The Base Project is always thinking outside the box and creating something unique for the global marketplace. In northwestern Namibia, discarded plastic pipe is collected, hand cut and carved by semi-Nomadic tribes and turned into a collection of unisex bracelets. The look and feel of the material is similar to bone, yet no animals have been harmed in the process. Each piece tells a story, highlighting the creativity of the people and their inherent sense of innovation. The Base Project partners with artisan entrepreneurs who have gathered their existing resources to create a highly valued product, and in return, they reap numerous rewards, while bettering themselves and their community. From an interview with co-founder, Christopher Akin, the story of the craft process starts to unfold.
HAND/EYE Magazine: At first glance, you would never imagine these bracelets are made out of reclaimed PVC piping. Can you walk us through the production process?
Christopher Akin: The old pipes are collected from landfill, trash, farms, and water systems. Even in the most remote regions of Namibia, water pipe is found in small communities. The artisans hand cut, smooth and polish the pipe before carving. The designs are then cut into the plastic, and lightly heated to form the bracelets’ shape. All pieces are manufactured in and around their homes and villages.
Their design inspiration stems from the local landscape, including animals, trees and the rich history of Namibia. The motifs reflect the traditional art of the region as well as the artists’ unique vision. Like the root of most art, our creative expression is pulled from our surroundings. In naming each bracelet, we looked deep within the design and what it visually represents in the Namibian environment: rivers, vegetation, headdresses, and cattle, which all play a central role in the lives of the artisans.
The unique coloring of the brown bracelets is a result of a combination of exposure to the sun and the red-ochre soil of the region. Over time, the sun causes bleaching and yellowing of the plastic. Likewise, pipes that are buried in the ground for years are stained by the rich red ochre soil and can take on hues of deep red, purple and brown. The unique coloring of the black bracelets is derived from the original manufacturing process, where a layer of black plastic is formed on top of the white substrate. When the artisans carve the bracelets, they are cutting out black or white layers of plastic to create specific patterns. Older plastics produce bracelets with an eggshell white tone, while newer plastics display a more bleached white appearance.
The tools used for making the bracelets are rather basic. A handsaw is used for cutting and first the pipe is sliced lengthwise and sectioned to get the desired circumference and width for each piece- they are not simply cutting off pieces of the pipe. A file or knife is used to smooth out the edges and next it is cleaned and lightly heated over hot coals. Once the plastic is malleable, it is pressed around an object to form the final shape and size.
H/E: Can you tell us a bit about the artisan entrepreneurs that you partner with?
CA: We work with two artisan co-operatives in the northwestern region of Namibia. The artisans are predominately from the Himba and Herero tribes. One group is comprised of approximately 80% women and the other, is all men. The workers are between twenty to sixty years of age. Like any entrepreneurs, they have varying aspirations. For some, it is to make enough money to pay for school and for others, it is simply to enhance their standard of living.
H/E: How did you get involved in the founding of The Base Project?
CA: My twin brother and I were feeling disenfranchised by certain aspects of our respective corporate jobs in marketing and media. We were based in opposite ends of the country, but we were inspired to begin laying the groundwork for a triple bottom line fashion company (i.e. in order to benefit people, plant and profits). We started by sourcing bracelets from developing countries, and initially relied on feedback from friends and family. Out of all the items we discovered, the one that continually resonated with us was a bracelet worn by myself. It wasn't event part of the test marketing; all we knew was that it came from Namibia and that it was a gift from a long lost friend. Ultimately, we decided to trust our core supporters, and decided to develop this beautiful product. Soon enough, we were connecting the dots and working with some of the oldest tribes in Africa. The Base Project provides economic opportunity for artisan-entrepreneurs whom found a innovative way to recycle plastic pipes that formerly degraded their environment. I often use the term artisan-entrepreneur in my conversations with our customers. I think it is very apt, and important, that the artisans are recognized in the same way that our society defines entrepreneurs. These are individuals who think outside the box, innovate, take risk, gather their existing resources to create higher value goods and reap the rewards for the betterment of themselves or society.