Friday, December 05, 2008

The Bag Man

For months I've been mulling a plan for running a fair trade craft stall out of the Red Chilli compound. The basic idea is to find a suitable third party we can trust to run it, as long as they promise to pay a fair price for the goods, and plough any profits back into the stall and the community.

In the course of this, I have a list that's getting longer every day, filled with people who have approached me about their community group, their crafts, their products.

One of those people is a guy from the UK called Rick Benfield, who, with his friends, has set up a small charity called Wanna Be Amazin'?,(yes, even he admits the syntax is rather self-consciously twee), and has been working in the field in a small community called Badjo, about an hour north of Kampala.

They are establishing education and health based programmes in the local community there, but one of the things Rick has been trying to set up (the man worked as a consultant for Accenture in the UK) is an income generation scheme for the community based on the handicraft skills they have.

Some of the women weave lovely baskets out of banana grass (as do many communities here in Uganda) but one of the things that makes the Badjo group special is the bag man.

Nathan, the bag man, is a guy who has been making beautiful bags for years. He had previously just made them by himself, and they are made from strips of woven palm leaves interspersed with barkcloth - a material which is uniquely Ugandan and comes from the fibres of the fig tree. It looks a little like tan coloured suede in appearance but feels closer to fibrous paper in texture. It used to made into clothing, and still is for traditional ceremonies of the Buganda.

Nathan's bags are so special, that even I, who had not been in Uganda long when I first saw them, recognised the potential. I'd not seen anything similar in the craft markets here.

Anyway, Rick brought Nathan the bag man and his friends to town a couple of days ago, and I promised to introduce them to some people I knew. The first group is a large Muzungu run North American NGO famous for helping Ugandan women lift themselves out of poverty by making paper beads and selling them internationally. More on them later if this deal with the craft stall plans come good.

The second meeting was with less of a group and more of a friend. Suni is a Kenyan born half-Scottish, half-Hungarian whirlwind expatriate businesswoman, whom I know through the owner of Red Chilli, my boss Debbie.

Suni set up the beautiful Mihingo Lodge overlooking Lake Mburo National Park, and also set up and runs the highly successful Banana Boat chain of craft shops that specialise in fair trade crafts from all over Africa. Anyway, she happened to have five minutes to spare and I wanted her to see Nathan's bags and the potential they had. Potentially.

So on Wednesday, I ended up in meetings with people giving Nathan some highly constructive advice on finishes, labels, descriptors, pricing, etc. It was fascinating, and really rewarding to see people in the craft business have a similar reaction to the bags that I had.

It made me see how much fun, but also how incredibly complex it would be (not to mention how much extra work), a fair trade craft stall would be if we ended up doing it ourselves and didn't hand it over to a third party.

It's tempting, but we have too much on our plates. In the meantime, I'm hoping a certain group will say yes to a joint venture on the stall, and that we'll be able to stock some of Nathan's bags ourselves soon.


Becky said...

Hi Anne-Marie

I was just searching for my friend Rick Benfield for I fear I have lost his email address, when I came across your fab blog!

I've also just given up the day job to go out to Uganda in Feb - the plan is just for 5 months at this stage. I've been twice before but only for a few weeks at a time so looking forward to a bit more time out there. I was working at Accenture where Rick works but I actually know him cos we grew up in the same village - it's a small world after all.

Anywho, I just wanted to say what a lovely blog you have and that we have a shared identity of our organisations: chilli. The Children's Project that I'm going out to support runs a big chilli growing programme and so we called the UK charity 'Chilli Children'.

My blog is

Happy blogging,


Anne-Marie Weeden said...

Hi Becky
Sorry I've been a bit out of touch with the blog - generally distracted by being busy at work - and then I sign back in to find this. How lovely that you have found Rick's details (tho I think he left for the UK on the 15th Dec - not sure how long for) so he may be back in 'the village' (as they would say over here) over Xmas.
Your project sounds cool. Or hot, if you carry the chilli theme on. I shall take a look at it.
Come pay us a visit when in Kampala.