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Improved Trading Capacity the Key to Success in US And Global Market

Published date:
Saturday, 20 December 2003

In the United States alone, the market for handcrafted articles "is $10 billion a year -- billion with a capital 'B'," U.S. Commerce Department official Molly Williamson told an audience of African artisans, U.S. importers, and U.S. and African government officials at the Smithsonian Institution's Ripley Center during the Third AGOA Forum in Washington in December.

"There's a strong desire to find the unique, the interesting, the product with a story," said Williamson, who is deputy assistant secretary of commerce for Africa, the Middle East and South Asia. "This consumer market, large and growing, is something that opens a very special (market) for Africa products through AGOA (the African Growth and Opportunity Act). You will find throughout the United States specialty shops (and) big chains...looking for the products that come from, among other places, Africa."

The $10 billion marketplace, she said, "includes all manner of products and crafts," although the Smithsonian workshop focused only on Category 9 of AGOA, specifically textiles and forkloric products.

Category 9 products have to keep within very specific standards, explained Mark Irwing of Spice Island Trading in Madagascar, but that causes some confusion for the artists. "For example," he said, "we are advised to follow the fashion trends. Artisans are willing, but as soon as we start to put extra work on the merchandise -- if we sew with machine or add leather or zippers -- products (no longer) fall into Category 9, and importers have to pay duties on the products!"

Many African artisans who participated in the AGOA Forum had the opportunity to display and sell their wares at a reception and pre-Christmas holiday sale in the National Museum of African Art the evening of December 9.

"This is where my heart is, my love is, and my life is and I came back," said American Elaine Bellezza, has lived in West Africa for 12 years, first working in the non-profit sector. "When my contract ended, I went back to the United States," but, she said, her heart and soul brought her back to Mali where she "set up a private company working with 120 artisans in Bamako."

She is proprietor of 'Mia Mali,' where former Peace Corps Volunteer Joe Funt worked as part of his tour in Mali.

"I was working in an artisans union with a women's association. The women make the mud cloth here," Funt said, showing off pillow covers, apparel, and other items. "We would be designing western products from traditional mud cloth."

An Ethiopian man, who was displaying elaborately woven, brilliantly hued silk pillow cases, said "We're trying to get the Category 9 exemption in Ethiopia for hand-loomed, hand-woven or folklore (items), but so far the Ethiopian government has not entered into (AGOA) with the U.S. government."

Bridget Kyerematen, from Ghana, said "We do recycled glass beads and metal as candleholders; we try to put most things into functional products and we also use our basic traditional concepts to ornament (for example) the face of a fertility doll; we have some brass. We work with importers and wholesalers for they know the market."

The glass beads sell well, she said, as well as the candleholders with metal stands and an array of jeweled stones as decoration. "Before, the brass napkin rings used to do well but now I think there's a shift," she said, illustrating another point made by workshop speakers -- that artisans need to be alert to changing trends at the retail side.

A woman artisan from Rwanda said she has used AGOA since 2001. It "hasn't helped yet for the craft because even before AGOA the crafts coming from Rwanda don't pay duty because of the GSP (General System of Preferences). Maybe AGOA will help us to find big buyers," she said hopefully.

Francoise Mukagihana, managing director of 'Modis International Handicrafts' in Kigali, sells "grass baskets; wood carvings that use maize, and banana leaf baskets. And I sell wall hangings too," she said.

A Tanzanian woman artisan said "I'm selling carvings, ebony carvings. In Tanzania we are very rich with ebony trees. We have plenty of ebony trees, which we can even (cut) for some 50 years. I mean hard black wood. I am also selling batik and tie-dye ... baskets and beads, which are made from banana fibers.

"(AGOA) helped us," she continued. "We have a little shop so that we can maybe compete with eastern bloc -- the Chinese and the Japanese who sell their things in the United States at a very cheap price. Maybe we can compete."

Among her objects were lovely scenes of village life and "action scenes," of wild animals made from papier mache as wall hangings. "We do recycled paper. And these (action figures), have been done by street boys." They sold for $15 each.

From Nairobi, Kenya came jewelry of all varieties known as "Kazuri," -- colorful handmade high-fired ceramic beads individually hand-done by a group of Kikuyu women who work at a project in what once was a part of Karen von Blixen's coffee plantation (made famous by the film "Out of Africa").

Patrick DuBrule, who sells the products, is an American born in West Africa, now living in the U.S. state of Maine. He says the women artisans are "all very well paid. They have 400 dependent children who get school supplies, uniforms and health insurance.

"We sell about 10,000 pieces a year, contributing about $80,000 to the Kenyan economy on an annual basis."

He describes the Kazuri workmanship. "All the patterns individual. Hand painted. Everything is bisk-fired. We work with handicapped women in the outlying villages. We will take a bag of raw clay to them and give them a size bead and they'll sit there and they'll hand shape it and we go back and collect it a week later and pay them for those -- bring them back to the workshop, put them in the kiln, bisk-fire them, glaze them and fire them again," and they're ready for the market.

(The Washington File is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site:

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