Craft sector in a continual state of flux

Community Based Natural Resource Management in Namibia – an undeniable success
June 20, 2012
Creating a renewable energy forum
June 20, 2012
Community Based Natural Resource Management in Namibia – an undeniable success
June 20, 2012
Creating a renewable energy forum
June 20, 2012

Targeting poverty alleviation and micro- and small-enterprise development in Namibia, a host of NGOs has acknowledged the importance of harnessing skills and resources for the benefit of local producers and communities in the rural areas of Namibia. Karin le Roux, Programme Manager of Crafts at the Rössing Foundation, has been researching and working in the sector for the past twelve years. She reports on how NGOs and the private sector have contributed to the development of the craft sector in Namibia.

Twenty years ago, as military activities escalated in the northern, north-eastern and western regions of Namibia, the little tourism that did exist there drew to a halt. With the exception of the Etosha National Park, tour operators concentrated on the safer central, western and southern regions of the country. Besides the newly established Caprivi Art Centre and the Kavango wood carvers, very few other handicrafts were available to purchase.

In the 1970s and early 1980s the production of stylised woodcarvings from the Kavango was already quite prolific. With assistance from the parastatal FNDC (First National Development Corporation), Angolan carvers resident in Namibia established a host of makeshift shelters along the road from the veterinary control point north of Grootfontein to Rundu. Tucked away between dense forested areas close to the road, tourists were attracted to this very African setting, until security in the area forced all the carvers to one depot in Rundu and the forest was torn down to provide a safer distance from the trees and the roadside.

Passing trade virtually dried up and the carvers were forced to relocate to Okahandja. And, as they say, the rest is history. Situated at the heart of the tourism road network, production has kept pace with tourism in Namibia and now encompasses two major craft markets in the town. These are largest in the country and are visited by thousands of tourists every year. As industrious as ever, and always on the look-out for new markets, the Kavango woodcarvers now have depots at almost every major town in Namibia, especially those along the major tourist routes.

In the early days, Kavango woodcrafts consisted of a small range of simple bowls, carved wooden boxes characterised by the stylised carved face signature, small stylised wooden birds, and furniture. Influenced by market forces, a large scope of products is now available, ranging from fantasy animals, life-size hippos and rhinos, and replica 4x4s and jet aeroplanes. as well as products copied from merchandise brought in by foreign traders from other African countries. Whilst most of the products are fairly mass-produced, one is often lucky enough to encounter a small artistic masterpiece while wandering around the markets.

In terms of conserving Namibia’s natural resources, one may ask what the impact is on wild teak or kiaat, Pterocarpus angolenis, the main wood used in the industry. Experts are divided on the impact, some arguing that land clearing for agriculture and firewood sales is having a greater impact on deforestation than harvesting wood for the woodcarvers, whilst others claim that issuing permits for logging and replanting is the answer. The truth is that managing the sustainable utilisation and monitoring users remains a challenge.

Cultural tourism in the north west

In 1981 I travelled to the Kunene River on the western side of Kaokoveld up through the Hartmann valley. Another trip followed in 1986, this time through the Marienfluss. Always on the lookout for interesting handicrafts, there were virtually none to be found. An abandoned carved toy at a waterhole in the Hartmann valley and a few women near Purros offered me bangles they had just removed from their arms.

The once remote north-west region of Namibia – encompassing the former Damaraland and Kaokoveld – has become one of Namibia’s most popular tourism destinations with its wide variety of awe-inspiring mountain vistas and populations of desert-adapted elephant and rhino, and the exotic ochre-covered Ovahimba people. In the last ten years small roadside markets have sprung up virtually on every track in the region. Tourists are offered anything from crystals and interesting rocks, to key rings and necklaces featuring carved makalani nuts, and Herero and Ovahimba cultural objects. One enterprising producer even offered to carve my name and birth date on a makalani nut while our car was being filled with petrol.

There are no boundaries to exploiting each other’s cultures and resources. Anything to make a dollar! Damara women make Himba dolls, a small business in Khorixas, from where the owner travels to the north-central region to collect vegetable ivory nuts and employs a number of carvers back home to supply the Windhoek market, is thriving. Even top local jewellers are incorporating these makalani nuts into their upmarket jewellery. Herero men and women collect Himba crafts and sell them along the road between Windhoek and Swakopmund. Once unusual, Himba jewellery and other artefacts are now found everywhere. Undiscerning tourists are often caught up in the moment, purchasing what are essentially mass-produced items. There has been a sad deterioration in design and quality. Nevertheless, even those producers who never come in direct contact with tourists are benefiting from the spin-offs.

Harnessing skills and resources

NGOs and the private sector have contributed greatly to the development of the craft sector in Namibia. Targeting poverty alleviation and micro and small enterprise development in the country, a host of NGOs has acknowledged the importance of harnessing skills and resources for the benefit of local producers and communities in the rural areas of Namibia. Community-based tourism and the national Community Based Natural Resource Management programme have provided the catalyst for craft development and marketing, linking sustainable resource utilisation in a number of rural communities around Namibia. Hundreds of basket makers, potters, bead makers and other skilled and unskilled craftspeople are generating income from craft programmes in most regions in the country.

With access to donor funding and skilled designers and trainers, the impacts on contemporary design and quality have been significant and some of the finest baskets, jewellery, pottery and textiles that can compete on a world market are emanating from these regions. The Namibia Crafts Centre in Windhoek, designed as an upmarket craft outlet for Namibian-made handicrafts, has encouraged good design through its selection policy that encourages quality craft and not just curios.

Given its small population and distance from the stage of world design trends, Namibia is not doing too badly! There appears to be a natural respect and knowledge for quality and design. This is demonstrated especially by the meticulous sewing skills of Herero seamstresses and their flamboyant use of colour in their traditional Victorian-style dresses, contrasted by the shop-window displays of sophisticated merchandise seen in Windhoek and Swakopmund. Several local entrepreneurs have honed in on this combination of skill, colour and design sense to create a few very successful textiles and carpet businesses selling locally and exporting to Europe.

The tourism market – friend or foe?

With an influx of tourists to Windhoek and the rest of the country, handicraft has become a multi-million dollar business. “We sell more in South Africa, but here we get better prices,” says one Zairian vendor who sells his merchandise in Swakopmund. The more entrepreneurial traders from the rest of Africa have taken advantage of the situation and our markets and curio shops are filled with foreign carvings, beads, baskets and other knick-knacks attractive to tourists. The spin-off from this competition is that less experienced Namibian traders are learning fast that tourism is big money and are trying their hand at the craft-trading game.

The downside is that both vendors and tourists are often non-discerning either in respect of quality, or the impact on the environment or fair trade. Precious wood resources are totally undervalued and products are mass-produced. Vendors desperate to sell out of season, will cut their prices to such an extent that neither vendor nor buyer is aware of the true value of the wood, particularly taking into account the time it takes for the tree to mature. Quality is often sacrificed for quantity and producers are sometimes ignorant of the true value of their products.

A tourism market is a fickle one, particularly when there is political instability in the region. The tourist boom in Kenya encouraged a phenomenal growth of the craft sector. At its peak there were over 10 000 wood carvers alone supplying the local, African and international market with their products. With the bottom falling out of the tourist market in that country, carvers are more desperate than ever to find a market for their products. Many have been left with no work and no income.

Weighing up the pros and cons, there is no doubt that a market-led craft development has enormous benefit in the long term. In Namibia, production has in-creased and skills have multiplied not only technical skills but also an understanding of marketing and micro business. Culture has been strengthened and Namibians are learning to compete a little more aggressively for a market that is essentially theirs for the taking. The challenge, however, is to ensure that production and income are not developed at the expense of the country’s valuable natural re-sources, particularly taking into account the fact that Namibian is such a dry country.

This article appeared in the 2003/4 edition of Conservation and the Environment in Namibia.

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