Pop it Like it’s Hot: The Making of Callia’s Organic Papyrus Seed Beads
Importance of Local Sourcing to Callia’s Mission
In 2015, Callia realized that it could drastically increase its impact on low-income women by sourcing its jewelry materials locally. As a result, it identified three main women-made materials, which have since become the signature of the brand. These include organic papyrus seeds from the Northern Ivory Coast, where elderly women harvest and transform the seeds into beads using artisanal techniques.
Market Study to Establish Callia’s First Local Supply Chain
In 2016, Callia conducted a mission to the Northern Ivory Coast to learn more about these beads. (Read more about that mission, here.)
The most shocking finding from that mission was that the women who painstakingly created these beads earned only 10% of the final market value. Middle men absorbed the remaining 90%. These male traders bought beads from the rural areas for very low prices, and sold them on the urban market for a significant profit.
Shocked by the inequity of the existing value chain, Callia saw an opportunity to create a win-win relationship with the women who produced these beads. Specifically, Callia resolved to source these beads directly from the women’s groups. Paying a 50% premium over the market price, Callia was able to increase these women’s revenues, while also reducing the cost of its material.
How Papyrus Seed Beads Are Made
Elderly women near Korhogo harvest papyrus reeds from the fallowed lowlands in February to March. The plant occurs naturally in the rice growing regions.
The women cut and thresh the reeds to remove the seeds. Then the seeds are soaked in water to remove the outer shell. Afterwards the women dry the seeds in the sun.
The women then heat a chunk of earth from a termite hill (image above, left) over a fire like charcoal. Once the termite charcoal is red and hot, the women put it into a large mortar and pestle, together with the seeds, and pound them. The combination of heat and pressure leads the seeds to “pop” out of their shells like popcorn.
Seeds that are grilled for a shorter time are variegated brown. Seeds grilled longer become black. The women use three principal tools to pierce the beads. They remove a soup ladle head from its handle and then use it to hold the bead before it is pierced. A bicycle spoke serves as the “needle” to pierce the bead. The women use a small rectangular piece of iron – typically reclaimed from an old door jamb – as a weight to tap the needle, piercing the hole in the bead (image above, right).
Callia’s urban artisans then use these papyrus seed beads to hand-weave necklaces and bracelets. They hand weave each strand using durable nylon thread, inter-spacing individual seeds with tiny glass beads. At the end of each strand, they burn the nylon thread to melt the ends together.
Learn more about Callia’s work to train and fairly pay the women suppliers of these organic papyrus beads here.