The Maker Lab where most of Distaff&Spindle's baskets are made is located at Lake Mantasoa, roughly a 2-hour road-winding journey east from Antananarivo, the nation's capital. As you make the trip the air gets cleaner, the pollution and noise of the congested city fading away to the quiet, bucolic vistas of rice fields, zebu grazing on the side of the hills, wandering creeks whose banks are bedecked with washed and drying laundry.
The community space at Kanana, the location at which the Lac Mantasoa Atelier is located, is covered by pine trees. You can smell the pines steeping in the sun. As you near the Maker Lab you can hear the hum of sewing machines and the laughter and chatter of women enjoying one another's company. I don't understand what they're saying as they chat, but the tone and cadence speaks of contentment and safety. From all aspects, this appears to be a delightful place to work and live. The workshop is housed in a beautiful red-stone building. Just beside it is a small shop that sells necessities and treats for the workers and the community who live nearby.
The Makers at Lac Mantasoa.
You can see some children in the background. Children are welcome to come and go as they wish, there is a school and preschool on the same lot as the basket making building. The schools offer quality education to the surrounding community.
The Atelier has many large windows that are left open during the work day. They have plenty of natural light and fresh air as they work to the sounds of birdsong, barking dogs, and the playing children next door at the preschool.
Seraphine & Baby Miampy. Here Seraphine is stitching the applique dots onto a piece of raffia that will make up the exterior of a basket.
Some of our baskets have the name of the maker written on the tag. If that is the case with your basket, you may be able to find the photo of the Maker of your bag here.
Nasaina - Maker, Manager, Fills orders
While I know many of the Maker's names, and have spoken to some of them in person, I seem to have lost many of my files and records, so some of the names are lost. It's difficult to contact anyone at the Lac Mantasoa site to supplement the information I am missing, so until I find this information these beautiful photos of the Makers will have to suffice.
The Raffia Man. Sorry, i dont know his name. He works off-site dying the raffia fibers
Affixing the interior drawstring closure to the basket.
The Blue/Orange Distaff&Spindle labels used on many of our baskets were ordered by me at Labeltex, a company based in the capital of Antananarivo, in 2011. We will use these until they are gone and then, if we're still operating, we will have labels made that use our brand's colours and logo.
The baskets are made mostly to order. The range of styles are kept upstairs in the little store room. That's where I go when I am at Lac Mantasoa, to select the pieces I will bring back to Canada to sell.
The Store Room
Once I make my basket selections Nasaina (left) helps to pack them in sturdy cardboard boxes to transport back to Antananrivo, my base and former home for 11 years. I repack the baskets in my luggage to bring with me when we depart. Because the bags are lightweight and capable of stacking within one another, it's possible to bring a few dozen bags back with us, especially when my family is with me and we have 10 full sized pieces of checked luggage to work with. This is the way Distaff&Spindle has been importing bags since 2011 - in personal luggage.
Now, that Madagascar's Customs regulations has changed, it makes the process of exporting Products somewhat more of a challenge. Certainly, I feel it is a wise decision on the part of Madagascar to put regulations in place that help to protect the resources of their country from those who would take advantage of them. I have always been happy to pay the legitimate fees required by Customs, however, there is always a great risk of being taken advantage of by officials who are seeking personal gain by way of bribes. Exporting from Madagascar is a delicate and extremely tricky process. I have heard this from professional exporter friends as well.
Currently, when we want to take Madagascar product out of the country we must know well ahead of time what we're bringing out with us, submit an itemized list for the customs officials to review, and pay the duties upon departure. For us, the only difference is that we need to plan well in advance, rather than the instinctual selection I have normally practiced in the past. :-)
Why do we not import a container full of product?
This is a good question, and one I have pondered for many years. The bottom line is, it would cost a minimum of $40,000CDN to do so, with the price of that much stock, the price of the container, shipping, and all the Logistical help necessary to pack, process the necessary documents, deal with the bribery-ridden export system, etc. Once the shipment would arrive on the Canada end, it would require processing the transportation of the container inland to Manitoba, dealing with customs, and the storage necessary for all the product to be kept. For a one-woman enterprise, this endeavor is just simply too overwhelming, the potential for being screwed over by people wanting to take advantage of my import-ignorance too high.
Secondly, I prefer to be in Madagascar in person to select the best quality and style pieces rather than let others do this for me. If I were to order such a huge quantity of stock and receive it in Canada only to discover the quality or styles were such that I couldn't sell them, that would be... crushing. The steps involved in ordering, making, checking-over, itemizing, packing, and sending a container of goods is extensive, and the chances of error are high, from my past experience.
Shipping smaller quantities that I have the chance to inspect myself in person is therefore the best way to ensure I can offer the products I have learned my customers prefer.
My deep yearning, however, is to bring in a in a large (but not 20-foot-container-large) shipment of baskets and blankets, because I want to support the work of these Women Artisans and the welfare of their families. I continue to seek wise counsel, where I can find it, and wait for an opportunity to arise that would allow a larger shipment of baskets to come at a cost I am able to pay. Do you have any advice based on experience on this matter? I'd love to hear it!