Design Afrika – Dedicated to African Basketry

It was a bright, clear South African morning when Craft Editions met Binky Newman of Design Afrika in her Cape Town premises. Binky herself says she is not a ‘maker’ as she is not a trained designer nor is she especially good at weaving. She prefers the term ‘product developer’ instead, but this in no way does justice to her tremendous skill, expert knowledge and the prolonged hard work she has put into making Design Afrika the ethical and commercial success story it is today.

Design Afrika was founded in 1995 and is dedicated to revitalising the ancient craft of African basket weaving. Binky does this through creating appealing designs, establishing workshops and teaching traditional techniques, as well as marketing, promoting and selling the fair-trade goods. At its core, Design Afrika strives to nurture the creative and entrepreneurial spirit of rural communities – encouraging them to make beautiful, high quality products enabling them to make a sustainable living in what can be difficult environmental and economic conditions. By promoting well-made, traditional crafts Binky hopes that African basket weaving will be recognised as a source of inspiration and skill in the wider design world.

Binky began her career running shops in Cape Town and Johannesburg specialising in English country clothing and florals. Her own interests started to become more African as she grew more interested in the bush and its wildlife. Acting on that impulse, Binky decided to sell her shops to go and run a wilderness camp in the Okavango Delta, Botswana. It was there that she was introduced to the intricately woven baskets of the Hambukushu women who would visit every week to sell their wares. She remembers how greeting them and buying their crafts for the camp was one of the highlights of her job. She realised after 5 years that she wanted to get into craft again so she set up Design Afrika and went door-to-door selling a range of Hambukushu baskets to shops. Since then, Design Afrika has gone from strength to strength selling both wholesale and retail.

Although she is based in South Africa, Binky’s Design Afrika journey has taken her all over the continent. She works with basket weavers from Zambia, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Niger, Botswana, Burkina Faso, Ghana as well as South Africa itself. Her role differs with each of the groups she works with. Much of her success is down to how closely she works with both her customers and the weavers. By listening to the needs of her customers and understanding what they want to buy she is able to create market-led designs. When working with established weaving groups, she often creates new designs herself and runs workshops with the weavers to try them out, before putting in a commission and order. By doing this she knows that the quality will be impeccable, the weavers will feel confident and the products will sell, thus creating an income for all.

In Ghana, the Bolatanga basket weavers are well-known and very established. Both men and women weave and their products are highly regarded the world over. Here Binky simply chooses and buys their colourful designs and they are always popular with her customers.

By contrast, the DuNoon weavers are a group that was set up by Binky herself with support from the Cape Town’s mayoral office, to encourage traditional Xhosa weaving and create jobs for migrants in a poverty-stricken, urban area. She had to start from scratch teaching the women to weave herself. Fortunately the current trend for more organic-feeling items means that products made by new weavers that may have slight imperfections are still very popular because people enjoy their individual, hand-made quality.

Constantly on the lookout for new weavers and new inspiration, Binky has travelled to many remote parts of the continent. She says her main focus is always the quality of the weave; items have to be beautifully made even if they do not look particularly viable in their current form. She has a knack for adapting traditional designs into something she can sell. She also tries to resuscitate old weaves and stitches so that the techniques are kept alive and passed on to a new generation of weavers. In order that the finished products are ethical and sustainable, Binky encourages the weavers to use naturally occurring materials that are local to their particular environment. This means the different products might originate from palms, grasses, sisal, roots, reeds or even recycled plastics depending on their habitat.

Design Afrika’s range is as extensive and contrasting as the different landscapes of Africa itself, intricate geometric patterns are celebrated in Batonga Isangwa and Nongo baskets; the tableware and storage range are simple and practical; whereas neutral colours and natural shapes emerge in the glorious Bulawayo garlic gourd of the Organic range.

Binky has an encyclopaedic knowledge of different basket makers and their unique local techniques. She can recount the story of the weavers and their community, the provenance of the grasses and sisal and how they are dyed and woven, for every single item in her shop. Her passion to develop African basketry seems to know no bounds and her expertise is acknowledged throughout the country.

Find out more about Design Afrika here.

All images by Craft Editions.