Artisan activity is the second largest sector of employment in many countries in the developing world, behind agriculture (Source). Globally, the artisan sector is growing significantly. In the decade between 2002 and 2012, international trade in artisan goods more than doubled to $32 billion annually (Source).
This case study examines Indego Africa, a nonprofit social enterprise that provides market access, business education, and vocational training for artisans in Africa, and the process it undertook of replicating its model of artisanal growth in a new country. It uses the example of a bolga basket weaving cooperative that Indego Africa helped to form in 2016 to illustrate the strategies and challenges to achieving horizontal scale. The case study demonstrates the effectiveness of Indego Africa’s export market access, and its employment of local staff members, to generate artisan business development suitable for high-volume international exports.
Research has shown that developing countries have a comparative advantage in the artisan sector because of their rich cultural heritage and crafts. Forty-nine percent of world exports of creative goods come from developing economies.
Despite this enormous potential, the sector remains fragmented and untapped as a source of income generation, job creation, and economic growth for impoverished communities around the globe.
Given rising international demand for artisan-made goods, Ghana — with its rich and diverse artisan sector — is well positioned to capitalize on this global trend. Artisans in Ghana, however, need access to markets, business skills, financial tools, quality control, and design training to fully participate in global value chains.
Indego Africa expanded from Rwanda into Ghana in 2015–2016 to help artisans bring their handmade goods to market on a fair-trade basis, improve their livelihoods, and develop sustainable businesses.
Indego Africa first conducted detailed research, analysis, and due diligence to identify the most promising craft-making regions and techniques, and then launched its Market Access program.
While many of the constraints to developing the artisan sector were similar between Rwanda and Ghana (making market access and education components transferable and scalable), there were also some key differences between the two countries. While in Rwanda Indego Africa had benefitted from pre-existing, export-ready artisan cooperatives established by the government, in Ghana, artisans tended to work more on their own or in loosely structured groups. This posed a challenge to Indego Africa’s model, which necessitated additional and intensive work to encourage artisans to work together in cohesive groups to fulfill high-volume orders, streamline the production process, and mitigate quality control issues.
The case example described below demonstrates how Indego Africa partnered with one woman, Mavis Adongo, to help her start and run an artisan business in Kumasi, Ghana. It serves as a micro-study of Indego Africa’s country expansion process, which involved adapting and iterating its model to achieve intended outcomes. Ultimately, through a combination of export market access, technical and quality control training, business education, and start-up resource provision, Indego Africa helped eight young women in Ghana secure steady employment and improve their livelihoods.
When conducting market research about Ghanaian crafts, Indego Africa determined that woven bolga baskets would likely appeal to and help expand its international customer base. However, Indego Africa could not find any existing bolga basket weaving groups in the Kumasi area. They did, however, find Mavis Adongo, who could serve as a champion and leader of a bolga basket weaving cooperative. Mavis was working at a broad-looming workshop to earn income to support her family, but she said it wasn’t the work she wanted to do.
“Bolga basket weaving is the first trade I studied growing up. I love to make baskets and watch people admire, purchase, and use them. It has always been my passion to start up a group focused on making beautiful and colourful bolga baskets for sale.”
While Mavis wanted to start her own bolga weaving cooperative, she was struggling to amass enough capital to start her own business, as well as to find other individuals interested in working with her.
Mavis began her work with Indego Africa one piece at a time, making sample baskets designed by Indego Africa’s Creative Director. Indego Africa was impressed by Mavis’ skills and her finished products, and Mavis became a full production partner. However, as a lone individual, Mavis was unable to produce at the speed or volume needed to fill Indego Africa’s orders. So, the organization worked with Mavis to help her start her own bolga basket weaving cooperative in Kumasi.
Indego Africa provided Mavis with the essential start-up resources needed to get her weaving cooperative off the ground, including a year’s worth of rent and pre-treated bolga straw (the process of treating bolga straw for weaving is highly time-consuming and involves rolling out each individual strand to make it pliable).
With these resources, and the promise of Indego Africa’s orders, Mavis set out to recruit other young women to join her bolga weaving cooperative.
In July 2016, Mavis recruited five other young women to join her artisan cooperative. Of these women, the majority (four) had originally migrated to Kumasi from Bolgatanga in search of better work opportunities. What they found, however, was an oversaturated job market with few wage-earning opportunities, especially for individuals without higher education.
When asked about the work opportunities available to women in Ghana, members of the bolga cooperative listed hairdressing, hawking goods (predominantly foodstuffs) in the street, and dishwashing as the primary options. These activities do not provide consistent income and are insufficient for women to support themselves or their families.
The women had been unable to find a job and many had attempted to sell goods, including pastries and soap, on their own. Others had been entirely unemployed. While most had learned the craft of bolga weaving as children, none had ever considered it as a marketable skill or viable career path.
When asked why she chose to join the cooperative, co-op member Linda Alorizi said,
“Mavis Adongo introduced the group to me and immediately I was motivated to join because I already had the skills I needed to make baskets. I realized I could make some money to survive. I could not sustain the pastry-making business I had tried to start because I lacked the necessary funds.”
Indego Africa’s Ghana team conducted intensive training at the co-op to help the artisans understand the importance of quality control and meeting production deadlines. They also provided vocational training support in production management, such as organizing raw materials, to help the artisans work more efficiently.
Mavis and several other co-op members have limited literacy, and it was difficult for them to follow written measurements and instructions. Indego Africa’s team found a work-around by providing the artisans with hand-drawn designs, measurements, and photos of the finished products from Indego Africa’s catalogue.
Mavis was provided with a camera phone, which ensured digital quality control checks of her orders and enabled her to contact the Ghana Country Director with any questions.
Before partnering with Indego Africa, the members of the bolga weaving cooperative were earning, on average, 40 Ghanaian cedis, or US$9.30 per month through part-time, unreliable work. They were struggling to find consistent employment and were unable to comfortably support themselves and their families. By April 2017, they were steadily employed and fulfilling consistent orders for Indego Africa, earning US$74 per month on average, which since then, has increased to US$245 per month.
“Working with Indego has been great and very helpful. We have constant orders coming in and this helps us get more money. As a result of this partnership, I now have a steady job and am able to work even though I have a small baby.”
“I have learned how to work on a team and I now realize that bolga baskets can be made in various designs and colours that make them attractive and marketable.”
Indego Africa is supplementing this on-the-job business learning by helping the artisans of the bolga weaving cooperative enroll in its Basic Business Training program in Kumasi. So far, three of the artisans have enrolled and are applying the lessons they learn to improve the management and productivity of their co-op.
Indego Africa faced some challenges with bringing its bolga cooperative partnership to scale.
Indego Africa will need to help Mavis to amplify her recruitment efforts to ensure her business can be sustainable in the long term. Since the partnership has ended, Mavis’ cooperative has grown to eight members. She is also training an additional group of 100 women in Kumasi. Indego Africa will also continue to provide market access and vocational training to further build the artisans’ skills so they can participate in the export market through Indego Africa and, eventually, on their own.
The success of the project stemmed from Indego Africa’s combination of export market access, US-based design, technical and quality control training, and start-up resource provision. Establishing a close working relationship between Indego Africa’s Ghanaian staff and artisan partners throughout the project meant that as issues arose, Indego Africa’s team could quickly address them as trust had been built.
In just a short period of time, the artisans significantly improved their livelihoods and generated substantial and growing international demand for their products.
The story of Mavis and her bolga cooperative is an example of how Indego Africa has adapted its model to the Ghanaian context and successfully built up artisan enterprises. It sheds light on the kinds of training, support, and resource provisions required to successfully work with locally led businesses to enable them to secure and fulfill orders for international export markets.
Since the fall of 2015, Indego Africa has designed and tested 60 different Ghanaian-made products for its product line. In 2016, products made in Ghana generated US$29,418 in sales, seven percent of Indego Africa’s total sales. In the first four months of 2017, products made in Ghana tallied US$14,583, representing 11 percent of Indego Africa’s total sales.
Indego Africa’s bolga cooperative project proves that artisans in Ghana can attract the attention of major buyers and generate handicraft export orders.
This case study is one piece of Indego Africa’s larger mission and programs in Ghana. The organization is also planning to form new artisan cooperatives in the Kumasi area and other regions in Ghana based on market demand and artisan needs — starting with a new sewing cooperative in Tamale, Northern Ghana.
In the long term, Indego Africa plans to scale up its programs and number of beneficiaries in Ghana to make a sizeable impact on the artisan sector, unlock its potential for income generation and employment in marginalized communities, and ensure national export and poverty reduction goals are met.