Ouagadougou — Burkina Faso's arts and crafts fair is providing a crucial lifeline for struggling Malian artisans.
It's 3pm and things are hotting up at Ouagadougou's biennial International Arts and Crafts Fair (SIAO), and not just because of the temperature: mornings at the fair are reserved for professional buyers but the doors open to the general public at midday, and visitors have arrived in droves.
People shuffle past the stalls, casting a cursory glance at some, lingering at others. Artisans beckon visitors to take a closer look at their wares; the loudspeakers drone with endless announcements. In a couple of stalls, prospective buyers and artisans are deep in conversation, hunched over chairs at the back of the stall. For many craftspeople, this is make-or-break week for the two years ahead.
The SIAO is now in its 13th edition and has become a key date in the diary of West African artisans (leather, jewellery, textile, woodcarving, metal works, pottery, furniture etc) and international buyers (textile/fashion designers, shop or gallery owners from Europe, Asia and North America). The week-long fair attracts about 300,000 visitors and the 550 stalls sell out well ahead of the event, despite the hefty price tag: a stall in the fan-cooled pavilions costs CFA300,000 ($600) and a whopping CFA700,000 ($1400) in the air-conditioned pavilions.
SIAO aspires to be a pan-African event but its location in Burkina Faso means that the bulk of exhibitors hail from West Africa: you can tick every country on the map from Mauritania to Cameroon. What is striking about this year's event however is the sheer number of Malian artisans: more than 300 have taken part, many desperate to address in a week what the poor security situation has done to their business over the past couple of years.
For although the situation in Mali took a turn for the worse with the coup this year, Astan Traoré, President of the National Federation of Malian Artisans (FNAM), says that security in northern Mali started deteriorating in 2010 and that visitors have long stopped coming. "In Kidal [one of Mali's three northern regions], all crafts businesses have closed", she tells Think Africa Press, "and in Timbuktu and Gao...around 90% [closed]". Attrition is particularly high amongst women, who have turned to petty trading to make a living.
And it is not just visitors with souvenir cash who have deserted Mali because of security concerns but professional buyers too. Harper Poe is an American textile designer; her company, Proud Mary, specialises in home furnishings using textiles from Guatemala and Mali. She hasn't been able to go to Mali this year so she has come to SIAO instead. "All my suppliers are here, it's an opportunity to meet them all in one sweep", she says.
The crafts industry, which in its broad definition also includes artisanal food production (e.g. dried mango or fresh pineapple juice), cosmetics (e.g. shea butter products) and traditional construction, represents 15-20% of Mali's reported GDP and employs an estimated 40% of the working population, many temporarily but at crucial times of the year such as after the harvest in rural areas. The impact of the crisis on the sector therefore has widespread economic and social repercussions.
"With so many businesses closing and laying off employees, we've observed rising unemployment, particularly in the north," says Idrissa Ly, director of crafts at Mali's Ministry of Crafts and Tourism. "Many disaffected young people are in danger of joining the rebellion."
In a bid to help the industry and stem further social unrest, the government decided to pay for the participation of 120 artisans to the SIAO, 40 of them from the north. "We paid for the stalls, the transport to the fair and living expenses," says Ly. "It represents an investment of CFA40 million ($78,000) but we think it is worth it. The artisans say it's come as a big relief and it has fostered solidarity between them."
Fashioning a turnaround?
Ibal Ag Intagaraten is one of the northern artisans who has benefited from the trip. A Tuareg jeweller from Gao, the quiet craftsman turns effusive when he talks about his participation. "I am very very very happy," he gushes. "It's the first time the government has done something for us, we are so grateful. Everything went so smoothly, we weren't even tired from the trip."
Intagaraten is the president of the local crafts association in Gao; the association had a shop but it closed when the tourists stopped coming. It is his first time at the SIAO. He shares his stall with another jeweller, Albachar Ag Sagdoun, and the two men are determined to do business. "A number of buyers have promised to come back: we're ready for them."
Intagaraten and Sagdoun would like to find a wholesaler who will bulk-buy, so as well as waiting for customers to drop by their neat stall, they have signed up for the SIAO's B2B service, which matches prospective buyers with sellers.
Also keen to do business is organic cotton weaver Moussa Bagayoko. His company, Biotex-Mali, is part of a nine-member cooperative called Rematrac-Bio that promotes organic cotton from Mali. The cooperative was set up with the help of Swiss development agency Helvetas, who is also paying for Rematrac's participation at the SIAO. They have a huge stall, tumbling with bedspreads, cushions, scarves and loose fabric in beige and signature indigo, and the customers keep flowing in.
"I had a shop back in Mali but I had to close it," says Bagayoko. "It cost CFA4,000 ($8) a month and I couldn't make this money in two months. But with the business generated here, I'm going to have enough work for one year, maybe even two."
But not every artisan has been as lucky as Intagaraten or Bagayoko. About a third of the Malian stalls registered at the SIAO were paid for privately, with many craftspeople sharing stalls. "I'm not sure I'm going to be able to recoup my costs," says Soulaymane Traoré, an artist from Bamako, who has pooled with two fellow artisans. "I'm hoping to meet some people through the B2B service during the week," he adds.
With the SIAO now over, Traoré, of FNAM, says the feedback from its members over this year's sales is broadly positive, but it is still too early to say whether it will save the most vulnerable businesses. "We've encouraged artisans to be proactive and keep pressuring their clients but the buyers' confidence has really been shaken."
All she and Mali's artisans can now do is hope that all their networking at the SIAO will pay off and restore confidence in Mali's great craftsmanship.
Emilie Filou is a freelance journalist specialising in business, the environment and developing issues, with a particular interest in Africa. Her work has appeared in publications such as This is Africa, The Economist, The Guardian and The Ecologist.