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The Fairest Trade: A Conversation with Obakki’s Treana Peake

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Obakki founder Treana Peake speaks with us about slow design and international development

Treana Peake has worked in international development for over 30 years, travelling to vulnerable parts of the world working on education, clean water, medical assistance, and community-building initiatives. Who better to embark upon a business of fair-trade products? Through her deep knowledge of these areas, and firsthand experience seeing the ravages of ill-conceived trade, Peake has grown a unique model. She brings beautiful and contemporary works from artisans around the world to the global market and through the non-profit Obakki Foundation, meaningfully improves their lives. By letting the artisans set their prices, and working together with the villages’ skills and needs, Obakki sets itself apart from other sustainable brands on the market. They reinvest in the communities, providing clean water access and livelihood initiatives. They also require all retail partners to take a much lower percentage profit than usual. So, it’s no surprise that Peake is a consummate people-person whose contagious warmth and down-to-earth star power is catching the attention of both designers and the community-minded set.

Obakki

Is it through your development work that Obakki was born?

That’s what’s a little bit different about us. I put everything through a development lens. For me, the important thing is to improve economically [disadvantaged] regions and the lives of the artisans there. Can I sell this? Does it fit the Obakki aesthetic? And, what good does it do? Can we work together long-term?

How do you assess that?

We get together with the villages and the elders and talk about how it can improve their community. It will be something they have established in their own local markets and aren’t dependent on us in case something ever happens to us or, say, clay pots aren’t in fashion anymore. I’ve seen so much of that.

Treana Packe

Oaxacan artisans produce handmade sculptures.

You’ve seen villages reliant on outside buyers?

Yes, I was working beside the United Nations in South Sudan. They said ‘We need you guys in here because there is a little village that had an international buyer come in who did shea butter production without a community [need for] shea butter products. They stopped doing everything else and lost their crafts, their agriculture. They got richer, the women were abused, then the buyer was out, and the village fell into poverty.

Obakki, Toronto Canada

LEFT Obakki’s eco-friendly Sisal baskets are handmade by artisan partners in Kenya. From $116. RIGHT The Pixels Weekender Bag is a handsewn waxed-cotton bag made by Judith, a woman and artisan overcoming trauma in Uganda. $125.

So, you deal directly with the artists?

Yes, and we work with governing bodies, sometimes bigger bodies and organizations and my field staff. I take all of their assessments and reports and I go see it for myself. I just talked to Tom, a beekeeper in Uganda, and a team of weavers in Oaxaca. I speak to them on a regular basis. Sometimes it’s business, and sometimes it’s ‘how’s the family?’

Sustainable design is such a buzzword. What does it mean to you and your company?

Yeah, I hear you on that. It’s used all the time. It’s actually hard to achieve. For us, we have 20 boxes we have to tick. There’s the environment and there’s the people. We ask, what are the factors in this region? It’s so layered and complicated. There is no single answer.

Treana Peake

How does that model work?

I check in with our partners and review whether it’s positive or not. You can go into a community and then go back three months later, and circumstances have changed. It could be that where you are getting soil is no longer safe, or something has changed and then we shift and pivot. It’s why I travel all the time and am on WhatsApp all the time — to sit down with a family and be honest and true and dedicated to our partnerships. We meet with each person and ensure the production process is sustainable, but also healthy and financially sound for the makers.

Artisan Products

LEFT The Florero Vase in rustic black onyx clay is made by a collective in Oaxaca, Mexico. $195. RIGHT Following in her family’s tradition, Ana Beatriz crafts Clay Espresso Cup and Saucers. $59 per cup and saucer.

Where does the name Obakki come from? 

It’s a made-up word from when I started Obakki as a fashion brand. It had zero hits on Google. In Nigeria, it’s king, and it picks up different meanings in different cultures.

What is your favourite place to visit?

I have spent most of my life on the continent of Africa. I first went when I was 17. I love so many regions. Through the Obakki Foundation, we are able to do so many amazing things in Uganda and South Sudan through our skincare line. [Note: Treana is pioneering a shea-butter processing training program there training locals on the value of the Shea trees (usually harvested as firewood), showing that these ancient trees can have more value to communities if the nuts are processed into lotions and oils.]

Treana Peake

The Montana Wall Hanging. $6,295.

You have curated such a beautiful collection from all over the world, yet they have a cohesive aesthetic.

Thank you.  I guess it’s [my eye]. I do think, is it modern? Do I like the aesthetic? And, can I sell it? But because of the development work, I also think what is our impact on this village?

OBAKKI.COM

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