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African Artisans Find Markets Through Cooperatives

When the British-sponsored Commission for Africa released its report earlier this year, one of the key findings was that Africa needs more trade and fairer trade. The report cited under-developed infrastructure, trade barriers, and tariffs as major obstacles to African businesses. One way African artisans are dealing with these hurdles is by forming cooperatives to handle the marketing and product development.

Beaded jewelry, purses, shawls and decorative bowls, are among the goods Cheryl Pillay has laid out on a table in a crowded hotel conference room in Baltimore, Maryland.

"The bowls that you like are called telephone wire bowls and we call them scoobie wire bowls in South Africa," she says. "They are extremely popular in the United States. It is our second biggest seller."

Cheryl Pillay is the manager of Zandla Xpressions, a project that offers marketing support and assistance in raising the profile of South African artisans. Her organization also provides the craftspeople with product development and market research.

Ms. Pillay and other Africans traveled to Baltimore in late June to participate in a crafts show on the sidelines of a major U.S.-African business summit. Ms. Pillay said the idea is to make contacts with buyers in the United States who might be interested in selling the artisans' work. She also hopes to get a feel for the styles and colors in fashion in the United States.

"We found that with the first [crafts] show that we attended it was a dismal failure, because I came across with a very ethnic product," she says. "There is a small market for it in the United States but not enough to sustain us. I have been to the United States five times now on various shows and it has been wonderful because my experience has grown and I understand the market, which is a wealth of knowledge for the people I represent. Because I can go back and say to them 'this is what works, what does not, and these are the colors.'"

Ms. Pillay is part of a growing movement of artisans who are joining together in cooperatives where their pooled resources can fund overseas marketing and sales trips and product development.

Tracy Collier, the director of Sizana Crafts, another South African marketing cooperative, says despite the arrangement the artisans she represents still face enormous challenges.

"Unfortunately, in some cases it never happens because the women are in very deep rural areas where they have no transport infrastructure, communication infrastructure," she says.

The lack of infrastructure is a major hindrance to African entrepreneurship according to the British-sponsored Commission for Africa. In its report, the Commission calls for donors to double the amount of money they spend on transportation, energy and communications infrastructure in Africa. The Commission also recommends an increased emphasis on helping small enterprises, particularly those run by women.

Ms. Collier says her collective is able to provide rural women with supplemental income without taking them away from their traditional farming and child-rearing duties.

"In Africa, the moment you remove the woman out of the home you actually create a completely different set of socio-economic problems from what you are trying to solve and that is no solution at all," she says. "All you are doing is shifting the problem somewhere else. So what we try and do is fit in with the lives of the women and have them work maybe two or three hours a day, whatever they have available."

Ms. Collier says her organization also focuses on taking the traditional skills the women have - skills that have been passed down generation to generation - and adapting them to current styles.

It is that approach - taping into the trendy marketplace - that seems to be attracting a fair amount of attention to Forests of the World, a company which imports products from areas of high biodiversity.

"We are standing in front of a booth with crafts from Madagascar and what I think is attracting so many of the people are the handbags," says the president of Forests of the World, Marc Dreyfors. "The handbags are a traditional item in Madagascar and they are made from multiple materials, primarily raffia palm fiber, the largest palm in the world… They create these large sheets of textile which are then traded in Madagascar and brought to the main city where they are finished into these stunning bags, which have very much haute couture influences."

Among other items, the Madagascar artisans also produce large, colorful women's hats made from the raffia palm fiber which were a "hot pick for the summer" according to the May 2005 issue of Harpers' Bazaar, a leading U.S. fashion magazine.

Despite the success of these raffia products, Mr. Dreyfors says his artisans face competition from Asia, where factories import raffia palm fiber in its raw form from Madagascar and make the same products at cut-rate prices.

He argues that if Madagascar - and Africa in general - wants to avoid the trap of simply exporting raw materials the government needs to support efforts for local craftspeople and entrepreneurs to value-add the products they export - a point seconded by the Commission for Africa.