Baba Tree Basket Company
Baba Tree Basket's beautiful, ethically-sourced baskets are handmade using all-natural materials. Based just down the road from Aduna's baobab processing centre in Bolgatanga, Northern Ghana, we caught up with founder Gregory MacCarthy to tell us more about this inspiring company.
What drew you to Ghana?
I was living on a small island off the West Coast of Canada, planning a trip down through the Americas, when I ended up at a gig where some musicians from the Ga tribe in Greater Accra were playing. I picked up a leaflet advertising some drumming workshops on the coast of Ghana conducted by one of the drummers. Not long after I was at the Sacred Music Festival in Vancouver watching a performance by a Santeria ensemble (an Afro-Cuban religion based on the music and beliefs of the Yoruba of Nigeria) and I was absolutely blown away. There was no doubt in my mind - I was going to Africa...
Gregory ‘Ayinedollah’ MacCarthy, founder of Baba Tree Basket Company
How did Baba Tree start?
The Baba Tree started at the end of my first trip to Ghana in 1999 when I bought some beads, cloth and clothes back with me to sell to friends back in Canada. There was a big demand for the beautiful crafts I was bringing back and in subsequent trips, I became preoccupied with travelling to different regions in Ghana to source beautiful crafts.
I knew that baskets were a winner so on my first trip to Bolgatanga in 2002, I went to the basket market and started buying. I was swamped by weavers who were thrusting their baskets upon me because I was paying a high price owing to the fact that I couldn't believe how ridiculously cheap they were and discovered, very quickly, which baskets were of quality and which ones were not.
It got to the point where I created a wholesale business and would send a container a year back to Vancouver with baskets, beads and cloth being the main focus. I spent a lot of time near Krobo Odumase working with my bead makers where I had introduced new forms of glass to work with and essentially created new types of glass beads.
Being the homebody that I am, I found travelling around Ghana on its dodgy highways was exhausting and untenable. I liked the quietude of Bolgatanga and baskets were my biggest sellers so I based the business here.
I found a compound to rent - which I'm still in - and traders would come and sell me their baskets. By 2012, I was living and producing in Bolgatanga full time and exporting to shops at all points of the globe.
Each and every basket you create is so beautiful and vibrant, who designs and creates them?
For most of the colour designs, I do. But, increasingly, one of my long time buddies on the Baba Tree crew, Azure Abotizure, is starting to create a lot of marvellous designs. For both of us, some designs that we create work and some don't. We both find it increasingly difficult to find that breathing space for the muse to do it's work as we all become increasingly busy meeting the demands of a growing business.
Sometimes a weaver will come in with a basket that has a colour design that they have created and though the design might not necessarily set me alight it might present an idea that we can riff on and create new designs and colour ways.
In terms of the actual shapes or styles of baskets that we do, some have been created by the Baba Tree or an existing design in the market has been redesigned and improved by the Baba Tree. Other designs that we offer have been on the market for years.
What is the social impact of Baba Tree?
As I sit here writing this on a Sunday morning - a day that is usually mercifully quiet - the compound is filling with weavers exuberantly expectant of the arrival of 3.5 metric tons of grain that the Baba Tree is doling out owing to the fact that this year's crop yields were disastrously low owing to too much rain. It was the worst harvest in recent memory. But this modest gesture is just part of doing business in the 21st century where one wants to see those with whom he works as being happy, healthy and successful.
The Baba Tree's social impact is simply this: we put more money into the hands of weavers and the work is constant. There are no lapses in between contracts that weavers experience when dealing with other buyers. If a weaver weaves a fine basket with an intriguing colour design they can always sell it at the Baba Tree.
Some, that fly the banner of 'We're here to help!!! Buy from us!!' are often serving to give further form to the 'poor starving Africans' narrative that has no place in the Baba Tree world view. What I see are enthusiastic, skillful - and very hard working - Baba Tree people rampaging through the door in the morning as they gear up to create the grooving mayhem that fills the compound with screams of laughter as beautiful things are created for the world to enjoy. They, themselves, are creating a more formidable future personally, and collectively, through their own sweat and skill.
We just like to keep the focus as much as possible on design excellence and the artisans who create that.
What has been the greatest challenge/obstacle to your business?
How much time do we have here...? Where does one start in order to convey the everyday challenges of running a business that does it's best to look out for everybody's needs in a very impoverished region of Ghana?
Basically, almost every move that I make here takes at least three times longer than if I were to make the same move in Vancouver.
Buying boxes for our retail business? It's not a case of contacting the local box supplier, submitting an order and clicking in your CC number. No, to acquire boxes in Bolgatanga is an odyssey filled with numerous phone calls over weeks with many trips to the local bus station only to find that your boxes aren't actually there and, when they do arrive, they are often unusable. Will I be compensated for this? Of course not.
Our shipping was handcuffed for three days because we couldn't buy ink for our printer. Sometimes the power, water and internet can be off - simultaneously - for stretches. The water is often not flowing for days at a time and it's not nice when it happens when you are about to dye straw for 150 people. Then water must be fetched from a borehole 400 metres away by a cast of thousands.
Capacity is becoming a big issue for us and more weavers from far away villages want to take part in what the Baba Tree does but we're just too far away.
Baba Tree World Headquarters is far too small to comfortably accommodate all who work here, and the increasing numbers who want to work here. However, the people with whom I work shoehorn too many of themselves into rooms (working conditions that I wouldn't want to work under) and proceed to rock the house with tsunamis of laughter and woven beauty with not even a word of complaint.
Bolgatanga is famous for its Baobab trees, what do they mean to you?
In point of fact the Baobab tree is the Baba Tree's namesake.
Though there are a few well worn legends as to how the Baobab Tree came to be (it's actually not a tree but is the world's largest succulent), the Baobab Tree is sometimes referred to as the 'Father' Tree as elderly men in this area are often respectfully referred to as 'Baba'.
In the old days, when a small crew of us would sweat it out riding our bikes to visit various weaving groups with whom we dealt, we would, more often than not, conduct business under a Baobab tree. A name was born...
Every year I harvest a small amount of Baobab fruit and process it in a food processor. I add Baobab powder by the spadeful when concocting a fortifying morning smoothie. It gives me the wherewithal to deal with this strange and wonderful thing called the "Baba Tree Basket Company." This undulating hive of energy that plays host to a sacred dance of the masculine and the feminine. A place where a ferocious work ethic is lathered up in a chorus of laughter. And that creates the beautiful baskets that we offer up to the world. It's the greatest co-creation that I've been a part of....