Madagascar is an island nation in the Indian Ocean. Its main island is the fourth largest in the world and shelters 5 percent of the world’s plant and animal species. Eighty percent of these species live only in Madagascar. Economically speaking, the country is the world’s largest producer and exporter of vanilla, as well as various agricultural products including coffee, sugarcane, cocoa and rice.
Despite its thriving export culture, up to two-thirds of the country’s population makes less than US$1.25 daily, which is below the international poverty line. In addition, many adults have received little or no education, leading to illiteracy and limited choice when it comes to career opportunities.
Fortunately, current worldwide demand for handmade handicrafts has become a beacon of hope for Madagascans – in addition to woven baskets and small purses, Madagascan handbags are some of the most well known of these handmade products. Usually, free trade organizations source these handbags from small family cooperatives or individual local artisans and make them available for sale on the international market. Prices are often reasonable, and proceeds from sales usually facilitate community improvement and allow expansion of an otherwise modest business.
Key characteristics of Madagascan handbags are bright colors and deft artistry. Artisans use raw materials sourced in a sustainable manner from plants indigenous to the area to make the bags. For instance, raffia is a grass that grows naturally in the country, as is sisal, which is traditionally used to make rope and twine and is virtually de rigueur for woven products. Artisans tend to use natural plant dyes to color the raw material too, which adds to the eco-friendly appeal. Plain fibres, too, are also attractive in their own way.
Some of the more common fibres used to produce Madagascan handbags are angara, a non-edged raffia used for weaving, penjy, made from marsh plants, rabane, which is raffia of palm tree origin and metisse, which is a combination of different fibres such as penjy and rabane. The use of local material circumvents the need to specially cultivate or purchase the materials needed to produce the handbags and helps to keep production costs low.
Madagascar is a country that is unique in every sense of the word. For those who aren’t lucky enough to visit the island nation and enjoy its tropical sunshine while attempting to catch a glimpse of its diverse flora and fauna, it’s possible to bring a little piece of the country into your home in the form of a deftly-woven Madagascar handbag.
Written by: Christopher Lawrence