Giving artisans access
How Artisan Hub is helping connect traditional craftspeople in developing countries to new and potentially lucrative foreign markets
Posted by Niki Wilson on December 20, 2017
In a small straw-roofed hut in Bangladesh’s Narayanganj district, two women sit in front of a bamboo loom. Their hands fly back and forth across sections of fine threads, transforming them into a sheer, vibrantly patterned cotton fabric. They are practicing the ancient art of Jamdani weaving and will work on this piece for up to six months. When it’s finished, it will be sold into a high-end domestic market, perhaps as a wedding sari. Despite the product’s quality, however, the women will struggle to sell it far beyond Bangladesh’s borders.
Breaking down export barriers and helping rural cottage-industry textile producers in eight developing countries — Bangladesh, Cambodia, Ethiopia, Haiti, Lesotho, Madagascar, Nepal and Uganda — tap into the benefits of overseas markets is the motivation behind Artisan Hub, a program TFO (Trade Facilitation Office) Canada launched in 2016 in collaboration with IDRC and with financial support from Global Affairs Canada.
In the case of Jamdani fabric, an Artisan Hub market-entry assessment revealed that the cloth has many qualities that appeal to international consumers. It’s eco-friendly, breathable and attractive to a growing number of people interested in supporting handicrafts from developing nations — particularly those made by local women who are paid a fair wage. What’s more, the fabric is a literal work of art, its intricate design and renowned quality earning it a place on UNESCO’s list of items that represent the intangible cultural heritage of humanity. “Craftsmanship is learned through individual supervision by a master craftsman, and apprenticeship takes two to three years,” says Rafat Alam, an assistant professor of economics at Grant MacEwan University in Edmonton and co-author of the assessment. “What’s missing,” he adds, “is the connection with buyers and designers in modern markets.”
Jamdani is typically designed as traditional clothing in Bangladesh and culturally similar countries. “To bring this product to the Canadian market, the industry needs to diversify,” says Alam. This means understanding the tastes and preferences of western buyers and developing modern products that appeal to them.
And that’s not the only hurdle. Alam says companies that produce the fabric also have much to learn about how to export and market it to foreign consumers, aspects of business that would require training and technical assistance.
Artisan Hub aims to address these challenges by creating opportunities for Jamdani producers to meet with western designers to learn how to produce clothing and home decor that has a more modern design. In August 2017, the program helped 30 artisans from the eight countries attend the Apparel Textile Sourcing Show in Toronto, where they exhibited their wares and connected with buyers and designers.
In November 2017, members of the Artisan Hub team from TFO Canada and IDRC travelled to the World Ethical Apparel Round Table conference in Toronto, where they met with Canadian designers and showed them Artisan Hub products. “We gave a presentation on the artisans and the traditional textiles they make, and how these industries are empowering youth and women,” says Mylène Bordeleau, a program management officer with IDRC.
This empowerment is important in an industry currently experiencing production declines in rural areas. That’s because fewer young people are apprenticing for the craft, says Alam. Left unchecked, this trend threatens a disconnection with an important cultural practice that supports tight community networks and a sense of identify. Fair compensation, ethical work standards and sustainability from product diversification can all help grow an industry on which millions of livelihoods depend.
Trade policies that empower Jamdani producers may also be part of the answer. Bordeleau hopes that as projects such as Artisan Hub document their effectiveness, this evidence can be shared broadly with other organizations that help rural cottage industries expand into new markets. “Ultimately,” she says, “we want to see policies and programs become more supportive to specialty textile artisans.”
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This is part of an ongoing series of stories on international development projects supported by Canada’s International Development Research Centre, presented in partnership with Canadian Geographic. The stories appear online once a month at idrc.canadiangeographic.ca.
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