The Untapped Potential of Handi-Craft Creatives in Uganda

Updated: Oct 22


Nadunga Rehema - Worker at PEFO


The creative industry in Uganda, some feel, hasn’t been appreciated. In post-colonial years, for instance, one expressing interest in taking on a career as a creative was something unheard of. Most white-collar parents at the time would do anything to stop their progeny from taking that path. They reacted like this, perhaps because they did not view a creative career as a worthy venture.


Other challenges like the lack of a solid market at home, an unfriendly working environment and lack of resources among others have for years been stumbling blocks for creatives.


Despite these challenges, creatives have been quite resilient through the years. Crafts creatives, for example, have for years exhibited resilience through their ability to pass on a rich varied skillset and design heritage from generation to generation. Upon talking to one, two or even more, one realizes that most have had their skills passed onto them by the older generation.


Generational skillset

Rehema Nadunga and Susan Namuyonga who work with Phoebe Education Fund for Aids Orphans , a non-profit organization where orphaned and vulnerable children and their caregivers are molded into resourceful individuals for themselves and the community, have been in the crafts making business for six years. They say they learnt the craft making skill from older people like Mulindwa Mariam, an older woman who they had watched put her magical hands on a number of arts products including crafts.


“I came to learn how to make crafts in 2015. I approached Mulindwa Mariam who I had observed for quite sometime make different arts products. She made products like crafts and clothes among others. I am grateful that she accepted to teach me,” says Nadunga.


Nagawa Hilda, who has been making crafts for five years, also says that her craft making skills were passed onto her by her mother who she had watched since childhood make several African art products including crafts.

“I picked interest in making these kind of things when I was just eight years of age. I used to watch my mother make crafts and other African art products. So when I picked interest, she offered to teach me,” she says.


She is now employed in the crafts making business and says this wouldn’t have been possible had she not learnt whatever she knows today from her mother.

However, unlike Nagawa, both Nadunga and Namuyonga ventured into the crafts making business with a goal to not only make money, but also give back to community. “We have been in this kind of business for the last six years. Yes making money is one of our aims, but we also want to give back to society,” they say.


Nadunga and Namuyonga say they have taught vulnerable aged women how to make crafts with an aim of empowering them.

The passing on of the crafts making skillset from generation to generation is with no doubt one of the sector’s strengths. It partly defines the sector as a resilient one despite the ever increasing challenges.

The sector’s potential, one would say, has been untapped for years and I believe it’s imperative that we do delve into its value.


Value as a cultural creative industry

The crafts creative industry has for years played a huge role in shaping the future and diversity of the Ugandan identity. Most products made are a representation of a particular Ugandan culture (s). As a result, products made have on several occasions been used as tools for tourism, one of Uganda’s biggest foreign exchange earners.


Nuwa Wamala Nnyanzi, an art enthusiast, writer and socio commentator, emphasizes that art products like crafts play a big role in creating an identity for Uganda as a whole.


“When I am making a form of art, I mainly look at some of the things happening within our communities. I use art bring out issues in society. This is also accompanied by my heritage (Buganda and Bunyoro). It’s things like this that make our art products unique thus giving us a unique identity,” he says.


Besides playing a role in shaping the Ugandan identity, Nadunga says crafts have also helped keep the Ugandan culture alive. “When people make these products, their aim is to earn. So they do whatever it takes, including incorporating different cultures in their products, to attract a foreign buyer. As a result, they end up keeping our culture alive,” she says.


She also adds that: “Most people have been able to find employment as crafts men and women which is also good.”


Nadunga also says that the fact that most crafts represent majority of Uganda’s cultures has made their work (her and Namuyonga) easy. “We take advantage of the cultural strength that comes with crafts to be able to lay better entrepreneurial strategies,” they say.


Entrepreneurship lifting the crafts

In 2015, Approved Index, which investigates most entrepreneurial countries in the world named Uganda as the most entrepreneurial country in the world. Entrepreneurship has with no doubt been at the heart of solving most societal problems across the globe.


During the post-war years, the new Ugandan administration had to turn to some of the few remaining entrepreneurs in the country for domestic products like soap and sugar which had become scarce.


Entrepreneurs like Rehema Nadunga and Susan Namuyonga have been engaged in the crafts for the greater good. Teaching vulnerable women how to make them, they say, has helped the products move even faster. “We work hand in hand with the vulnerable old women, coordinate while making make the crafts. We also endeavor to do quality check and pricing and explain to them in detail were they don’t understand in English.”


For products like crafts to move, Namuyonga says, an entrepreneurial hand is key. “It’s the entrepreneurs who make things move. Through entrepreneurship, one is able to solve of the problems faced by a society,” she says.


Challenges

Creatives, just like any other people in business, face quite a number of challenges. Some of these challenges, according to Nnyanzi, have persisted for years.


“One of the biggest challenges we face as creatives is the lack will from our leaders to improve our sector. The elites’ poor perception of our kind of work is one of the problems that have persisted for years. Imagine if enough is done to market our products globally? Our kind of work (products) easily give our country an identity.”


According to Nadunga, most creatives, including them, face challenges such as lack of enough professional training. She says the lack of professional knowledge has affected most creatives’ work since they do not know how to do certain things like handling customer relations. “I believe that professional training would help most creatives up their game. This hasn’t been the case because most are not able to get the training.’’


Namuyonga also says that they lack enough exposure when it comes to new trends. This, she says, has led to them producing products with the same style over the years. “If you lack exposure, it means that you can’t produce something new for your customers. Your products will always be the same which in the long run bores customers,” she says.

Some of the other challenges Namuyonga says they face include: lack of enough market for their products and repetitive price fluctuations.

The creative Arts have the potential to do way more good to a young country like Uganda. Solving some of the biggest challenges the sector is facing would perhaps help boost the economy.


And Pheobe Education Fund for Aids and vulnerable children through their programs like PEFO grandmothers’ initiative, a program that seeks to empower vulnerable old women is in their own way playing a part towards growing Uganda’s economy through handicrafts.


Written by: Eric Kyama


HOW TO REACH: Phoebe Education Fund for Aids Orphans

Photos by : Chris Lutanga , Shem Derrick Wasswa & International Trade Centre


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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