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Akha

In short

Language Group: Sino-Tibetan
Province: Bokeo, Luang Namtha, Phongsaly
Project start date: 2003

The story

The Akha people are found in Northern parts of Laos, Thailand, Burma, Vietnam and China. Their population in Laos is estimated at just over 100,000. The Akha speak a Sino-Tibetan language and are believed to have originated in China and moved to Laos early in the 19th Century.

The Akha ethnic group is used to group together a number of sub-groups and clans that share a strong identity and lifestyle. Women in these clans are famous for their silver headdresses, adorned with coins and beads. They traditionally live in remote mountain areas in the North of Laos and practice indigo dying, embroidery and appliqué.

We started working with Akha artisans for the first time in 2003 in Phongsaly Province. Cecily Pouget who had moved to a small village with 
her husband, an EU worker and their two young sons, started the Akha Biladjo project in 2003. Cecily wanted to do something that was both fulfilling for herself and entertaining for her sons. Working with the Akha women in a nearby village they collectively started stitching childrens toys and books using fabrics on hand. The designs took off and local markets were found.

This is how the Akha Biladjo project was born and it became a self-sustaining way of using traditional skills to generate a steady income. Cecily now lives in Cambodia but the project is self-managed and is one of the success stories of handicraft development in Laos. The product range continues to grow with initiatives like Ock Pop Tok requesting new designs and working with the women on new product ranges.

After that, in 2010, we went on to work with Akha artisans, around Muang Sing in Luang Namtha. At the request of the Lao National Tourism Administration (LNTA) we were invited to design a product development training program. Our team looked at the traditional headdress of the Akha women and was inspired by the silver discs that embellish the hats.

Akha women are successful cotton farmers, weavers and indigo dyers. The products co-developed with these communities reflect their traditional way of dress whilst also utilizing their traditional skills. Instead of silver disks up-cycling pieces of aluminum cans are used in the products.

OPT continues to work with Akha women to create new designs and product ranges. Check out their dolls, necklaces and dolls in our shops! In 2019, we started working with a couple new Akha villages…

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DIY Akha Embroidery Ornament!

The toys and dolls made by Akha artisans are always fun and whimsical. Mae Tse, akha artisan from Luang Namtha, happily agreed to walk us through the various steps to make a super cute ornament from colourful fabric and adorned with embroidery. Let’s create!

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Our collaborations

Ban Lakkham, Luang Namtha

Ban Lakkham is an Akha village in Muang Sing District, in the Luang Namtha Province. At the moment, we work with 20 of the 88 families living in the village. We co-developed a range of upcycled products with these communities such as coasters, placemats and purses using aluminum cans. There is a market demand for these products but the artisans needed help to develop new ranges of products. They also needed more training, new tools and better planning.

A project in collaboration with the EIF (Enhanced Integrated Framework) under the aegis of the Ministry of Commerce and Industry – Lao PDR. Funded by Trade for Development ECL (Project on Promotion of Export Competitiveness and Sustainability Support to Public-Private Dialogue in Northern Lao)

Culture & Lifestyle in Ban Lakkham, As told to us by Mrs. Souk

In Ban Lakkham, the day starts really early. As early as one or two in the morning. At least from December to May, during the sugarcane season. The reason being that sugarcane leaves cut when dry. And at one in the morning, dew helps reduce this inconvenience.

It’s only when they come back from the fields that they will cook and eat. Usually vegetable soups and stir fried vegetables. After the morning’s physical work, they’ll relax a bit before doing some bamboo weaving for the men and embroidery for the women. From May to November, they switch to rice farming and more conventional hours. Their main income comes from sugar cane, rubber and their textiles.

They too have shifted to western outfits for their daily life — pants and shirts from the local market. They wear their traditional outfit — traditional jackets, trousers and hats — on special occasions like weddings and Akha New Year which is celebrated in December. The Akha then give thanks to their ancestors who blessed them with a good harvest.

To celebrate the new year, they dance, sing akha songs, throw balls while the kids play with marbles and rubber bands.

Akha Nukui - Ban Phapoun, Phongsaly

Ban Pha Poun is an Akha Nukui village in Boun Neu District, in the Phongsaly Province. There are 60 families. At the moment, we work with 15 women from the village. The Akha Nukui are highly skilled in applique, embroidery and sewing. Very creative, they are open to new ideas. We thus developed a range of jewelry, accessories and toys with them.

Until now, they had not been able to get good prices for their products because they did not use natural materials nor had the proper tools to support their production. By training them in new designs and providing them new tools, we’re increasing their chances of selling their products at a higher price. We expect their market to grow in the future.

A project in collaboration with the EIF (Enhanced Integrated Framework) under the aegis of the Ministry of Commerce and Industry – Lao PDR. Funded by Trade for Development ECL (Project on Promotion of Export Competitiveness and Sustainability Support to Public-Private Dialogue in Northern Lao)

Culture & Lifestyle in Ban Phapoun, as told to us by Mrs. Khueyer

In Ban Phapoun too, the main income comes from sugar cane, but also rice and textile products. The women divide their time between the farming and textiles while the children spend most of their free time in nature, fishing or helping their family in their daily tasks.

They dress in western outfits on a daily basis and keep their traditional outfits for special occasions, like weddings and New Year. The biggest celebration in their village is Boun Ok Phan Sa, the light festival, celebrated in October.

For the celebrations, their usual clear vegetable soup with pork is accompanied by their special Lao Khao, Lao whiskey made from sticky rice. Some Akha songs and dances add to the festivities.

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