Artisan dreams a living out of old banana stalks

Each morning as 30-year-old Joram Karanja sets off from his home in Muchatha to work as a stone mason in Ruaka Town, he passes a wooden hut draped in passion fruit that is crammed with dried banana stalks that represent his dreams and aspirations. For Karanja is building a new livelihood in his evenings as a banana-stalk artisan.

The rough untidy dusty stalks are what he uses to create over 15 different hand-made accessories, including caps, bags, paper files, table mats, picture frames, and jewellery boxes. 

Karanja began noticing his artistic talent when he was in primary school. “Teachers would complement me on my skill at making things like clay pots, kiondo, and rolling pins,” said a shy Karanja. He confesses he never struggled in the arts like his classmates.  “It was practically in me,” he said.

However his artistic romance with creating banana stalk objects took hold in 2007 after he visited a friend who had made a hand-woven spider half the size of a football. He went home and made one the same. He then began conceptualizing and making more complex pieces like maps, caps, frames, wallets, camera holders and table mats. “My talent advanced as a result,” said Karanja.

A typical hand-woven, banana-stalk cap takes Karanja a day to make. He uses gum to paste the pieces together and to ensure it’s water resistant, he covers it with clear varnish. The varnish makes the texture slippery and if it rains, the cap is not drenched. On the inside, the cap is padded with a soft banana stalk to make it comfortable to wear.

The cap he wears daily he made in February and is still in tiptop shape.” It has survived heavy rains,” he said.

To make his pieces he first draws them on a paper and weaves them while mounted on shaped moulds.

Karanja has no land so he sources the stalks from farmers in the area with bananas or buys trunks for Sh30 each which he then dries. However, most farmers don’t charge him for the dry banana stalk.

As the business can’t support him enough to leave his day construction job, he has developed nocturnal instincts and works on his pieces at night. At times, he works the whole night because there is a lot of demand for his pieces. Other times, he works the whole night for the love of it.

One striking piece he has made is a ladies handbag that took him two weeks to make. The bag has a map of Kenya engraved on it, various side pockets and seams that form a weaving pattern. For the labour and materials he has used, he costs it at Sh3000. It’s his most expensive piece yet. His least costly are table mats that cost around Sh20.

His largest clientele are Muchatha locals who buy picture frames at Sh50 to Sh100. However ,he has a client in Jevanjee, who he decorates lampshades for. “I have three regular clients,” Karanja said. He also sells his smaller pieces to Muchatha locals at prices they can afford. “If I price highly they won’t buy,” he said.

The only high-profile place that he has exhibited his works was at the launch of the National Banana Association at Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI). “It was my first time to exhibit,” said Karanja.

Access to the market and finance have been his biggest challenges. “If I leave construction work and my stuff is not selling I will starve,” said Karanja. But when his artistic venture takes off, he plans to train young people and employ them.  

His other ambition is to have a shop where he can exhibit his wares. “Like the Maasai Market,” he said, which would showcase his wares to Wazungus, something he is eager to do.

For the time being, he continues to craft his wares in his free time piling them into his storage hut until the day his market will open up. “I hope God blesses me with customers,” he said, peering around his small workshop full of dried banana stalk. “This is my passion.”

For more on Joram Karanja’s banana stalk wares contact him on 0729-833400.


Written By James Karuga for Farmbizafrica