Take Five with Mana Sira

May 7, 2017 | The Maker Series

This week we spoke to the wonderful ladies behind Mana Sira, a community-based initiative teaching a group of Timorese women in Timor-Leste basic crochet skills with the aim of creating an opportunity for them to become financially self-sufficient.

In 2016, Liz, Pam, Jenny and Ashleigh, four close friends from Newcastle in Australia, saw a way of connecting the Timorese women to a market which they would not otherwise have had access to. Mana Sira translates to ‘sisters’ in Tetum and works with a collective of Timorese women who create beautiful artisan crochet pieces.

We featured Mana Sira’s beautiful Bibi the Sheep in our ‘Top Five Baby Toys’ earlier this year and asked the ladies if they would mind sharing more of the story behind their life-changing project. They kindly agreed to do just that…

1. Tell us a bit about yourselves, your families and where you live?

The four of us are closely linked in friendship and we also happen to be related! We are all based in Newcastle and share a love for crochet and travel. Liz and her husband Travis have a gorgeous one year old daughter Ivy. She works in Executive Administration and will return to this role shortly following a period of maternity leave, though being a Mum is undoubtedly the best job she’s have ever had. Jenny (Liz’ Mum) has three adult children and one beautiful Grandaughter. She works in Administration for a school and loves spending her weekends socialising with friends, family and her adoring Cavoodle, Honey. Pam and her husband Paul have three adult children and five grandchildren. They are the founding directors of their business in Property Management. In her spare time, Pam loves to travel and spend time with her family and friends. Ashleigh (Pams’ daughter) and her husband Jack have two delightfully energetic boys, Harrison aged three and Hugh aged one. She loves being a Mum and when she’s not running after her boys you’ll find her having a coffee, taking photos or catching up with friends.

2. Tell us how you came to create Mana Sira and what inspired you to start a community-based initiative like this?

A few things converged really.  In 2014 Ashleigh moved to Timor with her husband who was posted there with the Australian Army. Ash had a six-year career in International Development prior to moving to Timor and always had a passion for the poor, in particular, for micro-enterprise for women in developing countries.  Whilst in Timor she could see the potential of the women, but also how they were trapped in a tough poverty cycle. She played with a few ideas on how to help, but it wasn’t until she had her first son whilst living there, and was gifted a beautiful crocheted baby blanket her mother made, that the lightbulb moment came. Shortly afterwards Ashleigh met Gisele Trucco who together with her husband Eduardo, run a community-based livelihood project for young people in Aileu. Their organisation is called Projeto Montaha and is located in the District of Aileu which is two and a half hours drive south of Dili. The work of this couple is truly inspiring. You only have to meet the vivacious and passionate ‘Gi’ to immediately want to jump on board with her vision.

Ash got in touch with her best crocheting friends in Newcastle (Liz, Jen and Pam) and arranged a visit to Projeto Montanha to teach some of the local girls and women how to crochet.  They took to it like Grandmas, and Mana Sira was born! The name means ‘Sisters’. We all love the heirloom characteristic of handmade baby blankets and agreed this was the best way to go. We wanted to use colours that would sell on the Australian market and patterns that were exquisite and timeless. We believe we have achieved this.
It’s been a massive journey from there, as most small business founders would relate to, complicated for us by operating in a country like Timor. In September 2016 we launched our online shop as a way of connecting the Timorese women to a market which they would not otherwise have had access to. Since launching we have shipped to the US, UK, New Zealand and throughout Australia.

3. The women in the project look amazingly happy and proud to be involved in this enterprise, how satisfying is it to combine a successful business model with empowering others?

It is an incredible feeling to be part of providing an avenue for the Timorese women to sell their amazing handiwork and generate an income for their families. Historically, Timor has endured significant devastation to their infrastructure and have had to begin again. We are playing a small role, alongside many other non-government agencies to increase revenue to the country and its people. We definitely see it as a partnership in which we are only one cog in the wheel. Without the quality handiwork produced by some of the most humble and beautiful women, you have ever met, together with the guidance and support of Projeto Montanha we wouldn’t be where we are today. The women in our project have outstanding potential and create beautiful pieces, despite their humble circumstances. When they know that other women are purchasing their goods because of its beauty and quality, the confidence and self-esteem this provides is life changing for them.

4. I love your products, they are beautiful.  Who comes up with the designs?

Thank you!  It’s so great to hear wonderful feedback. We taught the women the original blanket design which they adapted to suit their style. Many of the women can’t count which makes patterns difficult. Gi designed the ‘Bibi’ sheep which we completely adore.