Maasai beads hit the catwalk

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Media captionSafaribead's Lisa Barratt on her work with Maasai women

Sitting underneath a spreading acacia tree in Nairobi, a group of Maasai women are threading beads to create multi-coloured, intricate patterns.

The women make traditional beaded breast plates, earrings and bracelets that convey their social and marital status.

But this group is doing more than just continue the tradition - it is at the heart of a scheme to enhance earnings from tribal embellishment.

The co-operative that they belong to is changing the old rules that left the women with a small amount of money for many days' work.

Previously the main market was in Kenya, but now beading is selling at higher prices to European designers who are innovating the way beads are used for the coming season.

Haute couture

Safaribead is run by Zimbabwe-born Lisa Barratt, who has established a model business to ensure as many women as possible benefit fairly from long hours spent devising geometric bead patterns for the export market.

Image caption Nana Litgens (centre) feels the future looks encouraging for Maasai bead-threaders

"If she is not protected by being guaranteed a fair wage for her work, a beader will be exploited," Ms Barratt explains.

"The local market for beads is based on tourism. But this is relatively small. Exporting is the way for these women to make money."

One of a growing number of intermediaries who puts foreign designers in touch with beading co-operatives, Safaribead wins profitable orders from abroad. It guarantees consistency of quality by having samples made up by the group in Nairobi.

These are then distributed to rural communities to copy. A co-ordinator is key to the scheme.

Ms Barratt collects the completed items, checking quality. At the same time she drops off the next assignment. Working out profit margins before taking on an order means that only the upper end of the fashion market meets the criteria.

"High street shops aren't able to pay our workers a fair wage," she says. "We pay people well above the minimum fair trade wage criteria, and that means we deal with the couture end of fashion."

Only designers who create only a few of each model are able to fund the individually designed beads and original patterning that will sell a dress priced in the thousands.

'Showing off'

Nana Litgens, who has worked with Ms Barratt for more than five years, is amazed at the changing colours and unexpected fresh look.

Image caption Anna Trzebinski "tweaks" traditional designs to appeal to European tastes

"We only know what our mothers and aunts taught us," she says. "New ideas are coming in, and we may copy them in what we wear."

Although it is unlikely that trendy designs will seriously dilute the cultural meaning of jewellery, Kenyan fashion designer Anna Trzebinski believes local people will welcome innovation.

"Maasai men are real peacocks and love their bling," she explains. "Recently they have been putting flashing Chinese lights in their hair. They are constantly looking for individual ways of showing off their physique."

Ms Trzebinski's collections include beading, and - although she "tweaks" traditional designs to appeal to European tastes - she usually sticks more closely to the originals than Western designers. Translating rather than altering authentic Maasai motifs increases the value of their work.

Ms Litgens feels the future looks encouraging.

If one or two Maasai women are able to learn how the international garment industry functions, then perhaps a daughter or granddaughter may be able to deal directly with Dior or Chanel.

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