The real importance and value of artisan enterprise in contributing to economic development, poverty alleviation and women's empowerment is finally being recognised by the world. The timely launch of the #ChooseArtisan global campaign today (10 September 2015) is certainly getting people talking, and rightly so, about the incredible work being done by forward thinking women artisan entrepreneurs, particularly in places like Africa, where traditional crafts are being elevated to a whole new status.
The #ChooseArtisan global campaign launch event, coordinated by the prestigious Aspen Institute and the Alliance for Artisan Enterprise, and launched at the US Department of State, is bringing together some of the most powerful voices to discuss how to scale the impact of the Alliance for Artisan Enterprise. Hosted by Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues, Cathy Russell, the event is providing a platform for artisans, investors, policy makers, and representatives from business and civil society for a fascinating discussion.
So, here are a few facts that you might not know about the artisan sector, and that might surprise you. If the creative economy were a country, it would be the 4th largest economy in the world. World exports of artisan goods are currently worth $32 billion per year, and of critical importance to Africa is that millions of women in countries across the continent participate in the artisan sector. In fact, the global artisan industry doubled to $32 billion from 2002-2012. The fact is that the artisan sector fosters economically-viable communities, especially for women, and importantly here in Africa, creates significant numbers of jobs. Behind agriculture, artisan activity is the second largest employer in the developing world. Yet, artisans are so often part of the informal economy and therefore the key drivers in building the social capital of the communities in which they live and work.
If the creative economy were a country, it would be the 4th largest economy in the world.
At a practical level, artisan enterprises provide a real life-line and genuine socio-economic development opportunities for women in particular to achieve gender equality and more inclusiveness in their societies and communities. By supporting and helping to fulfil the true economic potential of artisan enterprises in Africa, they can become the real game-changers. In addition, the artisan sector is also sustaining important traditional craftsmanship and key skills that would otherwise be lost for ever, thereby preserving culture essential for sustainable development at a grass roots level. One only has to look at Africa's women pioneers in the field of artisan craftsmanship who have single-handedly preserved entire traditional crafts and skills, such as the inspirational Aissa Dione, the founder of Aissa Dione Textiles in Senegal. She has not only breathed life back into the traditional fabric weaving industry in Senegal, but has also captured the attention of the absolute top-end interior design brands around the world with her unique hand-woven fabrics. Or indeed, the real life-enhancing business created by entrepreneurial sisters, Joy Ndungutse and Janet Nkubana, the founders of Gahaya Links of Rwanda. Their globally successful artisan enterprise is a true game-changing example of how to empower whole communities of women to turn their weaving skills into sustainable incomes that support both their families and their aspirations.
World exports of artisan goods are currently worth $32 billion per year, and of critical importance to Africa is that millions of women in countries across the continent participate in the artisan sector. In fact, the global artisan industry doubled to $32 billion from 2002-2012.
One really fascinating issue to emerge from the discussions at today's launch was the need for artisan enterprises to talk more about their own personal stories and the inspiration behind the products and services they create. As one of the speakers on the launch platform so aptly put it: "Storytelling energizes consumers to vote with their dollars". It makes good business sense, as well as making an emotional connection with consumers at a brand level. At Lionesses of Africa, we understand all too well the power of storytelling to really engage audiences and to change perceptions and attitudes through personal connections with those stories. Increasingly, discerning global buyers of products want to know the backstory, the provenance of the things they are buying, and to know that their purchase is in itself making a difference. Perhaps the biggest difference that consumers could make is to have greater respect for artisan work and to increasingly become more discerning, asking the story behind what they buy and demanding that businesses should be transparent about business practices.
Ultimately, everyone can play a role in supporting artisans and help to stimulate the growth and development of artisan enterprise, particularly here in Africa. Policymakers and governments across the African continent need to recognise the sheer economic potential and scale of artisan enterprise as a key driver for growth in their countries. They need to substantially elevate the artisan sector and recognise the inherent value in the women who are driving it. At the same time, global investors, private banks, and donors can do so much more to proactively support innovative artisan enterprise projects, seeing them as viable and highly attractive investment destinations, and incorporating artisan goods into their value chains. Perhaps, everyone should heed the words of Jacqueline Novogratz, founder and CEO of Acumen when she recently stated, "The artisan sector is the next frontier in impact investing."
"The artisan sector is the next frontier in impact investing."
- Jacqueline Novogratz, founder and CEO of Acumen
But there is a potential fly in the ointment when it comes to barriers that exist to achieving the exponential rise of artisan enterprise in Africa. Firstly, the artisan sector is extremely fragmented and under resourced on a number of levels. Lack of access to finance and new markets is certainly at the top of the list of barriers to growth and development, combined with the prohibitive shipping costs that prevent artisan enterprises from exporting their goods to lucrative new markets. Add to those barriers the problem of ensuring efficient and reliable supply channels, raw material sourcing bottlenecks, and a lack of solid business knowledge and skills, and you a recipe for squashing growth potential. Something revolutionary needs to be done by governments, the private sector and NGOs to address these issues and help tear down these barriers - ultimately by doing so, it would be a win-win for everyone.
At a time when economic inequality continues to be a major global challenge, and so many are left outside of the mainstream economy, it would appear to be a no-brainer to support the growth of the artisan sector, and in particular, those women-owned enterprises on the African continent. The perception of the artisan sector needs to change, and quickly. Society needs to understand the full economic value of the artisan sector and its ability to make genuine and lasting positive change happen. The lifeblood of communities across Africa depends on it. Unlocking the full potential of the sector will require a radical shifting of perceptions of the importance of artisan enterprise for socio-economic development on a large scale. There needs to be increasing consumer awareness about the value of buying artisan goods and the impact that those buying decisions can have on people's lives. There also needs to be greater awareness amongst government policy makers in countries across the African continent about the need to proactively support the growth and development of artisan enterprises. They need to place a real value on those artisans and entrepreneurs who are at the heart of the sector, and provide the logistical and policy support needed to help them realise their full potential. Finally, consumers need to come to the party and become more informed about the economic value and corporate social responsibility implications of purchasing artisan goods, and they need to make conscious choices to choose artisan.
Behind agriculture, artisan activity is the second largest employer in the developing world.
At Lionesses of Africa, we will continue to shine a light on all those women entrepreneurs who are at the forefront of the continent's artisan enterprise movement, and to tell their stories as a source of inspiration and motivation to support their efforts. We encourage the world to do the same.