People of the Sun

Maria Haralambidou graduated from the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London and has worked for high-end architectural projects in London, UK, including the Stratford Olympic Village interiors. Following an MA in “Management in the Creative Economy” in Kingston Business School, she won a grant to collaborate with the British Council, Kingston Design School and African NGO ‘The New Basket Workshop’ using her design and business skills to help marginalised female basket weavers in Zimbabwe. After a research field trip to India, Maria moved to Malawi and founded ‘People of the Sun’, an award-winning non-profit social enterprise, empowering marginalised artisans through design and business training.

People of the Sun has brought international designers and local artisans together, resulting in award-winning products. Within two years of existence, People of the Sun is a success. The artisans are beating poverty and are able to sustain themselves off their income, becoming more independent. As for their products, with the Cone Stool and Blantyre Jar selected among the ‘Best Products Out of Africa’ at the South African Design Week 2014, a sponsored invitation to showcase during the Milan Design Week 2014 in Italy and winning the Coup de Coeur Prize at the Africa Design Awards in Gabon, 2014, it is safe to say they are of the highest quality. Finally Maria was also invited to give an inspirational speech during the TEDx event in Malawi, where she talked about economic empowerment through design and trade in Malawi.

First of all, why the move from the field of architecture to that of Home furnishings? Was it something you wanted to do, or did you decide along the way?

I was always fascinated by artisans during my travels. I loved scrolling in local markets of a new country to find traditional handicrafts, meet the artisans and understand all the techniques involved into making one product. Its actually impressive all the work that goes into all these handmade products yet most artisans in developing countries live below the poverty line. So I decided to do something about it! Follow my passion, while also doing something good! I managed to win a small grant, through Kinston University and the British Council, to work with a group of basket weavers in Zimbabwe for a month and I loved it! Combining my experiences with these artisans and the ones I had met during my travels, it was obvious that they all shared the same problem: access to markets. But how could they ever access markets? They all lived in remote villages and their products lacked design. So thats how the idea of People of the Sun started.

You may think that it’s so different to architecture, but architecture is also about solving problems in a creative way, which everyone now calls design thinking. Even though the final product of People of the Sun is furniture and home deco, the aim is to use design and design thinking as a tool to overcome poverty challenges.

Apparently you started the whole thing by seeing a beautiful basket, identifying the artisan who made it and he then gathered his village into the Mango club, your first collaborators. How hard was it to explain to them about business trade, to set up a training platform from scratch?

To be honest the beginning was very hard! I picked up this artisan from the market and we went to his village, with the Poodle of the Sun of course! There we were welcomed with extreme curiosity, by the artisans and only 3 joined the very first day! A lot of individuals and organisations try to help the poor but many times this help is only temporary resulting in hopes that are not fulfilled therefore developing a mistrust. But I was persistent and went to the same village every week. By spending a whole day with the artisans, and above all, by inspiring them with books and design magazines, I made sure to introduce them to endless possibilities available and explain completely new topics, like value chains and market forces. This time was also invaluable for me to understand the local culture and dynamics in order to develop the strategy and direction for People of the Sun. I think by now I’ve won their trust and People of the Sun works with over 100 artisans in different villages! What is more important though is that they all know that only through trade they can improve their livelihoods. This factor is very important because it breaks the charitable dependency, and at the same time, empowers and dignifies their newly reinvigorated profession.

You have stated that local artisans are knowledgeable in their traditional techniques but lack in international design apprehension. Were they easily convinced to collaborate with acclaimed designers such as Rentaro Nishimura (designer of the Cone Stool) and Donna Wilson (designer of the Peaks & Blocks Basketware)?

They were very excited to work with designers such as Rentaro and Donna and now they see how adding value to their products brings in more orders and hence more income. Of course they don’t understand how famous these designers are! And that’s the beauty of it…

Rentaro Nishimura is a designer, who I knew from London and I knew that he was perfect to transform a traditional handicraft into a modern piece of furniture! So I send him pictures and videos to understand the local techniques of basket weaving and he transformed a traditional basket into CONE, two nesting stools that derive their structure from a double curvature. It was a very difficult product and took many prototypes, but eventually it worked and we were all so excited! Cone Stool is such an innovative product! In fact it was selected and showcased last year in Cape Town during the “Africa is Now” exhibition as one of the most innovative products coming out of Africa.

Donna Wilson, came into the project through Sheridan Coakley, the owner of SCP in London, one of the most renown furniture retailers in the UK. Sheridan was captivated by the story of People of the Sun and was keen to collaborate with a unique collection for his store, so he brought in Donna, who designed “peaks & blocks”. When the artisans saw Donna’s drawings and intricate patterns for the first time, they were terrified! They thought they could never do it! We worked with 1:1 drawings and after a few prototypes they managed to execute quality baskets that, of course, have been a huge success!

You currently work with several micro-enterprises, including Atekwene (wood carving) and Warm Hearts (paper recycling), who produced the Blantyre Jars, a beautifully made cross-disciplinary collaboration of recycled glass bottles with carved lids and recycled paper packaging. Did your architectural experience come in handy to co-ordinate them?

I wouldn’t say that the successful co-ordination between 3 micro-enterprises worked because of my architectural background. The collaboration and co-ordination has been successful because these 3 micro-enterprises (after intensive training) are the most advanced in terms of entrepreneurship.

However what derived from my architectural background and education is how to find a creative solution to an urban problem, which is waste. The design of the Blantyre Jar is a response to clearing up the waste that the city generates and transform it into a desirable product! For the Blantyre Jar we collect discarded wine bottles from hotels and restaurants, paper from offices and schools and cardboard from industries and supermarkets. Then all these come together into the “Blantyre Jar”. It’s just beautiful how the whole city (Blantyre) participates to make one product happen!

It seems 2014 was the year of People of the Sun recognition: you won awards, your products sold out, your artisans must have been thrilled! Has this reputation brought more artisans to you and how do you cope with the numbers?

Of course we have more artisans, we grew from 3 to 100! This is because People of the Sun has rejuvenated a profession that before was obsolete and considered of the lowest status. Now, after witnessing the economical impact and experiencing the personal educational growth through the People of the Sun mentoring and training, the profession is considered hip and cool… In fact I am happy to say that lots of youth are taking up to the challenge.

Although lots of artisans, who hear about People of the Sun, want to join the groups, many don’t understand the hard work and attention to detail that goes into every single product. So all new artisans are tested by current groups on commitment and craftsmanship before they are accepted. People of the Sun need to grow but at the same time, growth needs to be steady, as quality control is of vital importance when it comes to trade, especially when targeting the high-end market.

People of the Sun acquires funds to help training local artisans to everything business related from accounting & book keeping to branding & identity building. Will the artisans in time become totally independent of the People of the Sun?

People of the Sun has been conceptualized to have a strong and immediate impact on the livelihoods of all participant artisans and does not rely on any outside agency or national initiative.

People of the Sun doesn’t acquire funds from donors, like traditional charities. Instead People of the Sun is a social enterprise acquiring funds from commercial sales. But People of the Sun doesn’t just do commerce, we do so much more than that. Commerce is just a way to collect funds. There is intensive training that goes into each artisan group both in terms of business and design, before they can start trading. For example, with my first group of artisans, it took 6 months of intensive training on design, quality control and basic financial literacy before introducing the products on the market. In terms of the groups working independently in the future the answer is very easy… of course! Even though it will require time and it will depend on the national infrastructural growth, because the reality is that it’s very difficult for an artisan in a remote village in Africa to become a global entrepreneur when he/she has no direct access to water or even electricity!    

All that business is essential but as an architect do you find yourself influencing the design direction of People of the Sun? A little tweak here and there maybe?

Not just a tweak here and there! All products marketed through People of the sun are designed either by myself or guest designers. But that has always been the aim. You can’t expect an artisan who has never left his/her village to be able to design for high end shops in Europe… then the role of the designer would rather become obsolete! However every artisan that works with People of the Sun also gets a sketch book and pencils in order to motivate creativity. In fact some have now started to design, inspired by what we have done so far. So hopefully in the future we may spot some very talented designers!

   

Based on your experience so far, would you say that working in Africa can offer more opportunities than in crisis-ravaged Europe?

Africa is a rising continent and definitely has lots of opportunities at the moment in various sectors, but working in Malawi hasn’t been easy! There is lack of infrastructure, lack of precise export systems and overall lack of reliable services. Having said that people are born entrepreneurs and despite and against all odds always find a way to adjust and reinvent themselves. In fact I think what People of the Sun does best is to give our artisans a real and concrete hope, tangible, through the hard work of their own labour and with the well deserved income they profit from each sale.

   

Finally, I have to ask you to tell me about the Poodle of the Sun, Lulu who seems to be in every other People of the Sun photo -is she your mascot?

Lulu is not only a mascot but also a founding and essential member of People of the Sun! When I brought her to Malawi from London I would have never imagined the impact she would have. Everywhere we go, people run from all directions to see what kind of animal she is. Most of the time they think she is a monkey or that she is wearing a uniform! Then they line up to take pictures. But above all having Lulu as a partner is great because she instantly breaks the ice when we go for the first time to a village or to a slum to meet artisans. She also does a few tricks like catching a ball in the air and giving “high ten”, which adds further smiles and laughter. With Lulu everybody immediately connects with us and is very happy to show us around and introduce us to artisans. So if you want to start an enterprise in Africa…get a standard poodle!

Text:

Maria Kalapanida, architect MA AADipl

Photos:

 

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