Mifuko’s baskets combine Finnish design and Kenyan craftsmanship

Finnish design expertise has brought Kenyan baskets to homes all around the world. Mifuko’s Kiondo baskets maintain local handicraft traditions and provide small-scale farmers with additional income. The founders of the company, Minna Impiö and Mari Martikainen want to change the world with design at the forefront.

Mari Martikainen and Minna Impiö of Mifuko
Mari Martikainen and Minna Impiö founded Mifuko in 2009.

MORE THAN TEN YEARS ago, textile artist Minna Impiö visited the marketplaces in her new hometown of Nairobi, Kenya. She was impressed by the local craftsmanship, but the same kinds of products, wooden bowls, tongs, and decorative items, were being sold at every stand.

“The craftsmen were copying each other’s ideas. When one came up with something new, they all started doing the same thing. That gave me the idea of utilizing design to find new markets for the products of the local craftsmen.”

Impiö then contacted her friend and design colleague Mari Martikainen, with whom she had already collaborated during her studies at the University of Art and Design Helsinki.

That is the origin story of Mifuko, a company that couples African craftsmanship with Nordic design expertise. The craftsmen making the Mifuko Kiondo baskets are Kenyan small farmers who get additional income from weaving baskets. With the aid of the income, the children can go to school and families can continue living in the countryside. What is more, they do not have to move to the city and, in the worst case, the slums, to earn a living.

Weaving Kiondo baskets provides small-scale farmers with extra income.
The baskets are made of recycled plastic and sisal fiber produced locally in Kenya. Sisal is a very ecological drought-resistant plant that can be produced without putting a strain on the local ecosystems.

It is important for Impiö and Martikainen that they can benefit others with the education and expertise they have gained. “Work plays such an important role in people’s lives, as it provides the chance to belong to a community and support oneself with one’s own skills,” points out Martikainen.

The Swahili word mifuko means pocket. The craftsmen work in groups, in which everyone puts part of their wages into a common pot. “In their turn, everyone gets a larger sum to buy chickens or a goat that will then provide more money,” continues Martikanen.

The groups also have an important social dimension: people can exchange news and share knowledge and skills. The village elders also often wish to participate, even if to only take care of the children. If something happens to someone, the community helps.

It is important for Mifuko to collaborate directly with the craftsmen, without any intermediaries.

“Recently, a woman was bitten in the leg by a black mamba. The group was immediately there for her and lent her the money for hospital care,” says Impiö. She and Martikainen hear of such things very quickly, as they stay in close touch with the craftsmen. It is important for them to collaborate directly with the craftsmen, without any intermediaries.

“We all learn from each other as we interact. We do not only order products from the craftsmen, but we also design the collection together”, notes Impiö.

Mifuko is one of the few design companies with Fairtrade certification. This means that the employees receive fair compensation for their work and are consulted in connection with decision-making and operational planning.

A few years ago Minna Impiö and Mari Martikainen founded the Mifuko Trust for charitable projects.
The Kiondo baskets are handmade in the counties of Machakos and Makueni in Kenya, and soon also in the neighboring country of Tanzania. New products, such as lampshades, and new kind of design collaboration is also on the horizon.
Mifuko has provided woven Kenyan handicrafts with new markets around the world. This way the craftsmen living in rural areas do not have to travel a long way to sell their products at a marketplace. At the same time, the traditional weaving technique is passed down from one generation to the next.
For its founders Mari Martikainen and Minna Impiö, Mifuko means, first and foremost, fair business. They want to be equal partners with the craftsmen who make the products.

The Kiondo baskets are made using a traditional weaving technique. Mifuko offers the Kiondo baskets in different sizes, colors, and materials. Traditionally, the local baskets have been very colorful and have had many patterns, but the Finnish designers have simplified the patterns to better fit the minimalist and light-toned Nordic interior design style.

“Sometimes the basket makers wonder how boring can it get; they say we have all the colors in the world and still we only ever want black and white baskets,” says Impiö laughing.

Traditionally, the baskets are weaved only from sisal, which is a very ecological and durable locally produced plant. Recycled plastic, and now paper yarn, is also used in Mifuko’s baskets. “The plastic-sisal combination is unparalleled in its durability. It can be used for decades without the colors fading, and it even withstands outdoor conditions,” says Impiö.

Shop baskets by Mifuko

Kiondo basket with handles M
Kiondo basket S
Kiondo basket with handles L
Kiondo baskets with handles L
Kiondo basket with handles M
KIondo basket with handles L
Kiondo basket XS
Kiondo basket S

In 2012, Impiö and Martikainen founded Mifuko Trust, which carries out various charitable projects to improve the everyday life of the entire community. It has, for example, purchased rainwater tanks, goats, and ecological dry toilets for the villages. The planting of trees, on the other hand, reduces the carbon footprint and prevents soil erosion.

Mifuko Trust is used for charitable purposes, but otherwise Mifuko is about business between two equal partners. The groups of craftsmen are small enterprises.

“The whole point of Mifuko is that we do business and they do business. That is the only way this works. We demand high quality, but we also provide a fair compensation for it. At the same time, this collaboration improves the self-esteem and promotes the independence of the craftsmen.”

The contribution of the Finnish designers is reflected in the minimalist color scheme of the Kiondo baskets. It makes the baskets easy to combine with each other and Scandinavian interiors.
Mifuko is one of the few design companies with Fairtrade certification.
The popularity of the baskets has also led to other companies copying them, but Mifuko makes an effort to always remain one step ahead of the competition in product design. In any case, it is difficult to copy handmade baskets for mass production.

In ten years, Mifuko has become a successful company whose products are sold in over 20 countries, providing income for over 700 artisans. Four times a year, Kiondo baskets are shipped from Kenya to Finland, from where they continue to, e.g., Germany, Italy, and the United States.

Impiö and Martikainen want to change the world with design at the forefront. The idea is that the baskets are so good-looking that they peak people’s interest. The purchase will benefit the maker of the basket regardless of whether the buyer made the purchase for ecological or ethical reasons.

In ten years, Mifuko has become a successful company that provides income for over 700 artisans.

“We are happy to have been pioneers in showing that interior design products can be more than just factory-made items whose origin is unknown,” says Martikainen.

Impiö and Martikainen mention a message they received recently from a Japanese customer who had bought a Kiondo basket and familiarized herself with the product’s background. In her message, the woman conveyed that she had been sitting at her home in Tokyo and realized that she, too, is part of this chain, this story.

In Martikainen’s opinion, the best thing about the products is that each of them is unique. “Each basket has something of its maker in it, and the light and story of Kenya.”

Mifuko campaign

Save 20% on Mifuko’s Kiondo baskets! Hand-woven of sisal and recycled plastic, the baskets are not only beautiful, durable and multifunctional but also unique – every piece has been signed by its maker. The discount is valid from 7 August until 20 August 2020. Find a favourite >

See also: 

• All products by Mifuko >

Text: Taina Ahtela Photos: Mifuko

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