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close this bookSPORE Bulletin of the CTA No. 38 (CTA Spore, 1992, 16 p.)
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Crafts for rural employment

Rural people have long shown their varied artistic talents as painters, potters, sculptors, carvers and weavers. Whether for family use, for barter or for sale, the production of artifacts has generally been regarded as a "spare time" activity. Could such craft activities be developed more widely to provide employment during periods of low agricultural activity in order to supplement rural incomes?

Almost every country produces a wide variety of craft products for sale, from mohair rugs in Lesotho and tapestries in Senegal to coconut palm woven products and seashell ornaments in the Caribbean and the Pacific. Beadwork, batiks, wood and stone carvings, and clay and metal sculptures are produced in almost every ACP country. Originally, many of these products were crafted by rural artisans employing traditional techniques passed down and refined over generations. But, having pioneered the market, rural craftsmen are being superseded by urban based production. Can the rural producers compete?

As with most forms of production there are economies in larger scale output, and groups of artisans working together in an organized way benefit from centralized buying of raw materials, centralized design, artistic interaction and training within the group. Also, there are benefits in being able to offer market outlets a wide range and high volume of products.

Many urban-based craft production groups have been assisted, and even initially managed, by international aid organizations. The emphasis has been on assisting disadvantaged people with poor employment prospects; as a result, many such projects have trained either the handicapped or unemployed women heads of households. Many such craft projects also sell a substantial proportion of their production to NGOs such as Oxfam Trading, Traidcraft Exchange, Caritas and Tearfund for marketing in Europe and the United States.

Matching urban competition

If rural craftsmen, artists and artisans are to compete successfully with urban producers they too have to form groups, work together and gain the benefits of volume purchase and sale. Those preferring to work as individuals have to develop niche markets for their products, which must be seen as offering originality in design and quality of work that is superior to the mass-produced articles and can therefore command higher prices.

Craft products may be utilitarian or purely aesthetic, but in both cases it is the general attractiveness, originality of design, quality of work and final cost that determine what people will buy. Local talents and preferences should be given free expression to optimize all the talent available in the community. Young people, and those who have travelled outside the community, may be better able to develop designs in sympathy with current tastes. New designs and products should be tested for market acceptance before they are produced in volume.

If craft work is to provide a meaningful source of employment in rural areas artists and artisans must work through agents or traders to reach sales outlets. Exceptionally, rural craft workshops may be on tourist itineraries so that the ultimate purchaser comes direct to the producer. To capitalize on this advantage craftsmen must develop personal skills that help to sell their wares: attractive displays, personable and friendly attitudes and reasonable prices are essential. For tourists, seeing the artist at work is a further attraction. Roadside sale of woven baskets and furniture is a common sight in some rural areas and rural craftsmen can also keep costs down by selling direct to tourists in the environs of hotels.


Some rural craft groups have exported their own products. An example is the Mbooni Women's Handicraft Project in Kenya, which was set up in 1985 with help from the UK-based Traidcraft Exchange, the Danish Volunteer Services and Kenya's Ministry of Social Services. The main product is sisal baskets (kiondos), which are made by the women at home or are woven "on the move" as the women go about their daily work.

The kiondos are sold in Nairobi and Mombasa with 50% of production being exported through Scandinavian trading organizations and the relief agency Caritas. In Lesotho, the potential was realized for adding value locally to the country's major product, mohair. Women were organized to spin the wool and weave it into attractive and hard-wearing rugs, which found a ready market locally and are now exported to the UK and the US.

Future possibilities

Crafts which flourish in Asia, and which could be developed in some ACP countries, include silk weaving based on local sericulture and lace making. In Sri Lanka local initiative alone has resulted in thriving lace-making and batik groups, largely comprising fisherfolk women. Rural women's groups in Bangladesh have been assisted by the Bangladesh Government and UN World Food Programme both to plant mulberry trees for feeding silkworms and to harvest, spin and weave the silk produced.

If governments wish to promote such rural enterprises for the benefits that they can bring in off-season employment, additional income and arresting urban migration, investment will be required in assessing market demands, providing training and facilitating access to credit. The realization by rural people that opportunities for craft production exist leads to recognition and development by them of a wide range of latent skills.