Beads, woodcarvings, batiks, sandals and colourful baskets: shopping for crafts is part and parcel of travelling in Africa.
Yet despite their ubiquity – and sizeable contribution to national economies – arts and crafts are rarely a government priority. “Take ministries,” says Abdoulaye Zongo, director of Burkina Faso’s biennial arts and crafts fair the Salon International de l’Artisanat de Ouagadougou (SIAO).
The largest trade fair for the industry, it brings together more than 500 exhibitors from across the continent and buyers from Europe, North America and Asia. “It’s rare to find a ministry of arts and crafts.
It’s always lumped with another sector deemed more important,” Zongo says.
Other challenges facing the industry include the lack of business skills amongst artisans, who often have just a basic education, and lack of access to markets.
The arts and crafts industry employs millions of people, many from the poorer parts of society.
In Mali and Burkina Faso an estimated 30-40 percent of the population is involved in arts and crafts, which includes the production of artisanal food products.
“By classifying the sector as marginal, artisans think: ‘Well, I’m only doing this because I can’t find anything else.’ It shouldn’t be like this,” says Zongo.
A number of countries are devoting resources to professionalising the sector.
Before the political crisis struck in early 2012, the Malian government invested heavily in the construction of artisan hubs in each of its nine regions.
The situation in the north put paid to these advances, but Idrissa Ly, director for arts and crafts at the ministry of crafts and tourism, says the ministry remains committed.
In South Africa, the Industrial Policy Action Plan 2012/13-2014/15 identified the crafts sector as a key industry.
In a bid to encourage market confidence, the department for trade and industry developed the South African Handmade Collection brand in 2007.
Greater regional cooperation is on the cards too: the Coordination pour le Développement et la Promotion de l’Artisanat Africain is building a new headquarters in Ouagadougou in a bid to boost collaboration between its 27 members.
Zongo is also part of this new drive to professionalise the crafts industry. In the lead-up to the last edition of the SIAO in October, he and his team travelled to the United States, France and South Africa to raise the profile of the fair.
The SIAO also partnered with Japan’s government in a bid to open up the craft market to Asia.
For artisans like Adélaïde Adeline, founder of Nimba Art in Ouagadougou, these efforts are welcome.
“There were more than 500 artisans exhibiting their wares, yet only 60 announced buyers,” she says.
Adeline says she is taking a long-term view about her investment in a stall – a costly 700,000 CFA francs ($1,400) – and that advertising, meeting potential clients and getting inspiration from her peers is just as important as selling.
Buyer Fiona Cameron, who runs Parisian boutique Storie, says that there are basic things – a list of exhibitors and buyers, a map of stalls and Wi-Fi – that the SIAO organisers need to address.
She also bemoans the lack of Eastern and Southern African artisans.
“If they could make this a pan-African event and get it organised, they would have a lot of international buyers,” she says. ●
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