When South Africa’s Esther Mahlangu was just 10 years old, her mother and grandmother taught her to paint brightly colored patterns and shapes in the tradition of her Ndebele heritage. Now, at 75, she’s exhibited her artwork in countries as diverse as Japan, the US, Germany, and Australia, and even painted a car for BMW’s ‘art car’ series.
Mahlangu is living the dream of many women artisans around the world: She’s taken her knowledge of a traditional technique and turned it into a lucrative career, where the international demand is high and the pay is good.
It’s this type of success that many economic empowerment organizations hope to replicate with women artists and crafters all over the world. With its roots in the Fair Trade movement, the idea is that when women are able to access international markets for their crafts, they earn sustainable incomes that go a long way to reducing poverty.
Last fall, World Pulse took a look at the challenges these organizations face when trying to stay afloat in the ever-changing handcrafted sector. But what of the artisans who rely on these organizations to sell their products?
The reality is that success stories like Mahlangu’s are atypical, and artisans on the ground face as many—if not more—barriers when attempting to sell their products to international markets.
In this second installment of a two-part series World Pulse asked artisans to help us identify the key challenges women face when trying to sell their products internationally—and to discuss their possible solutions.
Navigating language barriers and access to technology
Reached on her cell phone for this story, Esther Mahlangu is happy to talk about her work, but such an exchange proves challenging. Mahlangu speaks English, but a deeper conversation about her work is vague and elusive. How about speaking Afrikaans? she asks, immediately switching to the language of her country’s Dutch settlers. But Afrikaans is unlikely to work for any international buyers, nor will Mahlangu’s native Ndebele tongue.
Not surprisingly, the majority of the artists we spoke with cited issues related to language and technology as major obstacles. Esther Mahlangu is lucky to have help from Nomvula Mashoai-Cook, the founder of the annual Mpumalanga Traditional Artists Market, which shows her work, and from her computer-savvy grandson. Still, despite her international successes, finding—and communicating with—potential buyers remains a challenge.
It’s this problem of connecting artisans to buyers that the global Fair Trade movement seeks to address. Best known for its aim to improve work conditions and wages for international producers, Fair Trade also works to improve market access by connecting producers to a network of brokers and buyers. The theory is that Fair Trade-certified artisans benefit from increased consumer trust, a network of like-minded institutions, and publicity for their work through the certifying body.
But, as our interviewees told us, Fair Trade—often hailed as the panacea for lifting artisans out of poverty—comes with its own set of challenges.
Fair Trade isn’t always accessible
Edith Simonyan decorates wood boxes, candleholders, and pictures with dried flower petals from her home in Yerevan, Armenia, the country’s capital and largest city. She’s the mother of two, and well educated with a degree in architecture. But as her daughter explains, even though her mother sells her products internationally, she’s never heard of Fair Trade or any Armenian equivalent.
She’s not alone. Many artisans around the world have simply never heard of Fair Trade. It’s not that they don’t support the idea of getting paid more for their work or having access to new markets for their crafts, but Fair Trade, as a movement, is mostly a Western concept, says Pallavi Keshri, founder of Eyaas.com, an online marketplace for community groups and artisans.
“Fair trade is about how the West is consuming what the developing world is producing,” she says, explaining that the label can mean more for marketing products to consumers than anything else.
For those who have heard of Fair Trade, it can be difficult and confusing to become certified. In most cases, artisans must sell their products through a larger organization to be able to apply for the label. But even artisan collectives have trouble following the steps to become licensed.
Mashoai-Cook, who leads the market that shows the work of Mahlangu and other artisans, admits she’s not sure how to begin the process. She thought she would simply Google “fair trade” for more information, but discovered it’s not that simple. Search results include multiple organizations, each appearing to offer its own certification or label.
The distinctions between groups are regional, and so are the types of accreditation they offer, explains Carmen Iezzi, executive director of Fair Trade Federation (FTF) based in Washington D.C. Her organization is the North American branch of the World Fair Trade Organization (WFTO), which has four regional organizations and over 350 member organizations. That’s very different from the Fairtrade Labeling Organization (FLO), an international umbrella for twenty-six country-specific programs. They offer a Fair Trade certification process for individual products, but their labeling is currently limited to agricultural products.
Identifying the right organization for accreditation is just the first hurdle. The second is getting approved, a process of screening that has to be sufficiently rigorous in order to maintain quality standards that will continue to appeal to consumers. Only about 47 percent of applicants who seek the Fair Trade designation through FTF, for example, will be awarded it.
It’s a process Mashoai-Cook would like to start in the coming months, but she worries about justifying the money to her board of directors. “I don’t want it to seem frivolous,” she says, adding she’d have to be confident she could explain the exact benefits the market would get from a Fair Trade designation. Right now, those benefits seem a bit hazy. She suspects the network with other organization doing similar work would be helpful. “That would be crucial for us, to be linked to other organizations in other countries that are practicing what we aspire to,” she says.
Empowerment can mean relying on others
These barriers to access mean that artisans are dependent on the international organizations that buy and sell their products. Without the help of these external organizations, artists and producers often struggle to sell their work outside of their communities.
Some organizations will work to ensure that craft producers can be self-sufficient, but others are in the broker business. “The problem is when the broker wants to be the broker for life,” says Swaziland product developer Nokwazi Mabila. It may take a few years, but the ultimate goal should be transferring the business to the crafters.
Mashoai-Cook, the woman who founded the market where Esther Mahlangu shows her work, is looking forward to a day when all the crafters in her market can represent themselves to corporate clients, government officials, and the international market.
Right now, she is that representative, that lifeline. “But the stories of the crafter, they have their own voice and they need to speak for themselves,” she says. “Let our crafters have their own voices.”
New consumers, new standards
Targeting an international market can also require significant changes to the art or craft to make it desirable, appropriate, and marketable outside the producer’s local market. This could mean changing the color combination in a scarf to align with current trends or transitioning from wool to cotton to improve a product’s feel. It can also mean changing traditional processes to be more time efficient. Though a benefit of selling internationally can be preservation of traditional arts by creating a market for them, that market can also threaten traditional practices if the consumers don’t appreciate traditions or if producers don’t actively protect them.
“Striking a balance is often difficult between using our old ways of manufacturing which do not favor mass production, versus making more products for more returns,” explains Mabila, the Swazi producer, via e-mail.
She learned to make sleeping mats and grass baskets from her grandmother. Her grandmother showed her how to roll the dried sisal plant between the palm of her hand and hip in the traditional way to make the twine for baskets and other crafts. But it’s a time consuming process – it takes fifteen hours to make enough twine for a single basket. Production could soar if the process was mechanized.
Increased production could mean more revenues for the crafter, but it also has its downsides. Much of the sisal is grown wild, as a weed. In Swaziland, it’s traditionally been used in craft items and sleeping mats, but also for fences in villages. Increasing the production would mean that the vast majority of sisal would be shifted into basket production. But more devastating, the tradition of teaching young girls to spin the twine would likely be lost. That’s quality time spent in the home with mothers and grandmothers where many other life lessons and traditions are imparted.
“It’s a part of our history and our tradition, the spinning,” says Mabila. “When the mother is teaching her daughter to spin, there’s a whole lot of history there.”
Toward artisan self-reliance
Djimo Erica Kamning, the CEO of a Cameroonian artisan collective that sells hand- woven baskets, says that despite these challenges, when artisans are able to access foreign markets, the results can be life-changing.
“By purchasing from artisan women groups, you are helping to educate a girl child or helping to empower a rural woman to become independent economically,” she says. However, Kamning would also like to see consumers get more engaged around these purchases to ensure that producers really benefit.
“Western buyers think that every thing in Africa is cheap, and they underestimate our expenses. Taxes and shipping costs are high here, so unless the customer orders large quantities, it is very hard for women to remain with something to save.”
Eyaas.com’s Keshri agrees. She encourages consumers to demand greater transparency from retailers about what they’ve paid for the work, what their expenses are, and what profit they stand to make.
“The consumer should ask for tangible differences. It’s not enough that the producer made ten cents extra, but what has that ten cents done?” Keshri says, stressing that this sector should honor the community-centric production of many crafts by putting any money beyond a fair local wage toward community infrastructure projects, education, or training.
Fair Trade would also benefit from greater inclusion of producers in the movement. “Fair Trade does empower women and communities, it’s just that the Fair Trade movement has been introduced from the top down,” says Mabila. Instead, artisans should be incorporated into the movement and become its primary drivers.
It's this grassroots effort that could be what the artisan craft movement needs to truly reach a critical mass. As Mashoai-Cook says, the time has come for artisans to look to each other as leaders in this movement and to share practices and production strategies amongst themselves.