People of the Sun: An Interview with Maria Haralambidou


People of the Sun

I found the work of People of Sun through Pinterest and have been following and coveting their work, ever since. Their mission statement alone is inspirational.

‘We want to help low-income artisans build sustainable businesses, which will  raise their income and standard of living. In turn this will preserve their cultural heritage and ensure indigenous skills survive for the next generation. ‘

I’m honoured to have connected with founder Maria Haralambidou. Her commitment and drive are inspirational – reinforcing what happens when you follow your passion.

Who founded People of the Sun?

I founded People of the Sun late 2012. My background is in high-end residential architecture. There is a connection between architecture and design. Both are about solving problems in a creative way. The goal of People of the Sun is the creation of sustainable furniture and home decor. Our aim is to use design as a tool to overcome poverty challenges.

I was always fascinated by artisans during my travels. I loved scrolling in local markets of a new country to find traditional handicrafts, meet the artisans and understand all the techniques involved into making one product. It’s actually impressive all the work that goes into all these handmade products yet most artisans in developing countries live below the poverty line.

This is the moment I decided to follow my passion, while working towards doing something good. I managed to win a small grant, through Kingston University and the British Council, to work with a group of basket weavers in Zimbabwe for a month and I loved it!

Combining my experiences with the artisans in Zimbabwe and the ones I had met during my travels, it was obvious that they all shared the same problem: access to markets. But how could they ever access markets? They all lived in remote villages and their products lacked design. So that’s how the idea of People of the Sun started.

Starting People of the Sun in Malawi was a coincidence. I did the above project in Zimbabwe and Malawi was a neighbouring country.

In Malawi there is no infrastructure between artisans and the handicraft sector.  I had to start from zero, to educate artisans about production, market forces, working in a group, book keeping, and leadership – while continuing to inspire them.

When I arrived in Malawi , I started by visiting local markets to learn and identify what was being produced. The Stall sellers were kind enough to introduce me to the artisans, so for the first two months I visited as many artisans as I could. One visit I will always remember involved a 50 min drive followed by a uphill hour long walk to reach the village of the artisan. This time I spent was invaluable. It gave me time to understand the culture and dynamics of Malawi in order to develop right strategy and direction to take People of the Sun.

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How many people make up the organisation?

People of the Sun began with me and 3 artisans. We now work with 7 different artisan groups, which makes up 120 artisans. There are 5 people that run our head office in Malawi whose tasks vary from design, to finance and artisan development.

Artisans are the heart of People of the Sun. We work around them and are their support system.

How has People of the Sun changed as it’s grown over the years?

People of the Sun is constantly changing and adapting.

We started as an idea to help artisans and are now seen as a proper enterprise supplying products to retailers all over the world.

At the beginning, we operated out of my home. because of our success, we  now run People of the Sun from a beautiful historic building which acts as our studio, warehouse, shop and training centre in the centre of Blantyre.

We have become more professional and confident in the design sector and have built up collaboratively with other institutions. Paired with an established artisan infrastructure in Malawi, we are able to export products and increase production in alignment with our growth. Furthermore the interest we’ve received from fellow from designers and retailers who are interested in collaborating, has enhanced our growth as a business.

Through all of this, what we have maintained is People of the Sun personal touch to design and business.

People of the SunPeople of the Sun

What are People of the Sun’s future goals?

I have some big plans I’m excited to share.

People of the Sun is expanding. I’m currently in Nepal to start up our new chapter – People of the Sun Nepal. We are connecting with local artisans and are so thrilled to see and support their work. The craftsmanship alone in Nepal is amazing!

Our long term dream is to bring all our artisans together so they can meet and exchange knowledge and experiences. We also are planning to start a small e-commerce shop with limited products mid November, followed by a full e-commerce shop of our complete collection in April 2017.

How many designers make up People of the Sun? 

People of the Sun’s core collection is designed in house and then developed in collaboration with the relevant artisans. To date we also had some exciting collaborations with  external designers, mainly from Europe. Collaborations are a fantastic way to bring fresh and innovative ideas into People of the Suns collection.

Rentaro Nishimura, a Japanese designer based in London, was our first collaboration.  We sent him photos of the basket weaving techniques and he sent us back came with what we named, ‘The Cone Collection.’ This collaboration became an innovative and award-winning collection which translated local basket weaving techniques into furniture.

Swiss architects Caroline Zimmerli and Lea Rickenbacher designed the TWIN salad servers, which are inspired by Swiss minimalism and local skill, while also thinking of how to minimise wood waste.

Spanish architects Carlos Pena Ponte and Barbara Marina Perez designed the rolling animals, taking inspiration from the African jungle and transforming traditional African curios into elegant and fun toys for kids.

German designers Hettler Tullman integrated the traditional basket weaving technique into a beautiful set of chairs.

Swedish Designer Julia Nielsen drew inspiration from the popular Malawi chair. She used the technique of cane weaving to design a fabulous statement mirror.

Are hope is that our  list of designers with whom we collaborate, will continue to grow.

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Can you share with us a future collaboration?

We are currently in a conversation with an incredibly established Dutch designer that lives in the UK.  I can’t yet reveal the designers name, but if all goes well we will be over the moon. She saw our exhibition during the Milan 2016 Design Week and our collaboration with designers Hettler-Tullman.

People of the Sun

How can someone get involved?

We welcome anyone who’d like to help us on journey to grow and expand.

In May 2016,  we started a 3-month internship programme. It is a unforgettable experinence that is suited for anyone interested in business, design and travel. We are always looking to connect with people who have experience in photography, styling, graphics, design, marketing, finance, grant writing and even an area that we may not have thought about but you think is relevant!

People of the Sun

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