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Amma Sri Lanka: women empowerment through crafts

Amma Sri Lanka: women empowerment through crafts

Josie first visited Sri Lanka in 2010 to work with a local NGO that provides education and care to vulnerable children across the island, these relationships led to her starting AMMA five years later.

She graduated with a degree in Textile Design. At the same time, she was aware of the problems that the fast fashion industry was having on the environment so that´s why she started to become curious about using plants and food waste to create non-toxic fabric dyes.

“Around this time a friend of mine from the NGO in Sri Lanka mentioned that they have a group of mothers connected to their pre-school in Nuwara Eliya, who were keen to work but have few options”, explains Josie.

Nuwara Eliya is the agricultural hub of Sri Lanka and is famous for growing Ceylon tea. However, tea picking is notoriously low-paid, causing many women to migrate abroad to find work leaving their children vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.

“AMMA started to try and model a solution to these complex and interconnected problems, with the hope that we could start to tackle both the environmental and social challenges in Nuwara Eliya”, said Josie.

They started small with Josie and two mothers working part-time with a starting budget of £1000 to purchase equipment and pay wages for the first few months.

“Very quickly we started to gain interest from other local brands who were intrigued by our dyeing process”, she said. Then they set up supply chains with cafes, restaurants and juice bars to source waste avocado stones, pomegranate skins and onion skins. They used these ingredients to create pink, green and yellow dyes.

AMMA grew very organically, and at 6 months they took their first big order for a Japanese cosmetics brand and they hired a few more mothers.

What is Amma´s purpose?

AMMA exists to provide training and employment to mothers and women living on Sri Lanka’s tea estates through job creation in the textile industry. We aim to be a model for rural livelihood creation which empowers women and protects mother earth.

We exist to create design-led products that are hand-made and exquisitely crafted. Specialising in traditional textile techniques such as hand weaving, embroidery and natural dyeing – using plants and food waste to create non-toxic textile dyes.

What are the main problems you have been facing?

During the pandemic, the main problems that we faced were the long curfews in place across Sri Lanka. Between March 2020 and November 2021 the workshop was closed for a total of 9 months.
Our community had to navigate long curfews, confined in very small houses shared with extended family members. So it took a toll on everyone's well-being.

Sri Lanka relies heavily on tourism, with many of the family members of the women we employ working in this area. So when the pandemic hit, many lost their jobs, putting extra pressure and reliance on the AMMA women to support entire households on their salary.

In addition to this, agriculture is a big daily wage employer, so when the curfews were in place agricultural workers didn’t get paid. Also last year a hasty organic farming law was introduced overnight, which meant that there were widespread crop failures of essentials such as rice.

The closure of the workshop meant that we couldn’t take orders and the ones we had were heavily delayed. Unlike in the UK where the government supported businesses through the pandemic, there was no such relief in Sri Lanka.

So to raise the money to keep the workshop open and the full team employed, we ran a Kickstarter campaign, launched our new collection and raised more than we planned!

However, just as we thought we had found some stable ground, the country found itself in the grips of its worst economic crisis since independence, riddled with debt and with critically low foreign currency reserves.

Imports have been halted resulting in fuel, gas and medicine shortages, ten-hour daily power cuts, and inflation rising by 50%.

This has affected the workshop in every way, it’s made it impossible for us to commit to orders and grant funding which is reliant on us meeting objectives. So much uncertainty and not knowing when it will end, paired with us reaching the bottom of our cash reserves left us with some difficult decisions to make.
You had to make the hard decision to close Amma...

This is for several reasons, many of which are influenced by the problems above. It’s been very difficult for us to function as a social enterprise.
AMMAs is not a charity, we need to earn money to survive and it’s been difficult for us to do that.

Moments of crisis often usher in transformation, and I think this highlighted the difficulties of being an organization with a team based in the UK and Sri Lanka.

I believe that with initiatives such as AMMA, where a business has been founded by someone from a different culture, proximity to the people you work with and the need for local leadership is essential, especially during times of crisis.

AMMA has a team of Sri Lankan female directors and wonderful local management, but it still relied heavily on me and my colleague in the UK to form a direction and negotiate orders.

We tried transitioning to local leadership and partnering with a local NGO to save AMMA and move it forward but when we spoke to the team about the changes, the majority of the women decided that they would prefer to start their own initiatives and I was keen to honour that.

All businesses and organisations have a lifespan, and the model that I founded AMMA with six years ago was struggling to exist within the rapidly changing climate in Sri Lanka.

It’s been extremely sad to see AMMA come to an end, and I think a surprise to many, including myself, but I take great comfort in looking at the patterns of nature for guidance; in nature’s economy, nothing is wasted, there is a life-death-life cycle where the fallen flowers become compost which births the seeds of the new.

There is pressure to believe that pushing through, sustaining and growing is always the right thing to do in business, social justice and the NGO worlds, but in truth, I had reached a point where continuing to do that was unsustainable for me personally and leading to exhaustion.

I couldn’t lead the team in the way that I wanted to and that they deserved and so I knew something needed to change.

What is going to happen to the women that have been affected?

AMMA ended with the majority of the team deciding that they wanted to start their own entrepreneurial ventures, so we supplied them with the equipment to start doing that.

I believe our workshop manager is planning to continue holding natural dye classes for anyone who wishes to learn and is looking to grow vegetables and dye plants.

Sri Lanka is in the midst of great turmoil, the economy needs rebuilding and so the next few months will be challenging for everyone.

What are the main achievements that you are more proud of since Amma started?

I am most proud of the relationships that were built through AMMA.

When I was visiting in March of this year, one of our directors told me that AMMA is an anchor point for these women, helping them navigate life's struggles.

One of the AMMA women said, “When I come to work I forget about the problems, when I go home I remember.” AMMA has taught me about the power of women in the community, and the role that dignified work centred around the act of “making” plays in building relationships and improving mental wellbeing.

Over the years I’ve heard the team describe the workshop environment as peaceful, secure, supportive, equal, caring and respectful. It, for the most part, has been like an inter-generational family, we have women aged from the early ’20s through to 70 years, and our workshop manager has done an exceptional job at fostering a loving environment.

I am also really proud of how we have championed using natural dyes. When I started AMMA it was really difficult to find brands who were using this method and with only small pockets of research to draw on.

Over the years since AMMA started, I’ve witnessed such a local hunger from brands and students to learn the technique and use it in their collections.

The range of colours that AMMA has achieved from using only plants is incredible, and how that knowledge has been passed on to our team is something to celebrate! We are making our guide about natural dyeing available to download for free so that more people can learn to play with nature’s gift of colour.

I think AMMA is a positive example of what can be achieved from a very humble beginning. Starting something with very few resources but built on a foundation of strong relationships.

AMMA has maintained a sensitivity to place and allowed for something to emerge without controlling it. And I’m incredibly grateful to the people and organisations that have funded AMMA over the years. They have funded us based on trust and have given us incredible flexibility to adapt to all the outside forces that have knocked us, and in essence, have allowed us to function from a place of creativity.

What is next for you?

Alongside running AMMA, I’ve been studying for my master's in Ecological Design and I am currently writing my dissertation.

It’s turning out to be a reflective processing practice about all I’ve learnt with AMMA. My hope is that it’ll be a useful and insightful body of work that can give guidance to others on a similar journey.

Beyond that, I am keen to use what I’ve learnt from starting and running AMMA in conjunction with everything I’ve learnt about wicked problems, regenerative design and craftmanship through my MA in some new contexts. Oh and weaving, I hope my future includes lots of weaving!

*As champions of women empowerment, we consider ourselves privileged to be able to offer you Amma's beautiful crafts for a while longer,
exclusively on Mayamiko.

*You can download their beginners guide to natural dyeing at home here.

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