I am, as you know, a big fan of a basket. You’d do well not to trip over one in pretty much any room of my house. When Elizabeth de Vise emailed me about Artisanne, the company she set up with her sister, producing ethical, beautiful baskets which also empower local women, she had me at ‘baskets’.
When I met Elizabeth for coffee, I was blown away by her ideas and determination. I love that Artisanne was born from the sisters’ local knowledge of Senegal. I especially love that the work directly with local women – there is no middle man – setting them up as businesswomen in their own right (and they insist that any girls who work on the baskets do not miss school to do so). They have painstakingly built relationships with the weavers: at the beginning, Emma did the six-hour round trip to the village with her tiny baby daughter in tow. There is so much to admire about both these women and the company they have set up. And they offer truly beautiful baskets – produced with meticulous attention to design, detail and conscience. It’s not often that your basket comes with a side order of feminism and a sense of doing good. How can you possibly resist?
Elizabeth started her career as a Modern Languages teacher and after two years moved into advertising where she worked for 13 years. She subsequently started a small brand consultancy with a colleague before eventually founding Artisanne. Whilst some of the skills cross over, Artisanne has been a completely new and exciting beginning for both Elizabeth and Emma.
Emma is a child protection specialist and has worked for several organisations including War Child, Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers and Child Frontiers. Alongside supporting Elizabeth with Artisanne, she currently works as a consultant on a wide range of child protection initiatives, including research and evaluation, and policy development processes. She has lived and worked in Africa for the last 13 years, of which 6 were in Senegal so she has a good contextual understanding about the complexities of working in Senegal.
Were you ready to get back into work – was it a case of the right project/role – or did this happen in more of a serendipitous manner?
I knew that I wanted to go back to work and ideally run my own business as having done so once, I could not imagine working for anyone else. You have to be passionate about what you do, Emma and I always loved the baskets and owned many, the more we explored opportunities for Artisanne the more excited we became.
What inspired you to start Artisanne? And why baskets?!
It began with us visiting local markets in the capital, Dakar, to buy baskets for our own homes, where we used them to store laundry, children’s toys and household knick-knacks. Stylish and unique, they also made great presents for friends and family. Our passion for the baskets was matched by their popularity amongst those we gave them to, which got us thinking about ways to bring the work of the talented Senegalese women who make them to your homes.
Who are the women who make your baskets: how did you discover them and their remarkable talents? How did you build the relationships?
There is only one region in Senegal where these baskets are made, the region of Thiès, where weaving techniques have been handed down from mother to daughter for generations, and where the baskets are still used for general storage.
From the beginning, we have worked directly with the weavers, avoiding intermediaries, to ensure the women earn a fair and secure income for their products. To get us started, Emma, who was living in Senegal at the time, travelled every fortnight through the villages in the Thiès region, to find our weavers and spend time with them, building trust and an understanding of what we were trying to do.
We soon identified groups of artisans interested in working with us. The hours spent talking in the shade of a Nime tree helped establish strong relationships and an understanding of the intricacies of their craft. A large Ali Baba basket, for example, takes several days to produce. It also provided the women with the opportunity to understand our need for consistency with regards to quality and sizes, which in turn meant they were in a position to negotiate a price that seemed fair to them and to us.
Each piece is created with meticulous attention to detail respecting the traditional Senegalese Wolof weaving style whilst incorporating contemporary designs and colours. The baskets are weaved from a local grass, ndiorokh, and long strips of plastic that are traditionally used for making bazin mats, similar to prayer mats. Their unique hand crafted nature means that no two baskets are exactly the same.
Why is it so important that you work directly with them?
Working directly with the women, without middlemen, ensures no one else is taking a cut and that we know exactly who is working for us. It also allows the women to discuss issues and concerns with us face to face. For example, there was a drought last year and the cost of the grasses needed to weave the baskets went up 30%. The weavers came directly to us and we were able to cover that cost.
Being able to speak and negotiate with us directly helps us ensure a steady and fair income, enabling the women to improve their family’s everyday needs, such as supporting elderly members of the family who can no longer work, and providing additional medical care when needed. It also allows the artisans to access an international market they would not otherwise reach.
Is your emphasis on this direct relationship – and insistence that any girls who work on the baskets don’t do so during school hours – considered unusual? Or am I being naïve and the women there are hugely ambitious and forward-thinking?!
Yes, most people use a middle man and the people have no idea who has weaved their baskets nor the challenges the weavers have faced. Some villages are more forward thinking than others, but most women like the fact we are interested in their daughters’ education: something they frequently lack themselves. Initially, some weavers were concerned that they might miss out on orders, but now that we have worked with them regularly over a period of time. they realise and like the fact that our orders are regular, throughout the year, that we pay regularly and that we are prepared to wait to ensure top quality.
Do they make to your design brief – or do they have a say/input into the look of the products?
We offer round or oval based shapes as this follows the traditional weaving style. For examples we do not offer square or regular baskets (even though we are frequently asked for them) as it is not the Wolof weaving style. Different groups of weavers are more specialised to weave certain shapes: some, for example, can perfect the ali baba laundry baskets, but are less able to the oval storage baskets.
We determine the sizes, patterns and colours based on what we think will suit the UK and European market.
What’s been the highlight thus far?
In the last 18 months, we have gone from working with half a dozen women in three villages to working with some 70 weavers. As Artisanne has grown, our close relationship with the artisans has meant we have been able to train some weavers to organise, manage and quality control their own group of weavers. We are proud to of this work and are committed to the women’s further development and empowerment.
Elizabeth was in Senegal 2 weeks ago and one highlight was a weaver telling her how much she enjoys working with us because we are training her and giving her more responsibility. This in turn enables her to support her elderly relatives who can no longer work.
By spending so much time with the women talking about the need for consistency and high quality we managed to get an end product that looks beautiful and that we are really proud of.
Getting into some of our favourite stores, such as Cologne & Cotton!
Getting such positive feedback from so many people, in particular, those who buy on the internet. Comments such as the one we received last week, make our day: “Thank you so much for going the extra mile and hand delivering (the basket). It really is beautiful – almost too lovely for dirty laundry!!”
Every time you have to get the container ready!! Different paperwork is required ‘this time’, the boxes delivered are the wrong size, mechanical failure at the docks meaning the whole shipment is delayed….
What’s your plan for Artisanne: more stockists? Expanded site? Handbags – please!
We plan to expand web-based sales; produce new designs; and widen our range of products to include bags that could be used for everyday purposes and shopping.
Can you talk a little about how you feel about this shift in your life? As we juggle work, family and W&W, Alex and I are always curious as to how other women do it. Was it hard to give up your job? How do you balance that fledging business with children?
I was ready to give up my full time job but was mildly terrified when I bit the bullet and handed in my resignation. I had a brief period of time between finishing the brand consultancy and starting Artisanne. We had just moved and one of my children was still very little. Juggling children and builders was very hard work.
Running a small business with youngish children is hard but very rewarding. It gives me flexibility, but I often end up working into the early hours. During the recent heatwave, I couldn’t sleep and decided there was no point lying in bed with so much to do so I started work at 4am. It was a long day but I am sure many working parents have done something similar!
How do you separate work/family – is it harder when it’s your own business?
It is hard to separate the two, and at times the lines get blurred, but I feel that is the price one pays for the privilege of having children, a job that you love and – above all – flexibility to try and have both.
The children also quite like being involved and playing their part. One loves helping out if I do a fair and two of them have visited our very first village.
What’s the best/worst thing about running your own business? And the one thing you didn’t expect?
I have taken myself out of my ‘comfort zone’ and sometimes wonder what I am doing but I love trying and learning knew things, most of the time. I never thought I would be an expert in containers and bolt cutters!
Best thing being at sports day without feeling guilty! I had the annual accounts to finish off but they could wait until the evening.
My all time low was when my children were all still wide awake at 10pm. I thought I was being clever boxing up baskets after they were in bed, but turns out gaffa tape is very noisy!
What three things would you say to someone thinking of doing the same and setting up on their own
You have to be really passionate about what you do and truly believe in it. There will be plenty of knocks but ultimately these beliefs are what get you throug
Try to compartmentalise areas and tackle one at a time.
What is the worse thing that can happen? (I often fall back on this.) It is scary at times but ultimately better to try. (Sorry, that’s horribly clichéd!
Do you have any mentral mantra you live by – or advice which has stayed with you?
It if was easy, many others would be doing it.
One step at a time.
You’re a long time dead!