Between 2008 and 2013, Aid to Artisans worked with 200 artisans living in the Central and Southern Rift Valley of Ethiopia in the Ethiopia Sustainable Tourism Alliance program (ESTA). This region included the towns of Tulu Gudo Island, Bochessa, Lephis, Ziway, East Langano, Kelo, Hawassa, Dorze and Konso. These artisans represented 9 enterprises that developed products in textiles, wood, horn, basketry, and calabash. Their product collection embodied the lines for home decor, gift, fashion, and hotel accessories. Funded by USAID through the former Academy for Educational Development (now FHI 360) they created baskets, curtains, placemats, pillows, scarves, vases, among others. This month, we sat down with the former ESTA Handcraft Program Coordinator Sara Ibrahim to catch up on the recent successes of the artisans who participated in the ESTA program. Hailing from Addis Ababa, her passion for her work is matched only by the skill and crafts of the artisans she had worked with.

1) What was your role in the ESTA project?

Sara: I worked with ESTA for 3 years as a Handcraft Program Coordinator and I worked in livelihood development.

2.) How long did you work with ATA?

Sara: I worked with ATA for 3 years.

3.) Can you tell us a little about your background? Did that have any effect on your work with artisans?

Sara: My background is in Sociology and Development studies. I have B.A in Sociology and M.A, in Development Studies. I am from Ethiopia, East Africa. This is the reason why I worked with rural artisans. I tried to find a way to help them get better income and also to revive the dying art of crafts in some of those remote regions.

4.) Can you tell us about the artisans themselves?

The artisans can be divided into two major specialties. One is textile hand loom weaving and basket weaving, others do wood carving, leather works and bead works. But the two big players in the ESTA group were textile and basket weavers.

Textile weaving has a long history in Ethiopia and is very unique in its work. This craft belongs to group of artisans in Southern Ethiopia. This group of artisans are one of the poorest and most exploited groups. As a result, many have left the trade to join other types of works like daily labor, driving taxis, or other low paying jobs while migrating to big cities like Addis Ababa (the capital of Ethiopia). However, the sale of their products mostly benefited the middle men and shop-owners. The ESTA program was able to break this pattern by directly working with the weavers. Their work has not gone unnoticed as the region’s Small and Micro Enterprise Office awarded them with the 2015 Model Cooperative Award in The South Nation and Nationality Peoples Region of Ethiopia.

Handmade Tulu Gudo baskets at a recent bi-Annual Artisan Bazaar.

5.) Can you tell me about your experience with ESTA? Any recent accomplishments?

Sara: My experience in working with ESTA and ATA was good in the sense that the intervention is unique from the mainstream NGO programme like education, water, food security etc. that many of the development agencies are engaged in. As the community did not struggle with acquiring new knowledge, the handcraft component of ESTA strengthened the knowledge and skills the artisans already had. The opportunity gave them a chance to earn more income without making drastic changes in their way of life

5.) Can you tell us a story about these artisans that really stuck out to you?

23 women from the island of Tulu Gudo (the Tsion Handcraft Groups) have really changed the view of the basket products in Addis. Basket weaving, like textile weaving, has a long history in the lives of Ethiopians. The “mesob” a basket used to keep our staple food Injera, a pancake like bread with sour taste, is found in everyone’s home. Over time, however, the interest in basket weaving went down as more people began to use plastics in their homes. The introduction of new basket designs through ESTAs created a lot of new interest in the products. Those new designs opened up a lot of great opportunities for the artisans. In the last Bi-Annual Artisan Bazaar, they were able to sell in two days around 80,000 birr (USD 3,900) worth of baskets. This is a huge accomplishment since the end of the project in 2013..

With the money they earned they were able to purchase solar panels which allows them to have greater access to electricity for their homes. Now they can work in the evenings, enabling them to increase production.

A basket table with bamboo legs made in cooperation with National Institute of Design in India.

6.) What are some of the future plans for the artisans?

The future of the artisans is bright. It has been two years since the project phased out but all the artisan groups are still in business. They have maintained the market links ESTA created for them and more. They attend a bi-yearly craft bazaar and have seen a noticeable sale increase. Training opportunities have increased as well. They have already been involved in the UNDP and have worked with the First Lady of Ethiopia’s office initiative to link 1500 young women to the export market. In December 2013 and February 2014, 27 artisans trained at the prestigious National Institute of Design (NID) in Gujarat and the Bamboo Center in Agartala in June 2014. Additionally, two of our basket weavers were involved in training women in the shore of Bahirdar, north of Ethiopia. They also trained women in Bale in West of Ethiopia for the Frankfurt Zoological Society. Based on the exposure they’ve received, I believe the artisans can lead the way in craft development in Ethiopia. With the doors the ESTA program opened, the artisans can export their handwoven textile, basketry works and bamboo products to other parts of the world as well as revive the dying art of craft in Ethiopia by giving it a contemporary use.