The Crafts Industry in Uganda – Visible but Still Barely Noticeable

Updated: Feb 21

Uganda’s Crafts industry is considered by so many a “pass-time” and one of those “things” that give a “bad name” to Uganda. For the entrepreneurs in this industry, it is the story of their life full of creativity, our “African-ness”, our “Ugandan-ness” in our endeavors of making very good quality handmade crafts and most of all, getting some money into their pockets from all their hard work put into this craft. There are numerous social ties that come with being in the industry too; either directly or indirectly. (The money is very much appreciated at this time, we can all agree on that)


Nuwa Wamala Nnyanzi - NACCAU Crafts Village


I certainly love many of the products made by the people in this industry starting with those small and medium-sized clay pots to the little drums right down to the handmade bags and jewelry.

For me, this industry is visible but very few of us actually notice it and give it the respect it has earned. This is because of a number of reasons we are going to talk about. They include low collaboration in the industry and amongst themselves, gaps in marketing and research about the crafts industry, having their business largely informalized hence resulting into pricing issues of their work, a need to embrace more contemporary designs and aesthetics among others.


On top of that, you get to add on the prevailing COVID-19 pandemic that simply accelerated the pace at which all these challenges came down on the industry. There are some good things that have come out of having the crafts industry in Uganda and we will talk about them, too.



PRICING

With having numerous individuals playing a part in a very vital sector like this, it is safe to say that we all have a big challenge on our hands; one to do with pricing of these works made. Pricing from the perspective of the buyer and pricing from the perspective of the seller…something has to work for both of us. This revelation made earlier this year by Nuwa Wamala Nnyanzi to The Independent says it all, for the artists,


“"At NACCAU arts and crafts village, about 80 traders have accumulated ground rent arrears of close to 400 million Shillings, to be paid to the government despite them not making any sales.''

Many traders in this sector of crafts say they have gone weeks, sometimes, without making a single sale on their products!



Have we even talked about the crazy taxes in this country? When I speak of taxes, I am looking at both the direct and indirect taxes. When I look at the list of goods that are exempted from the famous “VAT” or better known as “Value Added Tax”, I don’t see any of the materials used in the making of these products on that list. That means, even before a product is fully ready to hit the market for sale, it’s charged at a price that may most likely discourage somebody from buying it all together.

And on top of that, remember that the Government of Uganda doesn’t offer any kind of incentives to our creatives here to boost their trade, the way the governments of Kenya and Rwanda do for their creatives! The business side of the crafts industry ends up suffering and lagging behind, in the region and the world at large and yet, there is potential to get it to much bigger heights.


MARKETING

Nuwa Wamala Nnyanzi is one of the people who established the National Arts and Cultural Crafts Association of Uganda also known as NACCAU in 2003. They (NACCAU) operate the arts and crafts village at the National Theatre in Kampala, which is open from 8:00 am to 7:00 pm on every day.

Prices of crafts at the crafts village start from 2,000 Uganda shillings, which is for a simple card to any price you would love to stop at for any product.

Quoting the Uganda Tourism Association in an interview with Nuwa Wamala Nnyanzi,

“Nuwa Wamala Nnyanzi one of Uganda’s acclaimed artists explains that lack of capacity to produce big quantities puts down the would be big market for these arts and crafts.’’

Nnyanzi believes people are aware of our crafts but very little if anything has been publically invested in this sector and even if one marketed it, and got the market, they may not be able to satisfy customer demands.


“Domestically the consumption of our crafts is low because they compete with disposable ad cheap stuff from elsewhere. Our neighboring countries have been supported and developed capacity to produce large quantities which are standard. We have really marketed but can we meet the demand when the order is placed by making quality and standard stuff?” he asks rhetorically.


Nnyanzi says that marketing the arts and crafts is the easiest thing to do because people are already aware of the sector but the problem arises when it comes to demand and supply of a standard product.

He notes that if you over market a product, you risk having a challenge of supply and maintaining quality. The multi-media visual artist says government has to be the primary consumer of that product, where sellers can generate domestic market and satisfy it then international market will come on board.


Could it be that not all of Nnyanzi’s comrades in the sector simply know how to put themselves out there? Or could it be that the entire activity of making yourself and your products visible is simply too costly to keep up with? We agree that COVID19 made everything harder.


COLLABORATION

There is need to work together as the large giant team we are, as a sector. I find the old saying and belief that our biggest strength always lies in numbers very good and applicable in all our endeavors. You cannot really do more as an individual than when you are working together with so many other people, can you now. The more people you work with, the more connections you get to make as a whole. Besides, even when bargaining for something like pricing at all levels of the market, your word said as a group or collective sounds more firm and assuring than when it is coming from just one individual.


VISIBILITY

How can we increase the visibility of the crafts sector in our own country, Uganda? Personally, I tried google-searching about this sector and I found the task of reading about the sector very easy…as in, I did it so quickly. For each article, I’d say I read it in less than 3 minutes at most and then, one name kept on popping up time and again; “Nuwa Wamala Nnyanzi”. Does this mean he is the only person in this whole entire sector? Definitely not. I am reliably informed that this sector has existed for over 100 years! This speaks to the level of research we have, that has been done on the crafts industry. The works are there and we see them every day but the theoretical part of these works is quite scanty to come by.


TAKING ON A MORE ENTREPRENEURAL MINDSET

You do not need to look at the latest Household Survey from UBOS to actually know there is a serious lack of jobs in Uganda today. So many young people, for example, have gone to school and left without anything in the works for them. For those very few that decided to take on their passions say in craft making, this has become their main source of income and this has gone on to affect the quality of products made and sold on the international market.


“Our crafts have challenges of standards. Standard comes with the documentation of the materials one uses, the sizes to use. The people who buy our crafts from these foreign countries have their orders placed on specific standards. Our craft industry, even when you go to UBOS our standards are not yet developed even at the basic level that can help improve the marketability of the crafts,” Richard Kawere, the CEO of the Uganda Tourism Association shares.


Perhaps, if the top management of the concerned bodies including the crafts sector and government standardizes the works done there, then may be the entire sector can have a bigger bargaining power at their side than the charity one or the mistrusted one that’s common and prevailing in the world today.


MAKING USE OF ART AND CRAFTS TO HEAL AND RECONNECT WITH OUR ROOTS

For the future, we just cannot leave anything to chance, can we now? We cannot do what has been tried in the past, in terms of healing and reconnecting with our past. For one reason or the other, we can all see that it has not worked as we hoped it would. How about we try taking the direction of art and crafts? Our drums have never failed to give us that soothing sound that does good to our hearts and minds, for example. Art never hurt anybody that I know of but it has united millions of us that I am sure of. What do you think?


On speaking with Nuwa Wamala about his experience being in the crafts sector, from when they started until to date, here is what he said,


“Dealing in the arts and creative sector has been quite a struggle due to many factors. However, there have been some high moments despite the hardships.


Some of the challenges have been due to the absence of a clear policy on the preservation, protection and promotion of the culture and creative industry.


Lack of a coherent policy framework on the industry has denied the sector players access to public funds and development partners' support.


No access to affordable finance and no sustainable market access due to lack of resources to embark on aggressive marketing domestically and internationally.


The elite who form the bulk of policy makers, and the corporate class who have disposable income prefer imported mass-produced art and crafts as opposed to Ugandan products. Many of them consider owning imported stuff as a status symbol and a sign of civilization.


So marketing and selling art has been an uphill task but a challenge I am willing to continue tackling because I believe it is a worthy cause, given the untapped and underexploited abundant talent Uganda has”.


On transitions in the sector that have directly affected him since he started to date, here is what he had to say,

“Yes, of course there have been changes I have experienced along the way. Some changes have been for the better while others have been negatively impacted on business growth.

On the positive side, there are more art and crafts producers, outlets and buyers.

More people are increasingly buying Ugandan art to decorate their homes and businesses.

There are more impressive role models in the industry and as a result parents are willing to pay tuition fees for their children to pursue art as a career in tertiary institutions”.


“Where do you see the crafts industry in the future?” is the final question I put to Nuwa Wamala to which he responds,

“There is a lot to hope for because there seems to be a shift on the part of government from passive if not negative attitude to active participation in the shaping of the industry through policy formulation, NDP lll.''


There is need for the government to implement the BUBU policy by buying art and crafts for all of their premises here and abroad. This would stimulate growth in the sector and encourage the private to follow suit.


There is also need for a stimulus package to help revive the businesses that have gone into coma.


The industry needs long term loans with low interest rates in order to register sustainable growth.


The recently concluded successful Janzi Awards 2021 was largely financed by government with the private sector providing technical expertise.

I believe there is hope at the end of the tunnel where we are seeing many more young Africans are turning back to their roots through art and crafts searching for that connection that has probably been lost for a while. It is often said that if we want to change anything in our society, we must rely on our young people. They will get it done as we guide them every step of the way.


Written by Edgar Ntensibe


HOW TO REACH: National Arts and Cultural Crafts Association of Uganda(NACCAU)


This article was produced as part of the Handicraft Souvenir and Development Project implemented by the Ministry of Tourism, Wildlife and Antiquities and the International Trade Centre funded by the Enhanced Integrated Framework .


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