WINDHOEK – The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), as set out by the United Nations, are a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure that all people enjoy peace and can prosper. One Namibian non-profit organisation that is committed to this cause is the Omba Arts Trust, the largest body marketing Namibian traditional and contemporary crafts.
Based in Windhoek, Omba Arts Trust assists marginalised communities by providing them with a platform to generate revenue from their traditional handicrafts. The Rössing Foundation’s Craft Development Programme, initiated some 27 years ago by Omba Arts Trust’s director, Karin le Roux, evolved into the Omba Arts Trust, which registered in 2004. Le Roux embarked on considerable research into the sector in those early years. As a result, the marketing side of the work began when it became evident that artisans living in remote communities needed an outlet for the products that were being developed, and this market-driven approach has contributed to the increase in livelihoods for many artisans.
Today, Omba Arts Trust supports 400 producers in over 15 communities in eight regions country-wide. Ninety-five percent of the total number of producers are women and 60 percent are San from Omaheke, Ohangwena and Otjozundjupa regions.
“Omba Arts Trust supports local artisans through training, product development and sourcing materials and then channels their handicrafts to markets that would otherwise not be exposed to unique quality Namibian products. By adding commercial value to their craft, not only are traditional skills being maintained but the lives of marginalised communities are also improved. This income contributes to poverty alleviation,” says Le Roux.
Although their crafts are rooted in Namibian culture, a modern twist is added to the final product appealing to a different market. For example, several new ranges of ostrich eggshell bead jewellery made by Ju’/hoansi women have been introduced to the market, but the same centuries-old bead-making technique used in the making of this range remains the same.
According to archaeologists who have dated beads from ancient burials sites, the San have used ostrich eggshells to make these crafts for over 60,000 years. Traditional methods of production remain largely unchanged. Eggshell shards are shaped into circles; holes are drilled into the centre with hand drills and strung on sinew. In modern times, synthetic thread is used to string the beads together. The beads are then sanded down to make the edges smooth.
The craft sector in Namibia faces many challenges – a large country and a small population, the transactional costs to reach remote communities as well as the absence of raw materials for many artisans to name but a few. Long-term partners are an important component of Omba Arts Trust’s strategy and the relationship with Bank Windhoek, a wholly-owned Namibian bank, dates back to 2012.
The bank’s continued support has given Omba Arts Trust the liquidity to acquire more raw materials and stock. Le Roux said: “The Bank Windhoek grants have helped us grow the incomes to our artisans as well as the turnover of the organisation and most importantly, contributed to our sustainability. It has also enabled us to stockpile raw materials that we not only have to source outside of Namibia, but those made in Namibia as well. Ostrich eggshell beads made by a very remote re-settlement farm in Omaheke are sourced in larger quantities and we are able to supply two other groups on different re-settlement farms. This system has grown production and increased the income of the artisan’s substantially.”
Omba Arts Trust’s 2017/2018 annual review indicated positive results. The tourism industry’s encouraging performance yielded increased incomes for most of the core groups Omba Arts Trust supports. Another highlight was the inclusion of an Omba Arts Trust-designed ostrich eggshell necklace at the Commonwealth Fashion Exchange in the United Kingdom. The necklace was paired with a couture outfit designed by a Canadian designer and was displayed during a reception at Buckingham Palace. Le Roux attended the event that was hosted by members of the British Royal Family.
Other recent successes are the establishment of a new craft group in Oshana Region and the impact of Omba Arts Trust’s Lighting Up of Women’s Lives initiative in the Kavango Region where solar lights are being sold to non-electrified communities.
Le Roux added: “We have been addressing food security in some of the San communities we work with and with the support from the Finnish Embassy we have developed several new products that we hope to launch at an exhibition in July 2018 and will attend some markets abroad.”
Omba Arts Trust partners with some conservancies that are legally registered with clearly defined boundaries and a constituted management body. They are managed by community members for the development of residents and sustainable use of wildlife, tourism, handicrafts and traditional farming activities.
Nyae Nyae, Kwando, Mashi and Mayuni and George Mukoya are some of Omba Arts Trust’s conservancy partners.
“Bank Windhoek actively seeks to partner with projects that support principles of sustainability within communities. The Omba Arts Trust is one such partner and we have seen the impact of their operations and philosophies in the communities that benefit from their association with the organisation,” says Bank Windhoek’s executive officer of Marketing and Corporate Communication Services, Jacquiline Pack. She goes on to add: “We admire the drive to showcase Namibian artefacts on the global stage and see how the producers of those same artefacts are able to provide for themselves as a result.”
Omba Arts Trust will continue ensuring the sustainability of their projects and the livelihoods of the communities that they support in the future. Maintaining good relationships with artisans and keeping a close eye on the relevance and evolution of the products remain key to the success of the communities who make crafts for a living. In addition to overseeing production and planning for sustainability, Omba Arts Trust will focus on contemporary San art with exhibitions planned for 2018/19.