With inspired craftsmanship and big visions, women artisans around the world are reinvigorating local traditions, supporting themselves financially, and spreading the wealth.
Olutosin Oladosu-Adebowale proudly shows me a colorful photo collage featuring handcrafted tie-dyed garments, bubble quilts, laptop totes, and washable sanitary pads with cases. These represent a few of the 19 crafts she teaches women to make from recycled materials. To Oladosu-Adebowale—Nigerian activist, artist, entrepreneur, and World Pulse Voices of Our Future Correspondent—these are more than handicrafts. They are a means for women to rise above their circumstances.
“Our religion, our socialization, our institutions, our culture support the fact that the man is the head and the woman is the tail,” says Oladosu-Adebowale. “So when your institutions support the fact that the woman is just the tail, it takes long years to change that. We address that.”
In early 2014, Oladosu-Adebowale launched her inaugural Trash to Treasure, Abused Women to Assets training program in Bangalore, India. She has since taken the program back to her home country and dreams of expanding it to communities across Africa.
Her trainings include five phases that revolve around gender equality training, healing, storytelling, creativity, and entrepreneurship, along with craft production and mentorship. Following her trainings, Oladosu-Adebowale strives to connect women with start-up grants, empowering them to create their own businesses and secure income streams.
“If you can change trash to treasure, as an abused woman, you can add value to your life and become an asset to the community,” says Oladosu-Adebowale. “You can pick up your life and gain another direction for yourself.”
Throughout the World Pulse community and across the globe, women-led artisan businesses and cooperatives are thriving, drawing from matrilineal traditions and harnessing the power and possibility of technology. They are seeing the fruit of their creativity enrich their own lives—and their communities.
As Oladosu-Adebowale was honing her artisan training program, another World Pulse member, Rebecca Osei-Fordjour of Accra, Ghana was creating her own eco-friendly bead and accessory business, featuring locally sourced materials by Ghanaian artisans.
Since its beginning in 2012, Osei-Fordjour’s popular MoshelBeads YouTube channel has received more than 60,000 hits, spreading her tutorials on paper beads, jewelry, and upcycling to communities around the world.
Meanwhile, in Ahmedabad, India, World Pulse member Julie Desai is passionately advocating for artisans in her home country. She is an attorney, and chairperson of International Women’s Wing, a tributary of Vishwa Gujarati Samaj, an organization representing the Gujarati diaspora. Desai helps women living below the poverty line by offering skill development programs to build their craftsmanship and expand their economic opportunities.
Desai says her organization is able to provide women a “unique platform for individual betterment.” They also work with jail inmates, conducting reform and empowerment programs, and teaching skills such as mud mirror work to decorate walls.
Artisan activity is the second largest employer in the developing world behind agriculture, according to the Aspen Institute’s Alliance for Artisan Enterprise. But its depth and scope within economic development is underrepresented.
Artisan enterprises generate income, create jobs, foster economic communities, sustain ancient techniques, and preserve culture and meaning, the Alliance states, adding that within conflict regions, artisan work and economic community can promote reconciliation, healing, and empowerment.
During an Alliance-sponsored panel in April 2014, Greta Schettler, Senior Economic Policy Advisor of the Department of State, Office of Global Women’s Issues, remarked that the sector is a major driver in advancing women’s economic empowerment for peace and security.
“The artisan sector offers the opportunity for tremendous economic stability, market access, skills, and capacity building,” she argued.
It’s a growing industry that offers economic opportunities for women that come with work flexibility and autonomy. The impact can be life-changing.
Inspiration from within
Oladosu-Adebowale first dreamed up her Trash to Treasure initiative in 2011 after participating in a South African training program called Institute of Transformation. During the week-long program on ecology, she says her inner mind was opened to the similarity “between abused women and our abused earth.”
“The dream took away my sleep and I began to look for a way to merge these wonderful creatures that are highly disrespected by men,” says Oladosu-Adebowale.
Oladosu-Adebowale was selected for the Kanthari International Institute of Social Entrepreneurs training in Kerala, India in 2013. This opportunity allowed her to shape her dream and partner with Mahila Samakhya, an Indian organization, to empower women in rural Karnataka, India.
When Oladosu-Adebowale finished work as a social advocate for survivors of sexual assault, she sought a new, reliable form of income. Adamant to continue to empower women and girls and work for social good, she turned to a traditional craft carried down by her matriarchs: tie dye.
Oladosu-Adebowale started out teaching 45 women tie dye free of charge in 2010 during a three-month training her husband helped fund with a $3,000 loan. Through World Pulse, she connected with Jumoke Giwa of the Nigerian NGO Change-A-Life.
Together, Oladosu-Adebowale and Giwa established start-up grants to assist women with developing their own businesses after the training. They founded an office and training center where Oladosu-Adebowale continues to operate.
Trash to Treasure products are made from upcycled materials such as Styrofoam, sawdust, used towels, and tailors’ waste. In the past five years since she took up tie dye as a entrepreneur, Oladosu-Adebowale’s program has continued to grow, with more than 600 women receiving training.
“When you support women, the universe opens doors for you,” says Oladosu-Adebowale.
Supporting women, preserving the environment, and encouraging others to upcycle is also important to Rebecca Osei-Fordjour of MoshelBeads. Today she operates from a porch at her home, along with two women assistants. She dreams that one day MoshelBeads will be global name, known as “the African accessories company making a difference online and in local communities.”
Osei-Fordjour first stumbled across a YouTube tutorial for paper bead-making in 2012 as she finished up NGO contract work and was figuring out her next step. She tried her hand at jewelry making, creating gifts made from upcycled materials that quickly became popular among her family members, neighbors, and friends.
Moshel means governor or ruler in Hebrew, and represents the spiritual side of Osei-Fordjour’s work. Her accessories include earrings, necklaces, and bracelets, along with key chains, all made from paper, recycled glass, and recycled brass.
Osei-Fordjour takes great pride in using powdered glass and clay beads from Dodowa, Somanya and other places across Ghana. She describes measuring, neatly cutting, and hand-rolling her beads, saying she hopes customers find the love she has poured into her handmade jewelry.
Osei-Fordjour has a burgeoning Etsy shop, and a goal to support specific causes, such as children’s education and school supplies, through MoshelBeads. She hopes to expand MoshelBeads to other communities in Ghana.
In addition, she represents the Ghana Bead Society, an organization that aims to popularize Ghanaian beads. This opportunity led her to speak at the Ashma Beads Festival and have a larger voice in the industry.
“My inspiration comes from within,” says Osei-Fordjour. “What keeps me fueled is definitely my passion for the work I do, and the fact that I have empowered people online fulfills me as an individual–this makes me want to create something new all the time.”
Fulfillment is also a key motivator for Julie Desai. After she started working as a professional, she realized there was something amiss in her life. Noting the disparity she perceived in India, Desai says she was forced to look at her surroundings differently and wonder if only earning a livelihood was enough.
“To me it was not,” Desai says. “This was my way of giving back to the society which I grew up in. This has given me satisfaction and I have enjoyed every moment I work with these artisans.”
Desai’s NGO conducts various skill development trainings in local arts, such as soof and kharek, jewelry, mina, and mud and mirror. The organization has helped raise awareness of women’s issues through seminars, workshops, and debates.
The organization also facilitated an event in which one of the women artisans applied to the Guinness Book of World Records and won the category for Fastest Henna.
Desai describes Ela, an initially meek woman with brilliant soof and kharek embroidery. The woman’s work won a President of India Award, the highest accolade in the land for her artwork. Ela traveled with Desai to the United States for the first time to the Gujarati Conference and has since traveled to several countries to demonstrate her work and train both Indian and foreign women.
“I believe that artisans provide income that complements survival, while reinforcing ethnic identity and cultural pride,” says Desai, noting that when women are empowered in traditional arts, it can provide a source of income and employment, providing women financial independence.
“Empowering artisans may lead to improving health and education of future generations,” Desai says. “Promoting artisans is a great tool for cultural diversity and coexistence.”
Walking into the dream
Despite the benefits, there are also challenges for these women as they attempt to secure ongoing funding sources while forging a new model of work for themselves.
“When I started, I had nothing,” says Oladosu-Adebowale. “I was so afraid to face the dream. I was afraid because I did not have a dollar… I walked into that dream, and ever since, I did not regret it.”
Still, she wishes funding wasn’t an ongoing concern, especially when her goal is to economically empower other women. She cannot train as many women as she would like to, and has invitations to train women that she cannot honor. She also must continue to secure funding for her office and training spaces.
Osei-Fordjour says it’s a perpetual challenge venturing into a business different from her background in political science. Sometimes she hears from family members or friends who worry that pursuing MoshelBeads full-time is a financial risk.
Many women artisans want to ensure their trainings and the skills they teach women are sustainable, helping their students get their own businesses off the ground. Their students may have many responsibilities on top of the trainings.
Desai and her colleague organized a small gathering of women artisans who produce applique work in a slum neighborhood. Few of the women travel outside of their homes, and many are not allowed to.
The gathering had to be held after lunch, as the artisans were responsible for feeding their family members and cleaning up. Because the afternoon was their work time, most of them carried work with them to avoid missing income. Most of them came with young children as they had to look after them.
Desai says these women worked with difficult conditions, and did not earn much money.
“They resist change as they are not sure that spending these extra minutes would bring any financial gain they aspire for,” Desai says. “Trying to change their equilibrium is the biggest challenge we face.”
For many though, the effort is well worth it. As Oladosu-Adebowale trained other women, she says she trained and empowered herself. Work became positive and joy-filled.
“When I work from morning to night, I don’t feel as though I’m working as long as I am training women,” Oladosu-Adebowale says. “... I don’t see a drain–there is a joy, a flow of river in me.”
Finding a Niche
The World Pulse members I spoke with advise up-and-coming women entrepreneurs to embrace originality and preserve the artisan’s style. And they encourage artisans to pay it forward by training other women and marketing each other’s work.
Desai says she hopes her NGO can reach out to more women in rural areas and continue to replicate programs around India. She would like to see younger generations of women train through a polytechnics or diploma program.
“My advice is, if you have an inherited art, do learn some extra skills including the proper marketing skills so you are not dependent on traders and shop owners to sell your products,” says Desai. “Empower yourself digitally also for the change you desire.”
Osei-Fordjour suggests, “There’s lots of competition out there, but create your own unique design and brand. It will amaze you how creative you can be.” She advises young Ghanaian entrepreneurs to “master the ability to motivate themselves, be original, and pursue their passion.”
Oladosu-Adebowale is already training her young daughter Tobi Angel, 12, in tie dye and other crafts. She hopes to train daughter Divine Ona-Ara, 9, soon as well.
As she reflects on the past five years, Oladosu-Adebowale remembers a woman named Iyabadan who was widowed and had to live with her younger sister.
After being trained and connected with Change-A-Life for a startup grant, the woman saved enough money to rent a place and put aside $700 to start a new business in January.
With the support of Change-A-Life and other organizations, today Trash to Treasure boasts an office, training center, 10 sewing machines, furniture, and numerous products the women sell.
Oladosu-Adebowale encourages women to step out and speak up as they pursue new opportunities.
“When I left the organization where I was working, I left rejected and very sick,” Oladosu-Adebowale says. “World Pulse encouraged me to follow my heart, and I did not regret it. Even as I support women to progress, did you know I am progressing too?”
Like Desai, Osei-Fordjour, and entrepreneurs following similar paths, Oladosu-Adebowale has much to be proud of. “I came into this world, and I’ve added color to this planet,” she says.
Editor's note: Connect directly with Olutosin, Rebecca, and Julie on World Pulse.If you are involved in artisan enterprise or are interested in exploring this topic further, join the Economic Empowerment Group and continue the discussion.