ATA has expanded its reach in East Africa by modernizing the craft industry of Djibouti, a small country neighboring Somalia and Ethiopia. Traditional Djibouti handcrafts consist of basketry and mat weaving that embodies stories of its people and culture through patterns, shapes and colors. A poor country with limited resources, Djibouti’s handcrafts industry and artisans have been neglected.  Most artisans live in the countryside and produce tribal traditional items for their own use. Meeting Djiboutian artisans who are proud of their heritage and culture, Aid to Artisans sensed a “hunger for design” in the artisans’ eagerness and openness to new designs.

Aid to Artisans launched our “Artisan Women Initiative in Djibouti” as part of the “Projet de Promotion de l’Emploi des Jeunes et de l’Artisanat (PROPEJA)”, Job Promotion for Youth in Crafts project. Funded by the World Bank and the Japanese Government, through the Agence Djiboutienne de Développement Social, PROPEJA will provide practical skills training and access to finance for over 3000 youth and women living in poor communities in Djibouti-ville, Arta, Tadjourah, and Ali Sabieh.

Previously ATA developed new products for sale to the French military, US Marines, expatriates and tourists.  ATA engaged international Designer, Sophie Sauzeat and Binky Newman, owner of Design Afrika to travel to Djibouti and implement ten-day beading and basketry product development workshops with over 70 women. The workshops developed new products for fashion accessories and home décor.

Sophie trained 35 Djiboutian women in beading creative new products. This led to new jewelry and fashion accessories reflecting local nine themes, including coral sea-inspired jewelry and geometric patterns. “In this training, I delivered more than one design file per artisan. The participants showed enthusiasm, requesting more and more designs while enjoying creating jewelry sets. We did a collection of 100 models that needed minor improvement but overall it shows great progress if we consider from where we started,” says Sophie. Her training proved successful as artisans continued to develop their designs after the designers had completed the training and left the country.

Binky trained 35 women, developing 122 new basketry products including decorative baskets, bags, hats, and large functional baskets in a variety of colors. Keeping the Djiboutian cultural elements, the artisans expanded their creativity through new designs, ideas and unique creations. The design workshops caught the attention of Djibouti’s President and the First Lady who promoted and supported it by increasing participation of additional women artisans.

The workshops culminated in a five-day marketing event in December led by ATA Marketing Specialist and Designer Frederic Alcantara. Frederic organized a large exhibition of the new handmade products that centered on three themes: Heritage; showcasing a selection of some of the most beautiful achievements of traditional Djiboutian craftsmanship, Utility; reinvented tradition crafts to be used in daily life, and Design; capturing techniques and styles that reinvent crafts itself by blending materials, techniques, and motifs.

The main exhibition hall featured four booths filled with products from six regions. Three large podiums displayed “prestige products” at the entrance of the conference hall. The event attracted government officials and dignitaries, Chamber of Commerce functionaries, expatriates from the U.S. and Japan, and US military and embassy staff who appreciated the innovative designs. The sales were $5000 USD over five days, boosting artisans’ confidence and commitment to the work.

The next steps of this project will include more product development workshops and marketing events to reach more artisan women and target local markets.