For most of us looking for handmade products, our first stop is the nearest shop but that shop most likely does not target the local market. You have probably walked into a crafts shop and been ignored or told a price so ridiculous that you walked away angry or used a few choice words to express your displeasure.
A shop attendant once told me that I am not the target for her products. I asked who the target was, she said, “Tourists, those ones buy without asking your kind of questions.”
This reflection prompted me to embark on a journey to question this alienation between Ugandans and the craft sector. Ugandans want and deserve beautifully local-made products as much as tourists do.
Perched on a stool next to his worktable, Moses Byentaro smiles at the memory of his grandmother as he peels pieces of dried clay from his fingers. His white mask, a bit bigger than it should be, is pushed off his nose and too close to the eyes when he speaks. He does not seem to mind it.
Byentaro recalls that at the age of four, he and other children in a little village in Ibanda District, in western Uganda, often sat close to his grandmother and watched her strong hands make pots out of the clay they had collected and prepared for her. She made mats too and baskets out of reeds. She was a talented craftswoman, whose hands fed her family.
Did Byentaro ever want to follow in his grandmother’s footsteps and become craftsman? No. Far from it. His dream was to be a doctor; heal people and make his parents proud. Byentaro, 33, is not so far away from the boy who watched his grandmother ‘potter away.’ After training as an industrial ceramics engineer at the Uganda Technical College Bushenyi, he now owns and runs his own business-Byentaro Ceramics.
A handmade business
Byentaro Ceramics makes items ranging from cups to flower vases, cooking pots, plates, water pots and whatever clay item a client orders. The business has grown over the years from three employees handling one or two orders, to 45 employees working on many orders.
But when Covid-19 struck, with it came the government-imposed lockdowns. Byentaro downsized his staff to 25, who earn a commission from each product they make.
One weekend, I took a crash course in ceramics and I quickly realised that while I have a huge appetite for beautiful things, I do not have the patience to make them myself. The precision, care and attention to detail given to just have one item ready, the time spent, the material used are some of the reasons why crafts are very expensive.
One plate costs about Shs70,000 in a shop, but that plate is handmade by at least seven people at various stages and each stage is paid for.
I found Moses at his workshop off Katosi Road in Kyetume, Mukono. The building betrays the beauty that comes out of it. It is set up for functionality more than it is for a showroom. My mindset was prepared to be wowed. All I saw was clay, more clay, sawdust, paint and work tables scattered here and there. Some women sat in the various rooms punctuating their work with chit chat as soft music played in the background.
When Byentaro opened a few boxes to show me the finished products, I was taken aback, they looked delicate and too precious; like something you should carefully tuck away. Like the fine cutlery our parents kept out of reach and only pulled out when guests visited.
While he targets both the local and international market, Byentaro’s biggest clientele is the international community, what is commonly known as ‘mzungu’ tourists but some locals come too.
“They know the value of crafts. Other people will just sneer, telling us that our products are very expensive, but they do not factor in the costs of production and the fact that this is all handmade,”says Byentaro.
And you can never really know how usable your product is unless you are your own customer. “I use my own products at home. If I need something well decorated, I will make it myself. When you buy my cup or any product from me, that product will be functional, it will be used on a daily basis,” says Byentaro.
Most of the people making authentic products like Byentaro are not easily accessible because they cannot afford rent in flashy shops in the areas where clients can easily find them. Also, the middlemen will not tell you where the actual producer is so that you can buy directly from them.
Valuing each other
Do craftsmen see any potential in the local buyers? Grace Barya, who works as a craft sector expert in the Ministry of Tourism and International Trade Centre’s Handicraft and Souvenir Development Project funded by the Enhanced Integrated Framework, says she has no problem buying crafts as long as the product is worth the money.
“I am happy to buy a mat even if it costs up to Shs250,000 shillings, if it has a nice pattern and is well woven. But most of the mats are plain and ugly, yet they are asking for Shs200,000. It appears they do not make them with passion. I will not buy ugly and plain things; moreover expensively,” says Barya.
With all her love for Buy Uganda Build Uganda (BUBU), Barya says: “Many local producers make the good stuff only for the export market. Many are not known here in Uganda and they have developed the attitude of “I only produce for export, Ugandans cannot afford my products.”
“But to thrive internationally, they need to also position themselves for the domestic market and not short-change the locals. We have communities making amazing products, but we are not buying from them. If you are, for example, making Christmas hampers for more than 500 Members of Parliament, why not give this business to the local crafts sector? You cannot improve the quality of local products by supporting foreigners,” says Barya.
But there is a bigger problem. The constant tagging of crafts to charity. “Buy this expensive handmade bag and sponsor an African child’s education.” Should we be guilt-tripped into buying crafts? Doesn’t this, in a way, take from the beauty and purpose of crafts on the market?
Barya says one should buy crafts because they love the product. “You should not buy a product because you feel sorry for someone; you should buy because you want to use it. The crafts sector is not growing because of this attitude,” she says.
“Make business out of crafts, not emotions; that way, everyone gets satisfied. Save your money, buy a craft because you love it and want it,” she says.
At the Textile Development Agency (TEXDA) in Bukoto, Kampala, I find Sharon sitting behind a handloom machine, her hands are busy and I can see hundreds of strings moving in succession. Henry, who is taking me around, says in 14 days, Sharon will have made 65 metres of fabric. That handmade fabric can be used to make anything.
Angela Kirabo is the TEXDA executive director. Founded in 1999, it started as a training institute for self-sustainability and later moved into production in 2006. Now they make fine products such as kikoyi wraps and throws.
Some of their big clients include Eco Lodges and some notable big hotels, for which they make staff uniforms, chair covers, cushions, curtains, bed spreads, floor rugs, wall hangings, plate mats, name it. They also make items on order such as clothes, headbands and bags.
“The crafts industry has grown tremendously. It used to be in small makeshift markets, then we got people taking crafts to specific locations and now we are in the export market,” says Kirabo.
Like Byentaro Ceramics, TEXDA’s biggest clients are the international market.
“They appreciate our handloom woven products such as the Kikoyi wrap- a niche on the market. Not so many people appreciate the work that goes into handwoven production. Our products might seem expensive to the ordinary person but to international clients, they are affordable,” she adds.
Quality is key
“We are driven by quality. It ensures we get repeat orders and referrals. We cannot afford to compromise the expectations of our clients. We brand our products, put washing instruction, we tell the customers how to carefully protect what they buy,” Kirabo explains.
A lot of work must be done though, to convince Ugandans about the quality of products and explain to them why they cost as much as they do. Byentaro knows this and so does Kirabo.
“They tell us there are many copycats in the crafts sector. Everyone makes the same product. Quality is also an issue. As people copy, many are bound to produce poor quality products,” Kirabo adds.
“And then many complain about the prices. But people need to appreciate the difference between handwoven and machine woven. If you find good Ugandan stuff, buy it and keep the Ugandans making these amazing products in business,” she adds.
When we talk crafts, it is not just the colourful bracelets engraved with our country flags, the nicely painted elephant key rings and the other little trinkets in the crafts shop at the airport or the National Theatre. The Industry is bigger than that.
It involves things made out of indigenous raw materials. These products might differ slightly in design and size, but these variations should be appreciated. Variety is the spice of life. The beauty is in the uniqueness of each craft, it is, after-all, handmade.