Sri Lankan textiles and products empowering women in the highlands

AMMA, a social enterprise in Sri Lanka, employs Indian-origin Tamils to make plant-based dyes and textiles.

by Portia Ladrido

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AMMA offers hand-dyed and plant-dyed textiles and products as well as trains and employs mothers who are part of low-income households. © AMMA

Sri Lanka has one of the lowest extreme poverty rates among the countries in the region. It is indeed laudable, but the living standards are still low, with most citizens living on less than $5 per day. Poverty is still persistent in Sri Lanka, especially in rural areas where there is lesser access to services and industries.

David Newhouse, a senior economist at the World Bank, says that “the poor and near-poor tend to be rural, young, and disconnected from productive earnings opportunities.” In these rural areas sits AMMA, a social enterprise that offers hand-dyed and plant-dyed textiles and products as well as trains and employs mothers who are part of low-income households.

“[Sri Lankan highlands are] where all the tea is grown and home to Indian-origin Tamils who were brought over by the British to work on the tea plantations,” says Josie George, the founder of AMMA. “The [Indian-origin Tamils] are one of the most marginalised communities in Sri Lanka and the levels of unemployment are really high.”

She also adds how tea pickers in the country are only paid SLR 600 per day ( around £2.50). On top of this, she found that 80 percent of men are alcoholics and 83 percent of the women have experienced domestic abuse.

INKLINE talked to Josie to know more about the social enterprise AMMA and what she hopes for the programme to become.

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AMMA  products include tote bags, aprons, and table mats, among many others. © AMMA

INKLINE: Can you course me through how AMMA started? Why did you choose to focus your enterprise on plant-dyed textiles? Also, why the name AMMA?

Josie George: AMMA officially opened its workshop in May 2017 with two mothers but the journey to getting to that point started back in 2010 when I first visited Sri Lanka to work with a local NGO. It was during that time in which I realised I wanted to pursue textiles further, so I returned to the UK and did my degree in Textile Design.

I experimented with natural dyeing during my degree, choosing weaving as my primary focus and we were encouraged to dye our own yarns so I grew more confident in the dye room spending most of my time mixing colours. As the idea of AMMA grew in my mind natural dyeing seemed like the perfect medium to work with, the availability of plants and food waste which can be harnessed for colour is huge, there was a lack of people practicing the craft in Sri Lanka and the method is very similar to cooking which the majority of women are already skilled at.

We decided on the name AMMA because it simply means mother in both Tamil and Sinhalese the two national languages spoken in Sri Lanka.

I: What challenges did you face when setting the organization up? And what are the usual challenges that you still encounter now?

J: We’ve faced a lot of challenges! This is the first time I’ve started a social enterprise so each day provides a new set of challenges that need to be overcome. Some of my favourites have been the workshop flooding with sewage due to a blocked toilet in the guesthouse upstairs. And then midway through a large order, the colour of our pomegranate dye shifting from green to yellow overnight due to the farmers using lime powder on the fields. We had to find a well which provided a deeper water source and cart the water down the hill.

As I’m from the UK and not Sri Lanka I’ve faced cultural challenges, language barriers and it has never been easy in the last three years to get a long-term visa. These are ongoing stresses, along with the difficulty of sourcing fabrics and yarns, Sri Lanka doesn’t grow its own fibre so everything is imported from India or China.

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The enterprise employs mothers from low-income communities. “The [Indian-origin Tamils] are one of the most marginalised communities in Sri Lanka, and the levels of unemployment are really high,” says founder Josie George. © AMMA
I: You also work with the organisation Textile Reuse and International Development (TRAID). Can you share how your partnership developed and what kinds of collaborations you engage with?

J: TRAID is one of our funding partners. They provide grants to international development projects working in the fashion and textile industries. We applied last year and are privileged enough to have been accepted to receive financial support. This has provided us with a larger workshop, our managers wage, equipment, and handlooms.

I: What do you hope for AMMA to become?

J: A model for rural textile employment that provides a livelihood to hundreds of women living on Sri Lanka’s tea estates.

I: What do people around the world need to know about the issue you are addressing? Why is this important?

J: Our world is full of issues and I can’t expect people to feel passionate about what we do if they don’t have an emotional attachment to the place or people. The issues we encounter are not unique to Sri Lanka, the impacts of textile production on the environment and how it has become the second largest polluting industry after oil needs addressing worldwide. Gender equality and the role women need addressing. Domestic abuse needs addressing. The list goes on and on and my hope is that AMMA does a good job at not shying away from the issues but becomes a workplace that challenges these big issues!

I: What other solutions, if any, are you currently exploring in terms of saving our environment?

J: Once we get the natural dye down, we want to start harvesting rainwater and to run our workshop off renewable energy.

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