Designing Across Continents
We (Naeema and Aniqah) design all of our Makonde utensils. Each piece is influenced by our love for cooking, Swahili architecture and the tastes of the East African region. Designing is one of our favourite elements of the business (the least favourites being accounting and import logistics!).
We start by thinking of the type of spoon we want, its functionality, the type of wood to use, rough measurements, the shape and how it aligns with our collection. We both use our spoons and scoops in our own kitchens, so over time realise we need something else to use for a different purpose.
We sketch out our initial ideas and refine the designs until we’re happy with them. We work with simple sketches - pencil/pen on paper rather than digital drawings.
We then insert all our sketches into a document with very detailed notes and measurements in English and Kiswahili, and email this to our carvers Filbert, Jackson, Joseph and Daniel who are based in Mtwara, Tanzania. Each item includes a mood board of the finish and function of the piece so the carvers get a sense of what we are asking for.
The carvers review our designs and make us our first samples. They then let us know how much they will cost. They set the prices which allows us to ensure they are paid more than a fair wage for the work they are doing. Quite often, a few additional samples of each design has to be made.
During this entire process, we communicate with our carvers on WhatsApp and through video calls. They send us photos of the different stages and let us know of any challenges that need to be overcome. We work closely with them until we are all satisfied. WhatsApp has been a wonderful tool for us to get to know our carvers and what's going on in their lives. We speak to Filbert's children and know when a family member needs help. We love it when we receive videos of all four carvers working and chatting together. It's been an incredible tool for us to manage our production and keep in the loop.
The carving and execution of the design takes the longest amount of time in the process. Each piece can take days to get right as the carvers are meticulous and each stage requires the use of different tools to achieve the final look. When the samples are ready they are sent to us with one of our orders. We ensure new design sampling is tied in with an order so everything can be sent together in an effort to reduce our carbon footprint.
Filbert manages and oversees the overall production for us in Mtwara. He organises all the packaging, forestry certification and shipment for us. There are quite a few stages of forestry certification we have to undergo, in Mtwara and at the place of export in Dar-es-salaam.
In East Africa technologies such as mobile banking have allowed those who don't have access to the internet or banks to move money easily. We pay our carvers through their phones so they get the money instantly and securely. It's amazing for us that we can design, sample, produce and pay our artisans all through the medium of our mobile phones.
Find out more about our Makonde Wood Carvers here. We share details about their craft, heritage and photos and videos of the carving process.