AfricanCraft.com Generating Pride and Publicity for Africa's Artisans:
A Case Study of Mohair Weavers in Lesotho
Written by Siiri Morley
and Manthabiseng Rammalane
This project is a collaboration on the parts of two separate organizations: the Elelloang Basali Weavers in Lesotho, and AfricanCraft.com, a website initiative in the United States.
AfricanCraft.com, launched by Louise Meyer and John Nash in 1999, is an effort that aims to bridge the gap between the two worlds of artisans and western consumers. By recognizing and giving publicity to the talent of African artisans, the site aspires to support efforts of fair trade, sustainable development, and women's empowerment; and additionally to instil pride and hope in disadvantaged craftspeople.
This innovative and original website showcases the work of craftspeople, artists, and designers and additionally hosts retail catalogs, all with an African theme. It brings together Ghanaians, Nigerians, Zimbabweans, Basotho and Americans and proudly displays their work next to photos of the creators. Providing full recognition to each individual and group, it seeks to stimulate collaboration between diverse parties, giving artisans the publicity they need to receive invitations to trade shows, conferences and workshops. As the mission states, the founders plan to expand the website to become "a venue for all African artisans to showcase their work".
Elelloang Basali (Be Aware Women), one group on the site, is a women's weaving business in Lesotho that specializes in fine hand-woven mohair bags, rugs, tablemats and wall hangings. Despite initial financial difficulties, they are now providing work to over forty women, who in turn support hundreds of children. Yet, Elelloang has had since its beginnings great difficulties with publicity, communication, and an inability to share their work with overseas customers.
For several years, the weavers have been working to build capacity in terms of product development, marketing, and exporting. With few overseas orders and limited local sales, they wanted to "find the market," but were unsure of how to specifically pursue and locate these abstract overseas clients. Without the use of the Internet, this was an enormous challenge. Thus, Elelloang pursued the connection with AfricanCraft.com in order to gain more visibility and to establish an online catalogue, which would allow the business and its projects to prosper and grow.
In November 2002, AfricanCraft.com established a website for the weavers for free (as all artisan pages are) that includes a homepage with introductory information, a portfolio with over thirty weavings that customers can order, a photo gallery of images of the weavers at work, their price list, a map, and Elelloang's contact information. The site also includes a mailing list, which aims to document consumer interest in the product.
Elelloang's website was created just over one year ago, yet they have already seen tremendous, tangible benefits. Since November 2002, they have received high praise for the site and inquiries and orders have been sent from individuals and shops around the world, including Sweden, Lebanon, the United States, Canada, Japan, South Africa and the United Kingdom. AfricanCraft.com has also facilitated new orders with Elelloang's old customers in Namibia, Scotland, South Africa and the United States. Without the site, Elelloang would struggle for visibility; with it they are linked to a wider network of customers and African art enthusiasts.
By helping Elelloang improve their sales, their business has strengthened and their many projects have led to women's economic empowerment, increased education, public health and HIV prevention initiatives, alternative building structures and solar energy, permaculture, improved nutrition, interest-free credit, the revival of indigenous Basotho designs, a strong women's support center, and a powerful example of truly grassroots, self-initiated sustainable development.
AfricanCraft.com has received similar feedback from diverse beneficiaries around the globe. The site has helped numerous artisan groups, individual artists, and designers build their export clientele, obtain international recognition, and receive invitations to trade fairs and workshops. For some artisans, AfricanCraft.com is their only source of publicity. Perhaps the most important result of the site is one that is difficult to quantify, that of increased pride. Throughout Africa handicraft work is often seen as a low-status occupation, despite the fact it is sustaining families and takes great skill. For artisans to see their work presented with so much respect in an international forum is an extraordinary thing.
While artisans around the world are in need of support to sustain and evolve their traditional crafts, most online craft venues focus on profit and sales alone. AfricanCraft.com is providing a forum for communication and discussion and is opening the way for artisans, development organizations and consumers to find their own solutions to the challenges facing African artisans. The site is humble in its efforts, yet it has created a venue for empowerment, fair trade, sustainable development, and links between often distant worlds.