What you need to know:
- Players in the crafts sector are challenged to explore new approaches and digital tools to build authentic products. Experts say this will eliminate replication. Crafts movements, associations and events will drive more relevant social agendas.
The craft industry in Uganda has come a long way and dates ages back, way before colonial times when our forefathers carved backcloth, made drums and many other tools from natural materials.
The crafts sector remains a big part of Uganda’s cultural heritage; it is used to identify different cultures through the work of their craftsmen. The industry has become a mainstay and grows in leaps every year.
The number of craftsmen has grown, more products are being churned out each day. What was earlier perceived as a hobby or leisure activity has morphed into a business enterprise, making a contribution to the economy. More opportunities continue to crop up in the sector every day and there is reason to believe the industry is heading in the right direction.
Despite the optimism surrounding the industry, one cannot stop thinking what lies ahead with new challenges and opportunities showing face every now and then.
Actors in the industry still struggle to get a grip of current trends with a lot of challenges holding them back.
Sylvia Ggala together with her husband Charles Ggala have operated Horn Products Uganda, a crafts company that deals in cattle horn products from Ankole cows for more than 18 years.
The brand has been elevated into a production powerhouse in the region. Sylvia admits the industry has had a facelift and it can only get better with a few adjustments.
“The craft industry has grown by leaps and bounds. But it needs to be standardised to capture market, especially the western market. The future of our Ugandan craft industry is very bright provided we do what is needed by the western market,” she reasons.
Ggala points out how competition from Chinese raw material buyers has made life hard for locals, as their involvement hikes prices, thus outcompeting local craftsmen. The pandemic too put brakes on the industry. She also decries the lack of capital to upgrade and access advanced technology and machines to increase production.
Sarah Nakisanze, a lecturer at Makerere University, engages a lot with indigenous traditional craft materials and other fibres for eco-product design.
She is also the director at Easy Afric Designs, which deals in manufacturing and sale of backcloth fashion accessories, interior decor, and gift and conference packaging options.
“As a stakeholder, my contribution is through maintaining continuous engagement and communication of design and material innovations, education of others and research for challenges and possible solutions,” she says.
How the crafts sector has evolved
Nakisanze has witnessed the industry make strides through studies and observation. “No doubt, the sector has evolved. When you study major traditional crafts and materials such as basketry, barkcloth and textile crafts, many market outlets have come on board,” she explains.
According to Nakisanze, political, economic and social environment has yielded dividends. The recent craft education by the International Trade Centre in collaboration with the Ministry of Tourism, lays a firm foundation, especially if the social, political and economic infrastructure is supportive.
The educationist says imported crafts on the market stifle the development of local skill and materials. She also thinks presentation of products is vital in an industry awash with competition from different players.
“We also need to work on the way we finish and present our local crafts to all markets so as to change the attitude towards the locally produced crafts,” she says.
Challenges of craftsmen
Easy Afric Designs gets through hurdles to get business done with hardships such as lack of high quality material imports into the country, which includes paints, dyes and zippers.
Poor quality and inconsistent complementary materials, low purchasing power of people, high cost of production, high cost of local material innovations and lack of interest and support in local material innovations are some of the challenges craftsmen face in the industry. Despite all this, Nakisanze can only hope for better times ahead.
Ritah Nantale is an administrator at Paper Craft Africa, a community-based company dealing in mainly recycling of paper, glass, plastics and production of natural vegetable oil soap.
Covid-19 disrupted business
The organisation has been in existence for more than 10 years and the pandemic has been their worst experience. “Covid-19 greatly affected our sales, disrupted business operations and we had no option but to downsise staff,” she laments.
The development dampened the mood but spirits remain high, not only for Paper Craft Africa but the crafts industry at large, according to Nantale.
“It’s a promising industry and I believe with time, more people will be sensitised and appreciate nature. Many will want to associate with handcrafts,” she says.
She challenges players to make an effort before looking out for help. Nantale has taken it upon herself and the entire company in leading the industry to the Promised Land.
“To change the industry for the better, we have to be consistent with the production of our items, source information to improve products and also learn how to compete favourably on the international market. It is also important to produce quality products with a story to tell,” she breaks it down.
Lawrence John Okoth is a proprietor of a design and prototyping studio called Object Lab. He is a jack of all trades with production and design skills. He also works with Design without Borders (DwB).
Okoth’s view on the evolution of the crafts industry is unfamiliar as he suggests it is held up somewhere.
“The crafts sector is stuck in the colonial era. Stuck in the sense that the industry is yet to break from old approaches, materials and ideas or concepts taught in the colonial era and promote originality,” he says.
He believes the sector is not stagnant by choice but by the limited access to basic inputs such as tools and processes, among others. “Most talented artists, designers and makers are still struggling to practice their craft for purposes beyond the need to support their own basic living,” he adds.
Okoth holds the view that it is hard to appreciate the evolution of what one might consider true Ugandan art and craft because of colonial teaching, which also interrupted pre-existing approaches and methods that now struggle to get any recognition.
“Digital tools and approaches available to artists, designers and craftsmen today are a huge opportunity to unearth and explore pre-colonial methods or approaches and materials,” he says.
Build authentic products
“But this is a decision artists and designers have to constantly make to eventually redefine the role of colonial teaching, particularly for the positive contributions that it made,” he explains.
Asked what the future holds for the crafts industry, Okoth envisages an industry, where actors will take ownership of its own identity, and of its power to define the identity of Ugandans, East Africans and Africans.
In order to break away from the pressures of the market, artists need to explore and build authentic products. According to Okoth, this could be one of the ways to eliminate the replication of crafts.
He dreams of a future with more art, design and craft movements, associations and events driving more relevant social agendas. The industry should be able to celebrate its own with art galleries.
Okoth’s work spans different scales in the fields of exhibition design, service and product design. It has also been featured at several exhibitions including Kampala Fashion Week, Kampala Design Week and Milan Design Week.
“I want to see a more inclusive, multi, inter, trans-disciplinary industry. One that will adopt dialogue and welcome contributions from people of all walks of life, regradless of their social standing and level of education,” he opines.
Fuse ancient and modern ways
Additionally, Okoth challenges the crafts industry to fuse ancient and modern ways of operation. “Players should take advantage of available traditional and digital tools not just to compete on the global scene, but to unearth approaches, techniques and materials that seem to be currently stuck in history,” he says.
Away from sitting back and hoping for a more dynamic industry, Okoth wakes up every day to push for a better industry in dynamic ways.
With both the Object Lab and DwB, a dominant part of his agenda has been to teach design and to promote it as a tool for social development.
The designer’s mindset, at its core, is one that aims to creatively solve problems and by teaching and practicing this mindset, solutions that are relevant for today’s challenges are generated. This helps encourage originality since mere ‘replication’ of solutions is replaced with ‘evaluation and learning,” explains Okoth.
For the past 20 years, DWB has worked with numerous academic institutions, companies and organisations to advance the delivery of design training through workshops, guest lectures, student internships, design competitions and design fellowships.
Products and contribution
The most recent work has been with the International Trade Centre and Ministry of Tourism where DWB rapidly delivered basic product design training more than two days to 40 arts and craft businesses as part of the Handicraft Souvenir Development Project funded by the Enhanced Integrated Framework.
Object Lab has contributed to several design teaching programmes and design events, most notable being Kampala Fashion Week 2017 and Kampala Design Week 2018. Beyond design training, DwB has also contributed to the conception and development of several products.
Everyone has a role to play
These include eco stoves, game based financial literacy and family planning tools, agricultural tools, medical devices and safety equipment. Both studios plan to continue to advance more design training and provide quality products.
Majority of players in the industry agree that growth is attainable only if quality of products, market, and availability of raw material are put into consideration.
It is not just the government’s role to get the industry to the top but everyone who has passion for the craft.
Okoth’s view on the evolution of the crafts industry is that the sector is stuck in the colonial era. Stuck in the sense that the industry is yet to break from old approaches, materials and ideas or concepts taught in the colonial era. He believes the sector is not stagnant by choice but by the limited access to basic inputs such as tools and processes.
He holds the view that it is hard to appreciate the evolution of what one might consider to be true Ugandan art and craft because colonial teaching, which also interrupted pre-existing approaches and methods, now struggle to get any recognition.
“Digital tools and approaches available to artists, designers and craftsmen today are a huge opportunity to unearth and explore new approaches and products.’’