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TRADE: Chic Carpets Link Mozambique, Denmark and, Soon, Brazil

Johannes Myburgh

XAI-XAI, Mozambique, Mar 14 2011 (IPS) - In two rooms in a small Mozambican coastal town, 70 women are cutting, weaving and packaging fabric carpets destined for eclectic design and homeware stores in Denmark and, soon, Brazil and South Africa.

Designer Carla Botosso (l) looks on as Angela Machuza weaves carpets in Xai-Xai, Mozambique. Credit: Johannes Myburgh/IPS

Designer Carla Botosso (l) looks on as Angela Machuza weaves carpets in Xai-Xai, Mozambique. Credit: Johannes Myburgh/IPS

Two years ago they gave life to an idea of Brazilian-born Danish designer Carla Botosso to produce carpets with an intricate knitting technique, called Mescla, which Botosso developed during her studies at the prestigious Danish Design School.

“Here were many women needing work,” says Botosso of their first meeting in Xai-Xai in the south of this African country with its long Indian Ocean shoreline. “I needed people to realise my ideas.”

The women formed an association, Vavasati, which means “the women” in the local language, Xangana. They earn fixed monthly salaries at Vavasati while the association sells the finished product to Botosso. She ships the creations 9,000 km across the world to Denmark and, soon, Latin America.

Bertha Abilio Cumbe, 27-year-old mother of three, is happy about the stable income for her family. “I like the work,” she says as she pulls loose threads from intricately designed carpets before wrapping them in plastic bags. “You can plant crops, but sometimes it doesn’t make money. Business isn’t always good.”

Despite 7.4 percent economic growth in the first three quarters of 2010, most of the 21 million Mozambicans rely on informal trading and subsistence farming. Only 500,000 of the 14 million employable people work in the formal sector.

“The women worked under a tree. Now they have a building and they have many more skills,” says Botosso. It took two months to teach the workers the complicated Mescla technique, and six months later they started exporting.

Botosso introduced the product at South Africa’s Cape Town Design Indaba in February 2011, and hopes to break into the Brazilian market soon. Her target is to export 2,000-3,000 carpets to Brazil, South Africa and Denmark.

Deeming Danish fabrics unsuitable for Mescla, Botosso found the ideal material to realise her dream in Mozambique’s colourful traditional cotton fabrics, the capulana.

“The capulana impassioned me,” enthuses Botosso while, behind her, the workshop hums with women’s voices and sewing machines. “The capulana is part of Mozambican culture. And tourists like it.”

In one corner, women cut the strips, while in the next room they sew them into seams using sewing machines. Finally a dozen or so knit the strips by hand with intricate knots to form a strong, rough and bulky carpet.

A last group cuts threads off the completed products before they roll and package them in plastic bags, ready for transport to the Mozambican capital Maputo and on to exclusive shops in Denmark like Maur Interior Design or Illums Bolighus.

In Mozambique Botosso resells the carpets from between 112 dollars for a 120 cm-carpet, to 300 dollars for a carpet of two metres. Input costs are quite high, with 100 m of capulana needed to produce the two metre- product, she says.

The operation does not benefit from any trade arrangements at present, but Botosso does enjoy other reductions. “As my product is made in a development project, I don’t pay certain taxes.”

The relationship between Vavasati and Botosso was brokered by Danish aid organisation DANIDA in a programme that couples businesses from Mozambique and Denmark, called B2B or business to business.

DANIDA helps Danish companies identify potential partners, then facilitates the setting up of the business and provides start-up funding of up to 923,000 dollars.

The organisation is paying the rent at Vavasati’s current location and most of the workers’ salaries. It also funds the construction of new facilities, which will sport a cafeteria and a nursery for the workers’ children. Vavasati will own the buildings once they are completed.

Vavasati pays the women a salary of 48 dollars a month, a stable income for women who used to rely on unpredictable embroidery orders. Commissions earned from selling the carpets to Botosso go to a central fund to build up capital.

While little, the earnings go a long way in a country where 54.7 percent of the population lives below the national poverty line, according to Mozambique’s 2010 Millennium Development Goal report.

“I manage to make what I need to support my kids,” says 43-year-old Hortencia Chilenge while her fingers deftly tie the fabric into the intricate knitwork. It is the only income in their household of five children and Chilenge’s unemployed husband.

The project also empowers the women in a society where they are faced with many inequalities. “In Mozambique women don’t have the power to make decisions in their households. Their husbands say ‘you can’t make decisions,'” Botosso notes. “Now they have jobs, the women can decide.”

As the association branches out into other products, including a planned children’s clothing line, the workers undergo training to run it by themselves, with a Mozambican woman from another organisation overseeing the management for the moment.

“I want it to be sustainable. I’m not staying all my life,” says Botosso. “When I go to Brazil, I will keep ordering and they will carry on working.”

Botosso also hopes more European designers will realise the opportunities in 
 Africa to develop their ideas outside Europe. “In Denmark, many designers don’t have work. They don’t see these possibilities,” she says.

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