Lonely Planet Writer

How socially-conscious travellers can support the Maasai

The Maasai tribe is synonymous with the African savannah. So attractive are the rich colours of their intricate beadwork that high-end fashion designers continue to imitate their signature look, selling Maasai-style products for hundreds of dollars.

A mother and child in elaborate dress outside their home in the Maasai village, Boma Ya Lesongoi. Image by ©Jonathan Gregson/Lonely Planet

Louis Vuitton’s 2012 spring/summer men’s collection was inspired by the iconic Maasai shuka – a traditiona blanket of fiery red and blue. The problem is, the Maasai are not the ones making these products or being compensated through their sales and travellers can be duped into buying goods that exploit them instead.

A model walks the runway at the Louis Vuitton menswear fashion show during Paris Fashion Menswear Week on June 23, 2011 in Paris, France. Image by Karl Prouse/Catwalking/Getty Images

Now though, the Maasai are fighting to regain control of their cultural brand. The Maasai Intellectual Property Initiative (MIPI) is bringing the tribe, which stretches across Kenya and Tanzania, together to demand businesses obtain licensing agreements to use their look. As MIPI explains, “Nearly 80% of the Maasai population […] are living below the poverty line,” yet dozens of companies continue to infringe the Maasai, who it says is owed several million dollars in licensing fees annually. MIPI hopes that by working with the community and using its international network, it can pressure companies to obtain licences so funds can be distributed back to the Maasai people.

Unidentified Masai warriors in the Masai Mara National Park. Image by ©Vadim Petrakov/Shutterstock

For the socially-conscious traveller, there are ways to support the Maasai’s endeavour. Visitors to Kenya and Tanzania can choose to buy genuine Maasai-made cloth and jewelry, knowing the proceeds will go straight back into the community. There are several great projects that help sustain their way of life in Kenya. The Maa Trust runs a beadwork social enterprise to promote their tribal art and livelihoods. AnTassia produces bespoke beaded designs, which harness Maasai women’s impressive skills to create an income for their families. The Tatu Project in Tanzania also runs the MASAA jewelry project, a social business that supports the vibrant Maasai culture.

By Clementine Logan