JORA VILLAGE, Kenya – When a group of women from Kenya’s Taita Taveta County first decided to band together to sell handwoven baskets, they only hoped to make a little money on the side. But today, 17 years later, many of them are the main breadwinners in their families, upending patriarchal norms that stretch back for generations.
The key to their success did not come from a technological innovation to boost productivity or a cash injection from a local NGO. The women behind Taita Baskets owe their livelihoods to a trademark.
“I have always known women in my community to be housewives and fully depend on their husbands, who were herders and small-scale perennial farmers,” says Keziy Mwaluga, a basket weaver and 65-year-old mother of five. “[But] women are now fighting inequality in income generation and property ownership.”
As if to prove her point, women start streaming into her home. Quickly, they unpack their sacks and pull out baskets to finish. This is a full-time job for every one of them.
Only a few years ago, the women of the Taita tribe only wove baskets during their leisure time, using them to carry food to their farms or seeds while planting in the fields. But as the cost of living rose, the women gradually started selling their baskets to others who do not weave. Then they started selling them to exchange students from Europe and the United States who live in the cottages on Mount Kasigau.
Eventually, one of the women suggested they form a group to help negotiate better prices. The women agreed and came together in 30 small groups scattered throughout the villages.
The 400 women were now all working together, but could not figure out how to reach a market beyond fellow villagers and foreign students – until 2016, when the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) came to Taita Taveta County to run a workshop on building a brand. In cooperation with the local government, the Japan Patent Office, the Japan International Cooperation Agency, the Kenya Industrial Property Institute and the One Village One Product program, WIPO trained 100 women on quality control, branding, the importance of trademarks and intellectual property.
“This came to our rescue, as we had been struggling to make our brand sell out there. WIPO told us that with a trademark, we would be able to decide how much we want to sell our products for and would also be able to control the quality of our product, so that it is unique and uniform when all of us in the 30 groups weave,” says Mwaluga’s daughter, Hilda Mbuwa.
The workshop resulted in the various groups joining under one association, with Mbuwa as chairwoman, and protecting their product under the Taita Baskets trademark.
The Power to Negotiate
Mbuwa says the confidence the women had to take that step with their business is fueled by a growing movement among Kenya’s women to claim the equal rights granted to them by law.
“Women have been empowered, especially with the 2010 constitution that calls for equality for both men and women, even in terms of income,” she says.
But gender inequality is still rife in Kenya – in society, economics and politics. According to a 2016 report by the United Nations Development Program, “deeply rooted structural obstacles” to closing the gender gap cost sub-Saharan Africa an average of $95 billion a year.
Marc Sery-Kore, director of WIPO’s regional bureau for Africa, says the Taita women’s group is an example not only of how women can achieve financial autonomy, but also of the benefits for the economy as a whole.
“The Taita Basket project illustrates how economic growth can be stimulated at the grassroots levels by the use of intellectual property tools such as patents, copyright, industrial designs, trademarks and collective marks,” he says.
“[The association’s] use of branding is adding value to their traditional handiwork and will boost their earnings from this wonderful craft.”
WIPO is the group behind World Intellectual Property Day, which is observed on April 26 every year. This year’s campaign “celebrates the brilliance, ingenuity, curiosity and courage of the women who are driving change in our world and shaping our common future.”
In line with that mission, Ernest Nguruwi, the county chief officer in the Taita Taveta County government’s Department of Industrialization, Energy, ICT and Research, says the government is working closely with the women of Taita Baskets to grow their business. Along with giving the group some funding, authorities are also conducting training sessions on how to manage their money.
“And [we] have supported them in participating in both local and international exhibitions so that they can market their baskets to customers and, through the trademark, negotiate better prices and command a market share,” says Nguruwi.
Mbuwa says that before getting the trademark and standardizing their production quality, the group sold their baskets for less than 900 Kenyan shillings ($9) each. Today they can charge up to 1,500 Kenyan shillings ($15) each. But Mbuwa is confident the baskets are really worth double that, and says they are working on growing the business to reach bigger markets so they can charge a fair price.
We Do Not Go to Bed Hungry
Still, the women face challenges. They say some buyers purchase baskets from them in bulk at half the retail price – or less – only to sell them on for a profit. “They have the resources and technical know-how to market the products online and export them to overseas customers, [and] we are unable to compete with them as we do not have those skills,” Mbusa says.
The group has appealed to the county government to help the women put up kiosks in the major towns of Voi and Mombasa, so they can sell more baskets to tourists. The government says it is considering their request but currently doesn’t have the funds.
Despite the frustrations, Christina Mwakat, a 45-year-old mother of two, says joining the weaving association was the best decision she ever made, because now she can support her family.
Her husband, Michael, says their life has vastly improved since his wife started earning money from making baskets. With a health condition that stops him from doing farm work like most men of the Taita tribe, he even helps Mwakat with the weaving.
“I am lucky because I learned at a young age how to weave from my mother, and I help my wife a lot to weave. There is no benefit in the long-held traditions that men cannot do some jobs that are considered only for women,” he says.
“I am happy because my wife has been able to fill the gap and ensure we do not go to bed hungry.”