Baba Tree African Baskets - World View
Posted on Monday, May 23 2016 07:51:00 PM in News by Gregory MacCarthy
“The world will try to talk you into settling for mediocrity. Pay them no mind”
Who we are
We are not a "project", a charity, a foundation or a non - governmental organization (NGO).
Though we engage small acts of charity every day, we are here, in Bolgatanga, to do business and do our best to empower the folks with whom we work through the open market.
"Saving the poor Africans" is not a narrative that we employ. Charity often carries the subtle message: ‘’you are not capable of doing it yourselves.’’ The people with whom we work are very capable.
Though we have customers who are very committed to their charities and purchase our baskets wholesale to raise money for them, the Baba Tree chooses to empower our people in the market place. It's not that the Baba Tree is fundamentally opposed to aid and charity, it's that it is rarely carried out honestly, efficiently and effectively which creates further dysfunction.
The weavers with whom the Baba Tree works are more than capable of taking care of themselves, excelling through their own sweat and creativity that ultimately produces Excellence.
The Baba Tree refines and cultivates the excellence brought forth through our weavers, and does an excellent job organizing and marketing that excellence throughout the world.
We are not subsidized by free labour (volunteers, interns, or volunteers who pay to work!!!). We are not subsidized in any form at all. All that is produced, and received, by the Baba Tree, is through our own sweat and creativity. At the Baba Tree everyone gets paid…
A bit of history
And Baba Tree business is about ‘’All of Us’’ –from the weaver, to the Baba Tree, to our wholesale customers and to the end retail customer. The Baba Tree has always held a strong intention for this.
Ever since the Baba Tree started trading in Bolgatanga, Ghana, in 2004 (or 2002…?) we have been very influential in the Bolga basket industry in terms of vast improvements in quality, finishing and strength of the baskets. We have always been the best at what we do and that continues in the present day.
The Baba Tree used to send ocean containers of baskets to Vancouver, Canada, where they would be sold to wholesale customers.
Since our semi enforced sabbatical from September, 2010, to September, 2012, the Baba Tree the Baba Tree now operates with a different business model – that is, we now operate full time out of Bolgatanga, Ghana, and export straight from Ghana to stores all over the globe.
The Baba Tree has been instrumental in fairer compensation for the weavers of Bolgatanga and, though our influence in the form of the higher prices that we pay, we continue to set the benchmark for prices paid for all of our woven products.
"There is no beauty in the finest cloth if it makes hunger and unhappiness"
~ Mahatma Gandhi
Let’s shed some light on fair trade . . .
Baskets from Bolgatanga have become a very popular ‘commodity’ to trade.
Bolga baskets by the container load wash up on the shores of many ports around the world. Most of the baskets are of mediocre quality where the weaver has made a pittance despite the fair trade claims dispensed from most quarters of the Bolga basket industry whether the producers / companies are accredited ‘fair trade’, or not.
Because a company is accredited fair trade doesn’t mean that they trade in an ethical manner. Generally, these companies are very well intentioned, but because the principals of the overseas based companies don’t spend much time in Bolgatanga (a week or two at the most), they really don’t get to see what goes on in terms of how their agents distribute money to the weavers that have been contracted to make their baskets.
The Baba Tree guy lives in Bolgatanga full time and oversees everything – and everything happens under his nose at Baba Tree Headquarters. If this isn’t ‘hands on’, I don’t know what is….
The various fair trade certifying bodies are very well intentioned. But they don’t have the resources to oversee everything that goes on in the various countries where they have certified producers.
From my personal experience, they perform financial audits in order to see if a company has adhered to ethical trading principles. But let’s face it, it’s easy enough to cook the books in order to dress the windows in a fair trade kinda’ way.
The Baba Tree applied for fair trade certification in 2009 and we let the application lapse owing to the fact that we went on a sabbatical. We had one more set of questions to answer and the inside info was that we were about to become fair trade accredited.
We haven’t bothered to apply again with any of the fair trade certifying bodies because the term ‘fair trade’ has pretty much become meaningless and worn smooth like an old penny owing to the fact that there is no real oversight that ensures that those that are fair trade accredited are walking their talk.
If the Bolga basket industry is starting to clean up it’s act then it would have a lot to do with the damning 100 page report on the lack of fair trade practices in the Bolga basket industry released by the G-lish Foundation (the original creators of fabulous baskets that are woven of recycled plastic and cloth –and stunning works of art produced from the same) in November 2014.
The link for the report – and the other amazing things they do – is here:
Where’s the ‘spin’?
Despite the Baba Tree puffing out it’s chest and proclaiming ‘’Look how great we are!” our weavers DO NOT get paid enough for our older styles (“Round”, “Ovals”, “Pot Baskets”, “Nyarigas”) that we have on offer.
For our ‘single weave’ baskets (half as many warps and wefts using a thicker straw) such as bicycle baskets and laundry baskets, the weavers do just fine. Again, for our older style ‘double weave’ baskets, that is not the case.
The Baba Tree is only ‘fair trade’ relative to most of the operators in the industry that pay a pittance.
For our new styles (Pakurigo Wave, Jemima 10 Cows, Drum Baskets), which we have wallpapered our Instagram and Face Book pages with, our weavers are making good money.
Other producers/companies that produce Bolga baskets, predictably, are cherry picking our designs from our social media accounts and having them made at a much cheaper price elsewhere in Bolgatanga.
And thus the cycle of stupidity continues – where the weavers don’t get paid enough. And everyone else does….
This is how it is…
I have been watching with great interest the work of Simone Cipriani of the ITC Ethical Fashion Initiative and their #whomademyclothes campaign. It clearly illustrates a higher consciousness that is starting to pervade the clothing / fashion industry. It is a very welcome breath of fresh air.
Who made your basket?
Professionals, of course.
Not poor Africans that need your help but artisans from a region in Ghana that have created functional pieces of art that have brought great joy to those overseas that have purchased them at cheap prices that undervalues the skill, time, dedication and artistry involved in their production.
And they don’t get paid enough…
In an effort to bring down the cost of weaving a basket for our weavers, The Baba Tree dyes all the straw and provides them with the sundry supplies needed to apply their craft.
If we had enough space in Baba Tree World Headquarters (the crumbling edifice that it is…) we would provide straw and sell it to the weavers for just above cost. Years ago (when we had room) we did this, and it worked like a charm…
Let us revisit the derisive ‘’Basket Weaving 101’’ that underpins the perception that baskets should be cheap…
About 25,000 knots – where warp meets weft – are woven by expert, calloused hands in order to create a Baba Tree 16’’ Round Market Basket. That doesn’t include creating a very neat coil around the top of the basket, nor does it include the work involved in creating a neat and very strong handle that is going to be subjected to a stringent quality control process by the Baba Tree (as are all aspects of the basket).
The above tasks take about 2 to 4 days work depending on the weaver. This figure does not include the time that it takes for the weaver to walk to the market to purchase straw. It doesn’t take into consideration the time it takes for the weaver to prepare the straw for dyeing (another day 1.5 to 2 days work for one basket) or the time it takes to dye the straw.
In terms of compensation to the weavers for their time, skill and artistry that has brought great joy to many around the world:
We’re talking chump change, folks…
Let us not delude ourselves and allow ourselves to get all soaped up and lathered by the fair trade claims bandied about in this industry for I see this same 16’’ round basket being flogged on websites operated by certified fair trade businesses and charities for USD $28.00 – USD $40.00.
Yes. Forty bucks for 25,000 knots of straw expertly placed to create a thing of beauty.
Forty smackeroos – retail, for the work of art that busy hands, knowledgeable hands, working at a blurring pace whilst an insistent toddler (and, at times, twins) demand that a mother engage the mysterious motherly craft of mothering in the form of nursing whilst her hands are a blur working the straw.
Expert, professional, hands a blur whilst a father worries about paying his daughter’s school fees.
However, very often our baskets are woven to the aural backdrop of raucous laughter – the Baba Tree compound is filled with screams of laughter…
Many of us are into ‘fair trade’ until we hear the price.
Some might proclaim “Market forces, my boy, market forces!”
But, that isn’t good enough for this good old- fashioned idealist.
A contentious response…
I sense that we are evolving past that traditional view of the market and are starting to emerge with a new compassionate model that truly acknowledges the toil of those that create to adorn our lives. This isn’t a fist in the air ‘’worker’s rights’’ tirade. This is me staring into the eyes of a weaver and seeing myself gaze back at me.
Some may ask “Why doesn’t the Baba Tree pay the weavers more?”
One answer could be ‘’the Baba Tree operates on profit margins that are a mere wisp” Another could be:
"Dear customer. How much are you willing to pay for a genuine Baba Tree basket?"
Are you willing to pay what it’s worth? If you paid more for a basket it would give us a lot more room to move in terms of upping the compensation to our weavers. Simple. But it would seem that many want all and sundry to be China-cheap.
Through our pocketbooks are we willing to acknowledge the time it takes to weave this basket and the skill and artistry that has gone into making a finely crafted basket?
In terms of fair compensation, are we willing to make room for all in the supply chain i.e., the weavers?
What do we value during this precarious chapter in the history of humankind where the much needed global transformation is starting to take hold?
A bargain is a nice thing to find but must it come at the cost of those who made it?
Most of us have bills to pay and budgets to adhere to, but:
"Every time you spend money, you are casting a vote for the kind of world that you want"
~ Anna Lappe
We might pay a cheap price for something now but in the long run it costs all of us a lot more. The world is getting smaller. We are making strides to become more of a family. But instead of giving a group of people a fair go, market dictates have it that we squeeze the weavers for a lower price to align with our budgets which in turn undermines their attempts at self sufficiency and turns them into beggars for our breathtakingly inefficient, and often, ineffectual, ‘aid’ – our ‘charity' . . .
For our older style baskets, the prices that we charge are too cheap. But, acknowledging the aforementioned ‘market forces’ we have to factor in the price of shipping, per basket, that can be quite expensive – but not very expensive . . .
Yes, the Baba Tree joyfully engages the services of children to weave some it’s baskets.
The children with whom the Baba Tree works want to weave baskets and make money.
Frustratingly, we can’t buy all the baskets that the children we work with produce. It is really hard to say ‘’no’’ to them, and it is really hard to see the look of disappointment on their gorgeous, innocent, little faces when we have to decline their baskets owing to having so many in stock.
Our children mostly weave ‘’tiny’’ round baskets, tiny ovals, tiny pot baskets and tiny Nyariga baskets. The baskets that children produce the most of, by far, are "tiny" round baskets (6" – 10").
Children weave their baskets in their family compound after school and on weekends.
Purchasing ‘’tiny’’ baskets is a smart way to bring down the price of shipping, per item, because you can fill many nooks and crannies in a shipping sack with these small baskets.
You can choose to pay less for the dross of mediocrity that negatively impacts the lives of those that make your basket, or you can choose to vote with your wallet and trade with the Baba Tree – a company that is doing it’s best to make this journey work for everyone.
The weavers of Bolgatanga are simply asking, like ANYONE, for a ‘fair go.’ They don’t need our ‘help,’ they need our fair compensation.
You can pay a fair price now for a Bolga basket of unequalled quality (brought to you through swift customer service), or pay the price later though charity or ineffective aid. And global malaise…
In November 2015, we at the Baba Tree unveiled our new retail website. A big part of the inspiration for doing so was to pave the way for our weavers – especially those who weave our older style baskets, to earn a commission on the retail price of the basket they wove thereby compensating them closer to what they are worthy of and helping to fulfill our strong intention for making this enterprise work for all involved - on all levels
Thank you for reading this and becoming acquainted with the Baba Tree.
We look forward to serving you!!!
Founder / Director
The Baba Tree