery, a large one, and the more I worked there the less I liked the way things were done. Then I started selling baskets, starting with $200, as a small on-the-side business, and building from there. I did it by myself for the first ten years. Then about 4 years ago, we hired our first employee. That is when I really started learning about business and how difficult it is. Like, I realized I need to hire a bookkeeper to pay that employee, then since I have a bookkeeper, I might as well get some more help and build a good team. I was working myself towards an early grave and I decided it was better to have some help, and employ some people here in the U.S. too, a team that also wants to help people in Africa directly.
So how do you go about finding your weavers? I have a vast network of connections across Africa and I go to Africa looking for baskets.
Sometimes I’ll find weavers through somebody I know, then I’ll go and meet them. The weavers in the bigger groups, actually travel quite a bit to go to conferences and shows and things throughout major cities in Africa. Then, they’ll tell me, we met this person from Angola and they make beautiful baskets. So they will help each other to find me sometimes, which is really cool. Then it is a matter of going and checking to make sure that the structure of the group is right, that it is really fair trade. Then we start small, work our way up and see what happens. It is not easy, so once we find a good group that we can work with, then we try to develop a long term, sustainable, relationship with that group. Some weavers, may come and go from the group and I don’t know every weaver individually, but I develop these long-term relationships with the group. One of the ways that I develop long-term relationships is by letting them set their own prices. They set the price, so we don’t negotiate, and the price either works or it doesn’t. If it works, at a price that they set that’s the first big step in ensure you are paying beyond fair trade, because they normally set very high prices, and then we keep our overhead as low as possible here in the U.S. I take as little profit as possible to support my family, so that we can return the most money possible back to Africa.
How does the money make it back to the weavers? Through those groups. So, you send a check, money order, transfer, or something? Every country and group is a little different. Sending them money is the easy part actually. Generally, you wire money to a foreign currency account, or you send them cash through MoneyGram or Western Union.
What do the different designs mean? Most of the them are coming out of utilitarian use, not as much ceremonial use like the Native Americans. A lot of these, they just have a simple pattern because it is more interesting to weave than a plain basket. In the traditional Zulu baskets, some of the meanings we know, like, in the traditional wedding basket. The diamond shape there is a male pattern and stands for the Shields of Shaka Zulu. The triangle is a female pattern. On the outside of this are all these points. The points are how many cows that the husband’s family needs to pay the wife’s family to compensate them for the loss of their daughter. It is called the lobola or bride wealth and they still do this today. Part of the long wedding ceremony is when the bride’s family presents the groom’s family with one of these baskets and they see and are like “Oh, we have to get a lot of cows together, if this wedding is going to go forward.” There is a certain stage where if the groom doesn’t deliver the cows there is no wedding.
The largest ones are a few feet tall and are extreme examples that are woven for us. Sometime we have to commission the largest baskets and pay every couple of months so the woman can keep weaving, otherwise she would run out of money. There are very few weavers on planet Earth that can do this, not just very few Zulu people, but very few people in the world. The smaller the basket is the easier it is to weave, so beginners do small baskets. The largest ones are something spectacular. We don’t tell the weaver to make a wedding basket for us. We just ask to make us a big one. We know it is going to be something amazing and unique because every one is amazing and unique, but they tend to fall back on the wedding pattern because that is so important in their culture.
The Zulu wire baskets like you received, are just beautiful, bold designs. They invented that style of weaving only a few decades ago. Although this is a modern weaving technique it is part of their cultural heritage because they are the ones who invented it. Because wire baskets are a more modern development, the weavers do any kind of interesting patterns or colors they want to use. Now, in order to maintain some consistency in the wire baskets we do control the groups of colors and we control the shapes as much as we can, so we get what we need. Colors, in the wire baskets, don’t have cultural signifigance, those are the colors we are having made in Durban.
The patterns are their own too. One of the guys was working with his son, teaching him to weave baskets. The son kept making this mistake where he was stitching one stitch on top of the old one. The father named the stitch, translated literally, The Boy’s Mistake. He kept making the mistake, so we asked the father to develop the stitch and we would pay him extra. For a little while he would make these solid color baskets that had The Boy’s Mistake. After a while, the weaver said it is so difficult and didn’t want to do it anymore. So we don’t have them anymore. It was a limited run and only one person could do it.
Do the colors have meanings? Not so much. They won’t tell you how they make the colors or the traditional Zulu baskets either, because the colors are a secret passed down through their family. So every once in a while we will see a color that we have never seen before, because it is the first time we have seen a basket from that weaver and her family. Other colors are fairly common. The creamy color is natural palm leaf, so everybody has that. The brown is made from dirt, mud. The black/ gray is usually charcoal or could be some sort of yams or beets. A pink is primarily rose petals. So after buying from the weavers for so long and asking them over and over again, different people will give you little hints about their dye tea.
We try to encourage the cultural identity and preservation by having them weave what they have always woven. In that respect we are very different in that we don’t design anything. We will kick some ideas back and forth sometimes. The biggest example is the rainbow wire basket. They were doing baskets when I first met them that were red and blue, black and white, yellow and red. I just asked how many colors do you have? They said like 16 colors, back in those days. I asked can you make a basket that has all of the colors on them? Let’s see what it looks like. That is the most we have ever been involved in designing the baskets. They are all indigenous designs. Then they came up with the black rainbow which is the one that you got. That is even better than what I came up with. It gives it some contrast. So, every once in a while I’ll kick over an idea like can you do one that has mostly blue on it and they come up with one that has an amazing combination of colors and better than anything I could have imagined.
So you said you order the wire from Durban, but how do they get the other materials that they use? Everything is pretty much all natural materials. You’ll see a few other baskets that aren’t all natural on our website. The price of those baskets is highly affected by the value of the materials. So generally, the Zulu wire baskets, are beautiful baskets, but not a very difficult quality of weaving. What I try to do when I go to South Africa, I look for what are the distinct baskets made in South Africa. Once we were in Zululand we went to the group that showed the most potential for quality. Then over the course of a decade or so we end up having the highest quality of Zulu wire baskets. That is how we approach every country and type of basket, although the Zulu wire basket is not technically as high quality a woven basket compared to the Zulu Ilala palm, ours are better quality compared to 99% of the wire baskets you see.
How is a basket priced? The value in the Ilala Palm baskets is mostly in the weaving time and the value in the wire baskets is in the materials. It begins with buying the wire and transporting the wire out to the weaving center and then parceling out the wire. We have several people in the weaving center to measure the wire and parcel it out to the weavers, otherwise the wire can just disappear, and then the whole weaving center will have no wire and there will be no more baskets. You give somebody wire and the form to weave over and then hopefully they bring it back as a basket and then maybe they take another form and four bundles of wire to make that size and then hopefully they bring it back. It is a very difficult process even just managing the materials in that case. If weavers are not using manufactured materials then they just collect all of their own in the wild. The ladies make all of their own dye. They collect all of the material. Those baskets are generally higher quality in terms of the types of weaving and what they are doing because they can spend more time on it. There is a massive difference in the amount of time, so there is a massive difference in the pricing because it depends on how long it to took them to make the basket. If they can do it in a day, they are going to price it lower, but the Zulu wire in particular one of the difficulties is the cost of the material. You can buy cheap wire in China, but we are employing people in Durban to make the wire; that is a much better process for the people in South Africa if they can make the wire and weave the baskets there. There are a lot of factors that go into pricing and sourcing, it is incredibly complicated and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.
Are the weavers predominantly men or women that make the baskets? Traditionally in Africa, it is women that weave baskets.
The one main exception is the Zulu wire baskets because men invented that weaving. They were working in the cities, in factories, mines, or as guards. They started weaving these over the tops of their knobkerrie, a type of Zulu fighting stick, because they were bored. They came up with this way of weaving top to bottom. Then that developed into weaving over a bowl to make a shape. The shallow bowl is the most popular one, called an Imbenge, which is what they would put over a pot of food to keep bugs and stuff out of it. The men will generally go to the cities, mines, or factories and try to get jobs. Usually then they will come back home once a year at Christmas, if they have the money to travel. So, the men would bring the ladies these Imbenges and they liked them so much that they started weaving them. It is also kind of hard to pull the wire to the right tension and get it just perfect. There are definitely women that do it, but the men are able to stay home and weave the baskets.
Under Apartheid, up until ’94, it was a form of resistance. They would cut the telephone wire off the poles and weave those wires destroying infrastructure as they went. So under apartheid, if you were caught buying, selling, owning, weaving, you would be imprisoned. As soon as they got self-rule, one of the first things the telephone company did was give away wire to anybody for free who wanted it. So the phone company had this huge budget to just give away wire and educate people to not cut the wires off the poles anymore. Then over the years the telephone company started raising the prices so that now it is better for us to have it made in a small shop in Durban.
Are there benefits for the Africans participating in fair trade, besides money? So, the area of Zululand that we work in is fully employed, as much as they want, in weaving baskets and mostly woven by men. When I started with them 13 years ago, we had about 40-80 part-time weavers. You never knew who was going to show up. Now it is over 600 weavers and as many as want to work full-time (after working in the fields since they are subsistence farmers) are weaving. It is not like they go and sit for 40 hours weaving baskets, nobody does that.
So they are living a more traditional life instead of going away and only seeing their families once year or so. Just this year we had an independent verification, we had guessed might be the case, but we didn’t know for sure. There was an NGO that was checking HIV/AIDS levels throughout South Africa and they got to this area of Zululand and suddenly the rates of HIV/AIDS were much lower. They came to the conclusion that it was because of this weaving project, because the men are at home and not in the cities away from their wives and families for a year. We suspected that that might happen, but it took 13 years and someone else came in and figured it out. It was cool to have that independent verification that it is actually making a difference in that as well. So that is quite a success story.
It’s fun for us to take gifts when we go, like soccer balls because you deflate them and take pumps. Then we leave a pump with each place too, because the ball is going to go flat. You see a school by the side of the road, just under a tree or something, that might have like a little bamboo lean-to or something, we stop and go in and give them a soccer ball. They want you to stay all day, have tea, eat with them, and celebrate, and the kids are going crazy because they have a real soccer ball now. Instead of a ball usually they will take plastic bags and tie them into balls. They will just keep tying plastic bags together to make a ball. When you see the impact of something that small you realize that being able to give people an income at their village, at their traditional homestead, where they can weave on their own time, make what they want, when they want, and charge what they want, it transforms their lives completely.
We are trying to also preserve culture. One of the things with basket weaving, it is a time consuming endeavor and you have a lot of time to sit around and talk. Most of their history and tradition in passed on orally. You see them sitting around weaving a lot and the kids are running around and they’re telling stories and talking and they’re passing on some of that oral history and tradition by sitting there and weaving instead of working in a mine or factory. When the men leave to work in a mine or factory the women do almost everything, but the men, when they are home, do help out a bit, so the women have more time to weave or tell stories. I believe that it is preserving culture as well. It seems pretty likely that that would be true.
Even if it is only the culture of basket weaving, that is also important. Zulu baskets wouldn’t exist and these baskets almost completely died off because they had plastic buckets; they didn’t need baskets for utility anymore. Some Dutch missionaries recognized that they could take them back to the Netherlands and sell them and this would help these ladies. It was down to six women in South Africa in the 1950’s that remembered how to weave baskets. Because there is a market for them and people will buy them, now there are people making them.
What are your visions for Baskets of Africa? What is your anticipated future goals? We are already supporting many, many people. Some of our groups are at capacity in the entire region, we can’t get more people to weave baskets. The ones that we had at the networking event the other night, there aren’t any other people to weave those baskets in the area that we’ve been working for 13 years. So, we just want to keep doing what we’re doing and maintain the support that we have for all these different groups in all these different countries. That, in and of itself, is challenge enough to maintain where we are at right now. We are not looking to grow or anything like that, there are already thousands of people that depend on us for their income.
What are you thoughts on fair trade? Did you know about it? Do you look for the label in products you buy?