#SuzyLFWNG The Adara Foundation: A Lagos Project That Empowers Low-Income Women
“We want people to be touched by the design,” said Yvonne Fasinro, referring to her second day job that empowers low-income women through handwork at the Adara Foundation, which she founded. Her other role is as a high-level banker and financial guru at Merrill Lynch in Lagos, where she is a Managing Director and Head of the Sub-Saharan Africa division.
The work this dynamic businesswoman is showing me in a basic building in Yaba, a young working class area of the Nigerian city, consists of “resist-dyeing”: a method that produces hand-crafted batik in all its rich patterns and colours, as well as dip-dye and tie-dye – related techniques that produce a similar visual effect. The students work with traditional cottons, and are also introduced to imported silk and chiffon – which is often their very first encounter with these delicate materials.
“We try to preserve the actual fabric-making and design, and then we encourage them to push boundaries and push themselves. It’s very inspiring,” Fasinro said.
When I met her again the following day, she was surrounded by elegant, airy dresses created from Adara’s hand-dye fabric for the well-known Lagos design house, Tiffany Amber. Folake Folarin-Coker, the long-established designer behind that brand, showed how this complex, traditional technique could be used for simple, modern styles.
I admired the fresh patterns on light materials in subtle colours that eager shoppers were busily buying. Yet I kept thinking back to the previous day at the teaching centre. The faces of the women trainees expressed joy, excitement, and awe, as they worked together with tutors who were teaching them to transform cloth into such artistic textiles.
As they focused on a material world, these women’s work was changing their modest lives through the opportunity to earn money – perhaps for the first time – and the sense of self-worth that the craft skills bring them.
Frustrated that fabric makers from the Netherlands were still exporting their Dutch wax or “Ankara” cloth to Africa, Yvonne Fasinro insisted that it was time for home-grown products to play a more prevalent role.
“My passion is training women to give them a real skill and a means to make money out of that,” she explained. “Another pillar is how to manage the money they make, and then to help women through debilitating situations – once a woman is brought down by her health, her community suffers.”
“Work is not just about beautiful fabric,” she continued. “These women come here not knowing anything. We give them a work ethic. We teach them standards, teach them how to work with each other, and how to take a broader perspective. Everywhere is peaceful and quiet. It’s a beautiful sound – orderly, in a way, and productive.”
I learned how students on a 10-week course begin to manage the fabric pieces assigned to them and how to apply colours and wax to create batik. One student told me her wonder at learning to identify different colours and how best to use them.
Her tutor, taking the eighth group of 26 people though the Adara Foundation system, said that the students had taught him a great deal about inspiration and its effect on their textiles.
I asked him why Lagosian women consistently wear print and pattern – in contrast to their male peers, who, judging by the crowds on the streets of the city, were more likely the be wearing T-shirts and jeans.
“Women are more particular about what they wear here,” I was told. “For men, it’s only when they marry a woman who loves colour and pattern that you see them wearing different touches.”
Like so many ancient traditions of dress, the meaning behind the clothes and their patterns may be fading away compared to the messages the prints conveyed in the past. That knowledge goes back five centuries to the art of dipping and twisting in a dye made from the indigo plant.
When Yvonne Fasinro first started to survey what was happening with the dip-and-dye work of Nigeria’s Abeokuta and Oshogbo regions, she reckoned that the ancient techniques had a lifespan of two more generations, at best, and that no-one was trying to create something more commercial and widespread. “We want to mix it up a lot more,” she said, adding that she also wanted to protect the environment.
“We have soakaway pits for all the dyes to go deep underground so that they don’t disturb the environment. But they’re not like the ones in a village,” she said. “We want to make a safe, properly controlled environment. Our work is about design, but it’s teaching women practicalities as well – it’s really a training centre.”
The collaboration with Tiffany Amber is important for pushing the dyeing skills into the fashion world. But the importance of the prints I look at is in what lies beneath: the way the women trainees also learn about managing children without hitting them; the therapy the classes can give to a woman frozen into despair by her husband’s death.
“In Africa, our culture is quite community oriented and we support people,” Yvonne Fasinro said. “My day job is still being a banker. But here, my focus is to empower women. We want them to engage more in the economy. Let’s create an industry of fabric design, let’s make beautiful clothes, and let the women themselves benefit from that.”