Compiled Marita van Rooyen
The !Ikhoba Textiles Farm Project blossomed from a hobby that started 30 years ago into the fully-fledged – and very popular – business it is today.
The beginning of !Ikhoba
In 1983, the Lacheiner sisters – Karin, Ute and Heidi – started producing children’s clothes, inspired by local Namibian styles, for the annual Windhoek Christmas market. These handmade clothing items soon became popular and sought-after. Based on the enormous demand and recognising the lack of opportunity for rural women to work and create income, the three sisters employed the wives of workers on their family farm, Farm Marburg, to produce additional items.
The business soon grew big enough to supply the monthly Windhoek street market. It then progressed to the opening a permanent stall at the Namibia Craft Centre in Windhoek.
For the first 20 years of operation, the project was based on Farm Marburg in northern Namibia. Women involved in the programme lived on farms and settlements within a 150-km radius of Farm Marburg and Otjiwarongo, approximately 60 km away. This base was used as a central point for weekly meetings to receive finished items, issue new supplies of fabric and yarn, and pay for work delivered.
The finished works were then prepared for the market (by adding borders and finishing touches, and then washing and ironing the items) at a specially built project hall on the farm.
Built in 1991, the hall was officially opened by the Honourable Dr Libertine Amathila.
The company today
In 2006, the business relocated to Swakopmund where a new workshop was set up to prepare the finished works. Despite the move, monthly trips are still made to Otjiwarongo to meet with the women in the surrounding communities that continue producing embroidery for the project.
!Ikhoba currently employs 250 women in the communities around Otjiwarongo and Swakopmund – in some cases for over four generations. To complement the !Ikhoba range, additional items are sourced from South Africa, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Malawi and Mozambique. The range of products on sale represents over 300 different items, supplying three shops in Windhoek, three in Swakopmund, and one in Omaruru, all on a permanent basis.
The evolution of the !Ikhoba designs
!Ikhoba, which has always focussed on creative sewing and embroidery, began with the rural women being encouraged to ‘sew what they see’. The initial work thus depicted primarily bird and animal motifs – in fact, the word ‘!Ikhoba’ is taken from the Bushman language and means ‘wild animals of Africa’.
Over time, the artistic embroidery developed into narrative depictions of rural life including household scenes such as brightly coloured washing hung out to dry, with children running and playing in the background, or scenes from the farm, school and church. More recent designs include key words such as ‘love’, ‘home’ and ‘peace’ written in local languages, as well as African proverbs.
Attention to changing consumer and fashion preferences has been another key driver in the evolution of designs and items created by !Ikhoba. This angle of the business has been more actively driven since 2011 when Mildred Kehrmann (daughter of Karin Kehrmann, one of the three Lacheiner sisters) joined the project.
Mildred pushed the production of items beyond the original design range of pillowcases, tablecloths, serviettes and aprons, to include cellphone bags, baby quilts, baby bibs and tea towels. She also began collaborating with bead artists to improve their craftwork and thus create new objects and styles. Mildred herself began painting animal horns creatively, a range that was launched in July 2013, with a new embroidery range, which includes a wider variety of Namibian plants and bird species.
“Even with the ongoing innovation and evolution of the project, care is taken to ensure that the work produced retains the intrinsic value of freedom of expression on the part of the artist. Each piece is as individual as the artist’s own signature,” explains Mildred.
“The key highlight in developing, building and managing the !Ikhoba project has always been the incredible impact on the communities involved.”
Research suggests that for every provider in Africa, an additional six or seven people benefit from the income. Over time, the project has thus supported thousands of individuals. Moreover, it has created the opportunity for rural women to be part of a group, to feel a sense of accomplishment and fulfilment, to improve self-esteem and vital life skills, and to be recognised within their family circle and community.
Other highlights include participating in international trade fairs across Europe (with over 50 trade fairs attended from the mid- to late nineties) and receiving international recognition for the projects.
One of many awards includes the Gold Medal for the highest standard of embroidered textiles won by !IKhoba from more than 2 000 exhibitors at the International Handwerks Messe in Munich, Germany, in 1997.
More recently, the business has successfully bridged the transition from a community project to a fully-fledged retail operation that supplies various outlets and interacts with a variety of suppliers and stakeholders across Southern Africa.
The business faced a key challenge between 2005 and 2006 when Heidi moved from Farm Marburg to Swakopmund. “The effective ‘nerve centre’ of the business had to shift, requiring the acquisition of new business premises, the recruitment and training of staff in Swakopmund, and a change in the routine meetings for the Otjiwarongo-based community. However, with that change also came the opportunity to work with new artists and to incorporate additional cultural influences.”
Another challenge for the business is remaining relevant to its customers and the consumer market in general. The project flourished in the mid-nineties with numerous trips to trade fairs in Europe and high volumes of product being sold to this market. As the interests of that continent began to shift and change, new sales channels and opportunities needed to be created. This has resulted in a re-focus on the Namibian tourist sector and continuing to innovate and appeal to the local Namibian customer.
!IKhoba has stood the test of time. It is a community project that has not only survived, but has thrived for the past 30 years, providing an income and livelihood for thousands of people across Namibia.
What is your favourite destination in Namibia, and why?
Says Mildred: “Needless to say, our family farm near Ojiwarongo! The deep-red earth, beautiful bushveld, proximity to local birds and animals, and the peace of the nights there remind me of countless happy holidays as a child.”
Travel News Namibia - Spring 2013 Edition