Photo above Margret from the village of Inauaia Village, in the process of making a bilum. Photograph: Jonathan Tickner
Mekeo handcrafts is a social enterprise that supports communities in Inauaia Village, Papua New Guinea. Mekeo handcrafts’s mission is to generate a sustainable income for their workers in Inauaia. When you buy from Mekeo handcrafts, 100% of the profit goes back to the people who make the beautiful wares. Another fact that is worth mentioning is that each product sold comes with the details of the person behind it, a personal and beautiful touch.
We got Jonathan Tickner – the person behind Mekeo handcrafts – to tell us how this social enterprise got started.
“I first visited Inauaia Village in Papua New Guinea several times in the 1980s, when contact with westerners was relatively limited. I then lost contact for various reasons. A few years ago, with the help of Facebook, I was able to locate some villagers online who were related to the families I knew from my earlier visits. I shared photos via Facebook messenger, and discovered that they still very much remembered me and were keen for me to visit. There was a once in a lifetime event occurring, the initiation of a new chief, and I would be the guest of honour. I attended and got to meet old friends and make new ones.
“ I saw families struggling with health issues, food shortages, poor water supplies and inability to pay school fees for their children”
One thing that struck me this time was that people relied on mostly one thing for income, the sale of betel nuts, but the prices were variable and in recent times very little income was to be made. I saw families struggling with health issues, food shortages, poor water supplies and inability to pay school fees for their children.
Every time I visited, I would be given beautiful bilums, or hand woven string bags, made by the women. My friends back home always admired these, and I got to thinking that maybe I could sell the bilums for the villagers, to help them make some extra income. I asked the chief to speak to the women, and see who would be interested. We found interest in the scheme, and after working through the logistics, the postage costs, exchange rates, and how to sell the bilums back in Australia, I decided to test the waters and put some online for sale. The effort has been worthwhile!
“The bags take many hours to make, and have to be woven in the quiet times between cooking meals, feeding children and gardening.” Video: Jonathan Tickner.
The women have been busy in the process of making the bilums. At first they collect the Minaka plants from which they make the fibres. The bark is removed, the stems sliced into strips and then soaked in water to soften them, and then they are rolled and twisted together to make very strong strings. The fibre is also dyed, sometimes with natural colours from plants and sometimes using store-purchased dyes. The bags take many hours to make, and have to be woven in the quiet times between cooking meals, feeding children and gardening.
There are many different styles and sizes, with the advent of acrylic string making for a variety of bold colours to add to the more muted tones of the natural fibres. We have been selling all styles: some customers like to make a statement with a brightly coloured accessory, others like the natural look and use the bilums to carry groceries (a great alternative to plastic bags!) or use the bigger size bilum as a beach bag.
“Whatever the purpose, the bilum income just provides a bit more security, comfort and independence to the women and their families in Inauaia Village”
The money has been greatly appreciated, with women using it to buy some special food items (“Protein” as they say for items such as fish or chicken which can be expensive) or for medical purposes or even buying a school uniform for the kids or a bicycle to get around the village. Some are saving for a water tank, which provides fresh water and saves time usually spent travelling to collect water. Whatever the purpose, the bilum income just provides a bit more security, comfort and independence to the women and their families in Inauaia Village. Customers love the fact that when they purchase a bilum, they know that the money is going straight back to the makers of the bag and is helping in a very real way to improve their lives.”
You can find these authentic products and many more at their store Mekeo Handcrafts here on Dinidae.
We wanted to personally thank and credit Jonathan for providing us the materials and the photos for the article. Also big thanks to Benjamin Gibson with the editing and guidance of the article.