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Uganda’s Craft Industry: Green Investment In Bamboo

According to The Economist Intelligence Unit, there has been a 71% rise in online searches for sustainable goods globally over the last five years. Consumers are engaging with sustainable businesses more than they did before. Consumer purchasing behavior has shifted towards eco-friendly products or services.

This shift in buying behavior has led to the rise of a new entrepreneurial breed. They are known as green entrepreneurs.

A green entrepreneur is an entrepreneur who invests in activities aligned with environment-friendly business practices, as well as the conservation of natural resources. Green entrepreneurs combine entrepreneurship with the environment.

They tackle environmental or social challenges through the understanding of entrepreneurial ideas. The main difference between green entrepreneurs and traditional entrepreneurs is that green entrepreneurs want to create business models that are economically profitable, environmentally conscious and create social value. Their predominant purpose is to ensure sustainable growth.

Herbert Mugisha is an example of a green entrepreneur in Uganda. He is the chief executive officer of Mgahinga Craft and Cultural Centre. A green enterprise located in Kisoro district in Western Uganda. They are well known for their exquisitely crafted bamboo products.

Herbert Mugisha - MD at Mgahinga Craft and Cultural Centre

They aim to use tourism to promote sustainable development through poverty reduction, conservation of the beautiful environment, education, sustainable agriculture and income generation.

The centre achieves this by offering sustainable support along the production process. That is, from the planting of the resources to the selling of crafted products for a profit.

According to Mr Mugisha, products crafted by hand possess unique magic. To him, handicrafts have an individual and exclusive design. They preserve history, tradition and culture. Hence an added value in authenticity to the craftsmanship.

When well made, their keen, intricate detail makes them aesthetically gratifying.

He believes the demand and appeal for handicrafts on the global market are rising. Hence making the industry a lucrative endeavor to pursue as an entrepreneur. Even more so, the bamboo handicraft industry.

Bamboo is referred to as green gold. This is because of its increasing value on the worldwide market. It is a renewable resource that grows phenomenally fast. It is a low maintenance plant with pests and diseases posing no threat. Bamboo is also good for the environment, with a replenishment rate that is high and efficient. It possesses versatile potential in use. A bonus allure to bamboo is that it is aesthetically pleasing. A win-win situation.

Mr Mugisha muses that the Ugandan craft industry is potent with possibility. But, it is not lacking in challenges. Like every worthwhile venture, there exist obstacles. To ensure success, one must overcome them.

He says the industry in Uganda is challenged by the predominantly negative narrative around it. There exists a prevailing distrust towards locally made products. The products are viewed as not worth the value cost on them. They are seen as inferior and backward in craftsmanship. There is doubt about their durability.

This narrative reinforces the market's preference for cheaper, familiar and imported products. These include products that are often made from nonrenewable resources like plastic. To sum it up, better the devil who is familiar rather than angel unknown.

Customers tend to claim a positive attitude toward eco-friendly products and services. However, only a few follow through with their purchases.

In recent surveys, 65% of customers say they want to buy brands that advocate for eco-friendly sustainability. But only about 26% actually purchase these brands.

The Kenyan and Rwandan craft industries also prove stiff competition as their products carry high-end quality craftsmanship and a more sophisticated aesthetic. This flair is lacking in that of the Ugandan craft.

With bamboo being unique and new on the market, the industry has a new opportunity. One the craft centre is capitalizing on to tackle the prevalent competition.

In 2021, in collaboration with Devine Bamboo Organisation, Mgahinga Crafts and Cultural Centre launched a Bamboo for Her campaign. A project that embarked on empowering women economically, starting with 31 women trainees. This was a worthwhile venture.

A group of proficient craftsmen from Ethiopia and Somalia helped the centre with training and skilling members in the community where craft skills were traditionally gender-specific. Men worked with bamboo while women weaved baskets and mats from spear grass. This endeavor aligned well with their goal of empowering and employing youth and women as the centre carried out training based on capability and merit.

For most entrepreneurs and small businesses, the COVID 19 pandemic posed a violent threat to their survival. No exception was made for the handicraft industry in Uganda which relied heavily on the tourist traffic into the country.

With travel across borders cut off, there was a reduction in tourism globally. The dip in tourist traffic into the country caused a gap in the market which left the centre having to adopt new growth strategies to sustain its survival.

They leveraged the contemporary African aesthetic of bamboo in their marketing strategy. Clients with an eco-friendly and forest conserving culture provided a new market opportunity. Combined with an improved quality of the crafts, the industry was able to have a better competitive stance.

Since the pandemic outbreak, more locals have embraced the industry than experienced before. Most households opted for purchases that were both practical and decorative.

Hotels, guest houses, lodges and even offices provided a new market option to explore. The clients who embraced the products were satisfied. This positive feedback has spread around the community and provided them with an extra edge on the market.

This new market share enabled the centre to sustain sales despite the reduced tourist traffic.

"I am amazed by how homes and even hotels around the country have embraced our bamboo wastebaskets. It is a testament to how an improvement in the quality of a product can help one infiltrate a market that seemed impenetrable before."

He says that a great deal of their success in creating a new market share is due to marketing. There is a marketing challenge in the industry. The outreach on existing skills, products and opportunities is still poor.

Previously, the centre relied on word of mouth marketing and social media. They are improving their digital footprint and establishing a well-curated website to sustain their global digital marketing strategy.

Mgahinga Craft and Cultural Centre is rebranding to Green Cane Innovations Ltd to create a more international corporate identity. They are doing so in the hope to open up a whole new door of possibilities for the craft sector on a global scale and extending their market threshold.

Written by : Alwedo Michelle Ivy

HOW TO REACH: Mgahinga Craft and Cultural 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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