NAIROBI, Kenya, Nov 4- Although it is not given the prominence it deserves, the home décor and handicrafts industry is one of the most important sectors in the country providing a lot of employment opportunities for thousands of Kenyan youth.
Despite the fact that there are many talented and skilled artists, Kenya and Africa in general is still largely viewed as manufacturers of goods for the European market and not as creative designers.
However, this challenge has not stopped a few aggressive Kenyans from trying to change the perception that in spite of limited financial and mechanical resources, local artists are a force to reckon with and can hold their own against any international designers.
Wambui Mwangi, the director of Jungl’art is one such youth who is slowly but surely carving a niche for herself in the calabash curving business.
The Germany-based designer works closely with local artists to create curvings that are then sold in the international markets.
“We have a lot of creativity in Kenya but what we lack is the new ideas. That means that we always have the same products because many artists like to copy what others are doing,” she reckons.
This phenomenon, she opines, is due to the fact many people do not have access to international materials such as magazines from where they can get ideas of tastes that international clients prefer.
The reason why many artists craze for such international exposure says Makena Mwiraria, the director of African Heritage is because it presents a perfect opportunity for them to exhibit as designers, which then gives them credence in the business.
Despite the evidently lack of experience, there are many people who are trying to make it globally and thus contribute to the development of the soapstones in the south western part of Kenya.
Dagmar Schwarz and her husband Muriuki Njeru are such people. Njeru left a plum job as a computer engineer three years ago to venture fully into the handicrafts business.
Although it was not by choice but a necessity following the disruptions from the post election violence, Njeru does not regret the decision.
The couple established ‘Afrikiko’ and have been in business for the last 15 years. They admit that although this experience has given them an edge over new entrants, accessing international markets for their handmade soapstones has not been rosy.
For instance, during the first few weeks Kenya’s civil unrest, he says the company lost more than Sh10.7 million (80,000 euros) and up to May 2008, the company was almost on its knees.
This is because production is done in Tabaka Kisii and delivering wares to Nairobi for the subsequent exportation would only have been done through Sotik which had been rendered impassable by the violence.
“We did a lot of air shipments for soapstones which was suicide but we had to do it to make our clients happy and let them know that we could still deliver although it looked like we could not survive,” Njeru explains.
This challenge notwithstanding, Njeru advises that anybody who wants to get international exposure should seek partnerships with companies that have already captured the international markets.
Alternatively, he suggests that such traders can also consult the Export Promotion Council or get in touch with the various organisations that assist traders to get ‘export-ready’.
Such organisations include Origin Africa which is a USAID-supported initiative that is generally concerned with assisting producers, designers, small businesses and exporters in Africa to access markets for their products.
USAID COMPETE Representative Finn Holm-Olsen explains that the program aims to encourage trade as opposed to having the developing world extend aid to the African governments, which most of the time does not benefit the people its intended for.
Holm-Olsen adds that since April 2009, Origin Africa through COMPETE’s East and Central Africa Trade Hub has facilitated over $50 million in new business exports to the US under the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA).
However, such initiatives do not absolve the government of responsibility since it also has a stake in the industry.
The sector’s success would augur well for the country’s trade not to mention employment opportunities and improved standards of living.
The government’s role would for instance be to meet the cost of setting up pavilions in international fairs for local designers to showcase their products.
Commercial Attaché at the Kenyan Embassy in Germany Oliver Konje however says the government through its embassies has been carrying out such activities which also broadly look the promotion of economic relations.
Konje however also throws the ball into the designers’ court saying they should strive to market themselves not just locally but also internationally.
Already this advice has been taken by some designers such as Shruti Patel; the director is Switzerland-based ‘Savannah Chic’.
Patel who ditched her community development career so that she can concentrate on her passion says the first step is to understand the market that one is selling her wares.
“In Europe, people want to buy something that has a name and that’s known and that costs money so you need marketing and some decent PR (Public Relations) coverage,” says the designer who has been fortunate enough to feature in some European magazines.
This journey however is not without its challenges. Patel says as artists and designers strive to effectively conquer the international market, they also have to learn to remember that Europe is one continent that has several countries and thus a wide variety of tastes.
“What people like in Switzerland for example is not necessarily the same as what people like in Germany and so it’s very difficult coming up with a line that is appealing to all Europeans. That is the number one challenge,” she says adding that this and other challenges are not insurmountable.
All an aspiring designer needs to have is patience, creativity, passion and an ability to take a beating.