#01 The Nature and History of Kenya
Are you familiar with the country Kenya? Last year, JICA (*1) and MUJI began a joint undertaking regarding this country. Through the following serialization, we would like to introduce you to Kenya the country and to its producers, to the face of Kenyan JICA members, and to this MUJI x JICA project.
The Republic of Kenya is a country approximately 1.5 times the size of Japan situated in Africa right on the equator. Approximately 39,800,000 people live there. Broadly classifying the country, it can be divided into five areas - the central area, encompassing the capital, Nairobi, and Mt. Kenya, the country's tallest mountain; the coastal area, which encompasses the resort areas including Mombasa; the dry northern area, where rain hardly ever falls; the midwestern area, through which the Great Rift Valley runs; and the western area, the area that borders Lake Victoria. In particular, the climate of the central area, which lies at an altitude of around 1700m on the equator, is cool throughout the year, and tea and coffee plantations and the cultivation of plants for cut flowers flourish. When thinking about Kenya, animals such as the lions and zebras that can be seen in national parks are prominent, but the country is greener than this dry, savannah-like image suggests, and what struck us is that it is a land that yields a great number of agricultural products.
This project is being conducted by JICA Kenya members and producers living in the Kisii region in the western area of Kenya. The western area where Kisii is located is a region that gets a particularly large amount of rain; there is a lot of fertile land and agriculture flourishes - bananas grown in Kisii are one of Kenya's specialty agricultural products. Here, we would like to introduce you to Kenya and to what started this project.
The JICA One Village One Product Project
The One Village One Product project in Kenya, centered around the Kenyan Ministry of Industrialization, has continued since 2008. From 2008 through 2011, pilot activities have actually been put into effect in 11 prefectures in Kenya and business training, financial training and support for displays in exhibitions has been put into effect for approximately 60 groups. A wide variety of products are being handled, including honey, furniture made from tree stumps, soap and baskets made from sisal hemp.
The group involved in this project, a group of Kisii soapstone product manufacturers, likewise participated. This group of producers is also registered as a fair trade organization, has also exported to the United States and Europe, and is a model group from amongst the many One Village One Product groups.
The Catalyst For the MUJI x JICA Project
We at MUJI met this Kenyan One Village One Product group of producers on the recommendation of JICA Kenya. Soapstone, a stone found in the Kisii region that is soft like soap and which is easily worked, is a mineral resource unique to Kisii. For generations, artisans in this area have carried on the tradition of the creation of soapstone ornaments, handing things down from parent to child. The group of producers we are working with this time are aiming at the development of the community and have as their goal the creation of a library and a computer room; we empathized with this initiative and wanted to help. Soapstone, the material with which they make products, is a stone with a soft countenance, and the differences in the color of the stone itself are very beautiful. For Christmas gifts for 2011, MUJI designed five animal ornaments - gorilla, elephant, pelican, crocodile and buffalo - that they then created.
When it came to the actual production stage, there were those amongst the producers who had never seen some of the animals before, and it was hard to get an image of the product and to deal with the fine details of the designs of the animals.
There were also problems with creating the products exactly in line with the designs. With order placements until now, it appears that many allowances were made in terms of size and design stipulations. Because of this, products that differed from the original design arose - there were gorillas where the positioning of the left and right arms were the opposite way around, as well as gorillas with lips and those with eyebrows. Of course, these things were part of the appeal of the artisans, but this year, we ventured to treat this as a challenge, and together with JICA Kenya, took up the challenge of creating products that adhered to the design stipulated.
This year too, actually visiting the site, we addressed this challenge with the artisans...we will introduce what happened in our next column.
This column has been written by a MUJI project member with the cooperation of JICA Kenya.
*1 JICA (Japan International Cooperation Agency) An independent administrative agency that operates through contributing to the development or restoration of the economies and societies of developing countries and to economic stability to promote international cooperation and to contribute to the sound development of the international economic community and of Japan also.