Accessibility links

West Africans Push Traditional Crafts as Economic Engine

  • Nancy Palus

West African masks are displayed by Moses Camara at Eastern Market, in Washington D.C.. (file) (VOA/Elizabeth Monnac)

West African masks are displayed by Moses Camara at Eastern Market, in Washington D.C.. (file) (VOA/Elizabeth Monnac)

More than 3,000 artisans from throughout West Africa showcased their creations in wood, bronze, fabric and other mediums at the 13th International Artisan Crafts Festival in the Burkina Faso capital, Ouagadougou. The 10-day fair wrapped up Sunday.

One of the objectives of the biennial crafts festival is to help West Africans thrive where they live - avoiding an exodus to urban capitals or abroad in search of work.

Making traditional crafts a viable livelihood depends largely on stability in the region. Assemien Yapo is among the Ivoirians who came to Ouagadougou for the festival - a significantly larger group this year than was able to come in 2010, when Côte d’Ivoire was gripped by political unrest.

The Ivoirian government and artisans’ associations are working on revitalizing the sector as part of overall recovery and development efforts.

Yapo said Ivoirians are working toward giving artisanship its rightful place in the country's economy. He said this kind of work not only can be a livelihood for individuals, but also a veritable job creator in Côte d’Ivoire.

Mali, a cultural powerhouse in the region, has historically had a huge presence at the festival. Instability in Mali has gutted what was a booming tourism industry, though, and devastated families that survive on crafts.

Mali's interim government nonetheless covered the expenses of 140 Malian artisans to attend this year. A Malian cotton and textile producer at the Ouagadougou event, Moussa Bagayoko, said the move was a real lifeline.

He said one of the greatest benefits of the festival is the partnerships one is able to form with other craftspeople and with organizations. Bagayoko said he encourages African governments to support the crafts industry so it can be a solid livelihood passed on to future generations.

Another Malian at the festival is from Gao, one of Mali's northern regions currently occupied by al-Qaida-linked groups. In addition to his own goods, he displayed statues, shoes, jewelry and other objects from several fellow craftsmen in Gao. While a reporter spoke with him, he received several phone calls from eager artisans back in Gao, asking how their products were selling.

The drop in buyers in the region, driven by the global financial crisis and instability, has artisans seeking new outlets, such as marketing and selling on the Internet. A new feature at the festival this year was “B to B” - or Business-to-Business - a formal setting for artisans to meet buyers from all over the world, promote their wares, negotiate prices, establish new networks, and in many cases lock in orders.

The coordinator of the Ouagadougou event, Abdoulaye Zongo, said the “Business-to-Business” structure resulted in about $140,000 in prospective orders. He said they were able to link artisans with buyers, and also with fellow craftsmen in the region with whom they can collaborate.

Aïssatou Yaméogo knows the value of cross-border collaboration. She works with craftsmen in her native Niger and Burkina Faso to make sculptures, jewelry and other art objects.

She said “B to B” is a great idea that gives all a chance to meet buyers and do business. She said while she does not have any firm orders yet, there is a lot of interest, especially in Tuareg clothing she makes. She said it is an enterprise for both countries - Burkina and Niger.

Zongo said people from 33 countries on four continents participated in the festival.