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A quarter century ago Gregory MacCarthy sourced his first range of Ghanaian baskets while shaded by the leaves and branches of a baobab tree. It was the seed of a global export business that’s today recognised as one of a select few creative social enterprises that has lasted the distance over the years, while it also continued to evolve.  

We’re Zoom calling over a ratty internet connection on what for me is a drizzly Irish afternoon, and for Gregory a sweaty day in his small office in Bolgatanga, Ghana. A ceiling fan clanks away overhead. Behind him shelves up to the rafters teeter with baskets and boxes.

“The heat wave in Europe is all over the news but we have it all the time.” 

His lean, rangy form loosely dressed in his signature Ghanaian shirt and necklace is known around the world as a stalwart of the handcraft industry and the creative wellspring behind The Baba Tree Basket Company. Canadian by birth, Australian by naturalisation, and Ghanaian by choice, his commitment to design and quality are the fibres that bind together his creative ethos, his company and his personal life.  

“I am a classic romantic idealist when it comes to design. I will have nothing to do with built-in obsolescence. I want things to last. Which is why I’m profoundly disappointed by my Vitamix blenders bought on Amazon that have not lasted. On the roads around here you see Bedford trucks that are 50 years old and, like that, I want the The Baba Tree products to last even though it costs us a lot more to produce high quality.”

This creative aesthetic stems from Gregory’s early experiences working in Australia variously as a house painter, labourer, kitchen hand (even a stint making drums from recycled indigenous hardwood with hand-forged fittings), as well as a landscaper, stonemason and carpenter’s labourer in Canada. He’s convinced his design sensibilities were ignited by getting his hands dirty and by the era.

“It was the early 80s and I was in my early twenties. The first thing I noticed when I got off the plane in Australia was the sparkling, glorious light. I’ve never seen anything like it since. I worked as a house painter with some of the leading designers in Sydney who were doing buildings, interiors and decor for very rich people. They showed me how to work with colour and developed my eye. At the time, Australia’s cultural cringe about who they were made them push the boundaries in all the arts from film to fashion to the culinary arts… all of it. It was an incredible time and creative milieu to work in and learn from.”

Later back home on Cortes Island off the west coast of Canada, he lived in a community that was passionate about African music and drumming. This led to a trip to Ghana to study the music of the Ga tribe based in and around the capital, Accra.

“At the end of my studies I had a few shekels left over so I bought some crafts to sell at markets when I got back home.” 

The range of beads, cloth, paintings, bronze wear and basketry proved popular. He went back for more. It was the embryo of what would grow into a fully-fledged handmade crafts retail business. For a number of years he commuted back and forth between Ghana and Canada, sourcing in Africa, selling in the West, and of course a business deserves a brand. 

“A baba tree is a baobab tree in Gurunsie (Fra-fra) vernacular. In the early days I used to travel around on an old bicycle and I’d always work with weaving groups under the shade of the local baba tree meeting place. It seemed like a good name for the company.”

In September 2010, he began a two year sabbatical owing to health issues but remained, for the most part, in Bolgatanga, where he could be close to his daughter and explore permaculture gardening, which had grabbed his interest. When he resumed operations towards the end of 2012 he changed the business model so that he could live in Bolgatanga full time. Since then all production, and shipping around the globe has been based from his compound rather than travelling back and forth to Canada. Without an existing model to follow he pioneered his own creative and business path. Over time he ascertained what worked and what didn’t. Part of that journey was the decision to specialise. 

“I noticed the baskets did really well and I decided to focus on just that. I gave up sourcing all the various crafts from all over Ghana. The roads here are terrible. There’s so much carnage. And it’s exhausting.” 

As the business grew it supplied an ever expanding range to high-end decor retailers in the USA, Britain, Europe, Australia and South Africa. It attracted the attention of designers, particularly those committed to developing skills and sustainability in cottage craft industries. In 2013 the company took a giant leap forward when the Bolgatanga weavers were invited to a skills exchange at the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad, India. Around the same time design student Palash Singh, inspired by a physics demonstration that used crotchet and knitting examples to explain how spacetime warps, was incubating an idea for baskets based on the scientific principle. He approached master weaver John Akurigo from the Ghanaian group. It took just three days to produce the first wave basket. The new technique went back to Bolgatanga. Ten years on the weavers continue to incorporate it into fresh designs. Their ability to consistently come up with new approaches sets the company apart from many others in the field says Singh, who is now Design & Delivery Lead with the Sonder Collective in Helsinki. 

“There’s something different about The Baba Tree. I’ve worked with a lot of other weavers in Africa and India but after a few years things always seem to fizzle out because there’s no-one working on it, making it evolve. There is something about the fun and the joy you see at Baba Tree that really creates this fostering environment where new ideas can emerge and be sustained.” 

Gregory is cognisant that the trip to India was a major turning point. It spurred his team on. 

“Our design confidence grew. I designed a whole bunch of baskets that took on a life of their own. They were adapted and developed by our team who expanded the ideas and ran with them to the point that I can now hardly lay claim to them as the designer. We started making these huge, curvy pieces and they’ve kept growing and developing. Now a lot of people copy us and sell the knockoffs a lot cheaper. We’re challenged by that. Being copied is a chronic illness in the craft world.” 

His policy is to hold fast to the company’s core strength of conceiving fresh work in the highest quality.

“We will come up with more basket designs. We still have designs tucked away that we haven’t released yet.” 

The company employs anything from 300 weavers to double that number depending on production demand. Almost all weave from the workshop on the compound premises, which is home to Gregory and his daughter. 

“A gorgeous child named Precious who is the driving force as to why I’m here.” 

He can’t prevent the smile that wraps itself from ear to ear when he speaks of her. Home life for them is kept deliberately simple and work life is balanced by his budding permaculture venture and building design on a piece of land nearby that is destined to be the future home of The Baba Tree. 

“The land, the land. I’m obsessed with it, with growing things. I’m fanatically passionate about our bit of land. I’m 62 years old and now I want to spend more time getting my hands into the compost.”

The Baba Tree Basket Company is here to stay but if and when Gregory steps back from the day to day basketry he’ll be found still planning, still pushing, still designing - only then it will be among the plants and ponds on The Baba Tree’s beloved bit of land. 

Images Francis Kokoroko and The Baba Tree Basket Company.

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