G-Lish Foundation is holding an exhibition, “Finfinhi”: Little by Little, from 6-17 February at Pine Street Creative Arts Centre in Chippendale, Sydney. The exhibition will display 40 key pieces from 2 year’s work with the women artisans in Ghana.
How did G-lish come to be?
G-lish Foundation was registered in 2010 as a non-governmental organisation in Ghana. The co-founders, Godwin Yidana from Bolgatanga, Ghana, and Gayle Pescud from Sydney, Australia, met in 2008 . Gayle was already working in fair trade in Ghana and Cambodia for a few years by then and Godwin had done non-profit projects while completing his undergraduate degree in Ghana. They met over a mutual interest in doing something to resolve the Bawku conflict and decided to hold “a day of peace” in Bawku on the UN’s Day of Peace and Ceasefire on September 21, 2008. They managed to pull it off against many challenges and a fair bit of danger—no one had ever brought the two warring sides together for a peaceful game of soccer. That’s another story.
They returned to live up north in Bolgatanga in 2009, wanting to ‘do something with baskets’, when Godwin discovered how to transform the drinking water plastic bags that clean drinking water is sold in, and which are littered everywhere, into twine in the same way that straw is twisted for baskets. We realised we were onto something special. Recycled plastic and cloth baskets had never been done before. With our backgrounds in community development and project management, fair trade, craft production and colour and design, we knew we could develop this into something more. We also had savings from Gayle’s previous work to get us through the first year. We made tiny prototypes which gradually got bigger. Then we added cloth, based on family in Australia’s suggestions.
We persuaded a group of five women from Godwin’s village of Dulugu to try making baskets from recycled materials in 2009: Adandina, Julie, Laadi, Paulina and Atoore. They still work with us today and are among our best weavers and artisans, as you’ll see in the exhibition.
We’ve used over 313,000 plastic bags in basket and art work production since 2009. We count them as we pay the people who cut and twist them by the bunch of 200 pieces so we do keep track. We also figured out how to transform African wax print cloth into twine, and have used over 1,456 yards of scrap (recycled) cloth.
G-lish now works with about 70 women and 40 young people across three communities.
We buy all the plastic and cloth from small businesses in the region—restaurants, shops and seamstresses—they don’t give it to us for free. We pay all the producers who cut the plastic and cloth and those who twist it higher than fair trade prices for their time. Dozens of people derive income throughout the supply chain for our work, not just the weavers. But then there’s the weavers, without whom none of this is possible.
Each art piece in the exhibition uses around 3 yards of recycled cloth and 100-300 pieces of recycled plastic, depending on its size.
Our weavers experimented with cloth-only pieces and mixed cloth and plastic pieces. The mixture of plastic and cloth has a pointillist effect when it blends together so that the plastic almost disappears into the piece, but it also provides contrast to the colour and helps define line and pattern.
This project was funded by the Australian High Commission in Ghana through their direct aid programme. We also undertook fair trade research for straw baskets as part of this project and the outcome of the interviews with six straw basket producing communities across the region, as well as basket buyers globally, will be released in the month following the exhibition.
Are the pieces for sale and, if so, will the proceeds go to the artisans?
Yes, everything is for sale. You can see all pieces for sale on our website (after the launch date of February 5) and purchase them online there or through us at the gallery—we’ll be there every day from 6th – 17th to answer questions.
Yes, 50-60% of each sale from the exhibition will be paid to the artisan who made it, directly. The balance of the sales price will help cover costs of the exhibition such as shipping, printing, extra days hire, catering, postage, and so on, and help cover Ghana staff salaries so that we can continue to work with the community as a viable entity that is not dependent on external funding. In other words, we are a social enterprise which operates as a business, not a charity or aid organisation.
The artisans were already paid a nominal price for each piece in 2013 as part of the project from which this art work was developed. Those rates were based on higher than World Fair Trade Organisation (www.wfto.com) fair trade rates for the time spent creating each piece. However, each artisan will now receive an additional, much bigger payment based on the sales price received in the exhibition.
In this community, most women earn roughly $1 per day, profit, on whatever they do. That’s around $365/year income. We project each of these pieces to sell in the $300-$700 range. At 50% of the sales price, that’s $150-$350 per piece, which is just under half, and up to one year’s average income per piece. This will be unimaginable income for these women, especially if they sell more than one piece. This has potential to revolutionise their lives which is why we undertook the project in the first place. We envisaged an opportunity to create truly life-changing income for communities and this is one way we could conceive of doing it with our combined resources and skills.
Most women opened a bank account for the first time in 2011 as part of our Savings Club program in which they formed small groups to save the income from baskets, which is common practice in Ghana anyway. They’re likely to deposit this art work income into an interest-earning account or for their children’s education. Some will probably build a new room in their mud-brick compound. It’s up to them, but we try to help them learn how to increase their income through life planning financial literacy workshops where they write their goals and our staff help them figure out what they need to do to reach those goals.
How does G-lish engage with individuals in the community?
Production is still the core activity and we work with the producers—cutters and twisters of plastic and cloth, and weavers—every day across three villages. We have two paid staff in Ghana and two unpaid staff in Australia. Instead of asking producers to visit our office, our staff visit them. It saves producers time and allows them to tend to household work which they still have to do. We deliver all the recycled materials to their door step, pick up finished pieces from them, and pay them at their homes so they don’t waste time travelling to us. We have one motorbike for transport, and two bicycles! We do workshops on quality control with baskets and also on design and colour.
We also undertake specific projects to help the social and environmental impact in this neglected, poor and distant region, the Upper East Region. It’s 800 kms north of the capital, Accra. It’s the second poorest region in Ghana. Over 70% of people are illiterate and only 4% get to university. Historically, most people don’t finish primary school, but that’s now changing.
We also plant trees in the communities where we work. One problem we discovered, though, was that mango trees (which grow everywhere) are in demand and people stole them at night after we planted them. Same with teak and cashew. We raise them from discarded seeds and now give the seedlings away to local households so they can plant them in their compound. This means they keep a close eye on them and they have a vested interest in their survival; it’s a matter of pride and great value to have a mango, teak or cashew tree. It feeds you and gives you the coolest shade in the village in the hot season.
Most of our women weavers can’t read or write. They either didn’t go to school at all or didn’t finish primary school. Less than five finished high school. We hope to run what we call Night School for Producers which will teach everyone to read and write in 9 months in both their local language, Frafra, and English. We hope to raise funds for that later this year. We budgeted $6000 for 9 months of classes for 50 people, mostly women.
Gender-based violence workshops and counselling
Domestic violence is a huge problem in this region. However, we’ve noticed that violence decreased due to the empowerment women felt and received through the work with G-lish. For example, women in certain households now out-earn their husbands and the men, in turn, defer to women for decisions (which is unheard of) and the violence reduced as a result of the perception that came with this empowerment. They also began to act with more confidence as a result of feeling valued, being paid fair prices and actually being valued for their work, and from the camaraderie they developed with other women in the village also working with us. We visit them every day to undertake production—but it’s not all business. Our staff spend time listening to problems and informally mediate family feuds and this has made a huge difference; they feel listened to and respected as well. Men are also responding positively to our involvement in their lives and its lifted their spirits too which has decreased stress and, thus, violence to an extent. We’ve seen a big change in the first women we worked with. They’ve gone from timid to confident, funny and not afraid to express their opinions. You can read more about our impact on our site.
Working with youth
We have also started a dialogue programme for young people in Junior High Schools to informally discuss gender-based violence and its impact on their lives, the lives of their families and what they can do to address it in their communities. We use soccer as an organising tool for bringing the youth together in a safe and non-confronting environment to discuss this very important issue openly and honestly.