A stroll in a crafts shop in town rarely ends without a number of questions coming up. The most common enquiries from buyers revolve around the price of the products on sale.
In most cases, the craftsmen or sellers have a lot of explaining to do when it comes to justifying the price tags. Kagina Innocent, a 31-year-old resident of Ntinda has been frustrated before in a number of crafts shops.
“Many times, I come across prices attached to crafts and I think they are overpriced, especially for an ordinary person like me,” he told Daily Monitor.
Like Kagina, many Ugandans believe crafts are overpriced. Some subscribe to a school of thought that believes only foreign tourists or people with a sizable financial muscle have what it takes to make an actual purchase.
As the public struggles to make sense of the price tags attached to crafts, the craftsmen find it laughable and have more than enough reasons to cancel the narrative that crafts are expensive.
Kyetume Town in Mukono District is home to Byentaro Ceramics Limited, Uganda. The four-year-old organisation has 20 staff. Byentaro, who is also the managing director, is a craftsman who has dedicated his life to art.
As he applies a touch of finesse to one of the many products ready to be sold, I could tell he was cut out for craft. “Some people look at crafts as work done by people who have failed at a certain point in life. I think this has been the mindset for a long time.
People tend to underlook those doing crafts, but this narrative has to change. Craftsmanship is a skill just like any other and one can earn from it,” says Byentaro, when asked why he thinks people want to pay less for crafts.
Byentaro oversees the production of ceramics and pottery products that include tableware, kitchenware, decorations and animal sculptures. All this takes place at two unfinished houses separated by 500m. On a random Friday, the place is buzzing with activity as there are orders to be met.
Not even the cameras can distract Byentaro’s workers. He introduces his crew and role played before they get back to work. It is easy to tell there is a long structured process before a product finds itself in a shop.
Byentaro insists crafts are not overpriced and that the figures have everything to do with what happens behind the scenes before a final product is rolled out.
It is common knowledge in every business that the cost of production determines value and price and this theory applies to the crafts sector, according to Byentaro.
“The production process involves some technicalities that inform my decision of a price for each product,” says Byentaro. He explains that ignorance is the reason people think crafts are expensive.
“People do not know about the different steps involved in production. They just see the final product and assume it was a ride in the park,” he explains.
Byentaro reaches out to pick a salad bowl, one of the products ready for the market and it costs Shs200,000. It is black in colour with silver lines across and good on the eye. But to be honest, the price tag is debatable and Byentaro needs to throw in his defence.
“This has taken us about seven weeks to get here,” he says while hoisting the bowl up in the air.
During the seven weeks, Byentaro has supervised a chain of events preceded by collecting raw materials in the shape of clay. At the site, a small truck of clay goes for Shs250,000, but before Byentaro parts with the figure, he has to pay whoever digs up the clay on top of clearing the transport bill.
Once the clay arrives, it is left to dry for about a month before being crushed and churned in buckets of water into a thick suspension. It is then sieved to remove impurities.
“We strictly use fine clay to get top quality crafts,” Byentaro emphasises. At that stage, the fine clay is then dried for another three weeks into a form that can be used.
“Each stage of refining clay has a different person in charge and they all have to be paid,” he adds.
In such a business, it becomes risky to have a single person responsible for multiple stages, as it might stifle the process, lead to delays and eventually losses as orders are left hanging.
The amount of clay used to bring a product to life also determines how much it will cost. More clay calls for a higher pricetag. The time spent in the production process is also put under consideration. “I need to charge for the time I have spent making sure the product is credible. More time, more pay, that is how it works,” says Byentaro . The most delicate bit of the process according to Byentaro involves fire. Here, clay is put through fire in two phases to get the black colour.
This stage comes with a certain level of expertise to prevent the products from getting cracks or breaking, if more than enough heat is applied.
Byentaro is confident his works speak for themselves and the price tag should never be an issue.
“When I am making a product, I make sure a client looks at it and feels it. I do not need to explain the quality of my product because I work towards quality control,” he enlightens.
This explains why his works are sought in Kenya, Zanzibar, Europe and the US. He also supplies three shops in Kampala and he rents another in Jinja, 75km away from the capital. The entrepreneur urges the public to embrace crafts as functional components in daily life as opposed to luxury goods. He adds that while some crafts are for decoration, others can be used daily.
Perhaps that is why many cannot fathom spending on them, after all, they come off as luxuries that people can do without.
“Not at all. Ceramics is something we use daily and that disqualifies it from being a luxury. A salad bowl is used to serve food everyday. When you get a cup, it will be used anytime you feel like taking tea,” he breaks it down when asked whether crafts pass as luxury.
Local vs international market
International tourists tend to appreciate crafts more than their local counterparts. At the end of the day, it comes down to knowing the value of crafts because there are local peoplewho embrace crafts as much as foreigners do.
In some businesses, foreigners are charged more but Byentaro opts to go for a uniform figure irrespective of a buyer’s nationality. However, there is always room for haggling. “You cannot rule out negotiating because it is part of business,” he adds.
Grace Barya knows her way around crafts. She has garnered knowledge and experience through working with various handcraft producing communities. She has worked with the International Trade Centre (ITC) through the Ministry of Tourism and Wildlife’s Uganda Handicraft Souvenir Development Project (USDP), which is financially supported by the Enhanced Integrated Framework (EIF). Barya is going out of her way to ensure crafts producers thrive.
“Pricing of the crafts should be based on the quality, finishing, time spent in production and the aesthetic nature of the product.
The seller must be willing to buy that very product at that price from another producer, must appreciate it, find it as usable as they envisage it for the buyer,” her school of thought is in line with Byentaro’s.
But she is quick to mention that some products are overpriced because some producers are into crafts for leisure. “Many producers are part time and only work on crafts as a hobby. That is why they do not pay attention to detail and for this reason, they look at their produce as a rescue product for extra income,” says Barya.
They tend to price by impulse and in relation to the cash needed for them at the moment. “That is why there is bargaining in all our communities. For instance, a basket that was priced for Shs45,000 could eventually be bought at Shs15,000,” she adds.
Buy Uganda Build Uganda
Barya accuses Ugandans of looking down on local products. That mentality helps push the notion that goods manufactured locally should be cheap by default. It is a mindset devoid of gratitude.
“Many Ugandans do not like goods produced in Uganda. Many are happy to buy a pair of imported sandals at Shs12,000, whose sole will crack in two weeks of purchase and refuse to buy a pair of leather sandals crafted by a local artisan at Shs25,000,” she says.
“It feels good to use a product you know where it is made, how it is made, who makes it and you can even design for yourself what fits your liking.” Barya encourages Ugandans to spend on local products.
“For example, I have a locally made tie and dye curtains, orange in colour in my living room since 2009. I asked the Nubian communities in Bombo to make decorative baskets in form of bread bins and flower vases for my living room, with scatter cushions from TEXDA,” she says.
How to tell a good quality craft
Barya says there are various ways of differentiating quality depending on the product. Uganda is blessed with a variety of items and raw materials, which makes the measures for quality massive.
“If it is a basket, the neatness of crafting, the consistency in size of the rims around the basket, the type of colour and dye used (natural or chemical), all encompass quality checks for the basket,” she explains.
This also applies to textiles; the size of thread and colour. The stitches too must be aligned, neat and straight. It is always important to pay attention to detail, especially with the finishing. The materials are good but the workmanship is what determines the final quality of the product.
Pricing handmade crafts in a society where only a handful appreciate and value them remains a challenge. Despite craftsmen going out of their way to get the work done, most clients are happy to engage in a debate when it comes to product prices.