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Maasai women's haute couture

Maasai women in Nairobi, are capitalising on their tribal craft skills, by selling their intricate beadwork to European fashion designers.

Traditionally, the multi-coloured, patterned beaded breast plates, earrings and bracelets are warn to show a woman’s social status and whether or not she is married. The beading would then be sold on in Kenya.

But, Safaribead, a new co-operative, is turning their skills into an international money-making operation, with good returns. 

European designers are using and reworking the Maasai women’s beads to use as part of their collections for the coming season.

The Safaribead business strategy is the brainchild of Zimbabwe-born Lisa Barratt, who aims to make sure that as many women as possible benefit fairly from long hours they spend creating geometric bead patterns to be shipped and sold outside the east African country.

"If she is not protected by being guaranteed a fair wage for her work, a beader will be exploited," Ms Barratt explains. "The local market for beads is based on tourism. But this is relatively small. Exporting is the way for these women to make money," she told the BBC.

The model works, with Maasi women in Nairobi making up samples, which are then sent to women living in rural villages. They are then checked for quality before Ms Barratt sells them on to designers.

"High street shops aren't able to pay our workers a fair wage," she says. "We pay people well above the minimum fair trade wage criteria, and that means we deal with the couture end of fashion."

But high end fashion designers who only make a limited collection of pieces can afford to buy the individually designed beads and patterns that will be used to embellish a garment that can retail for thousands of pounds.

"We only know what our mothers and aunts taught us," says Nana Litgens, who has worked with Ms Barratt for about five years. "New ideas are coming in, and we may copy them in what we wear."

There are between 500,000 and one million Maasai in Africa, who mostly live in northern Tanzania and southern Kenya. Safaribead employs a large number of women from the Maasai community in Kenya, many of who are illiterate and would not otherwise have a livelihood.

Its workers get a fair wage, as well as access to loans and medical help when they need it. The beadmakers can also take part in training workshops to learn further skills as well as gaining more of an understanding of the demands of the export market, product design and colour combinations.

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