Around the Institute

Going Handmade: How Artisan Work Helps Women in Developing Countries

May 12, 2014  • Natalie Deuschle, Guest Blogger

The Alliance for Artisan Enterprise and Aspen Global Health and Development recently hosted a screening of the award-winning documentary “The Silkies of Madagascar,” followed by a discussion on the impact of market access for artisan communities, addressing challenges and successes in the field.

Artisanal work represents the second largest employer in the developing world and embodies unique expressions of culture and heritage. The estimated global market value of artisan goods is $32 billion, and when the 2008 global financial crisis drove markets down by nearly a quarter, demand for artisan products kept growing, doubling in value from just six years before. Despite the artisan sector’s clear economic and social value, it is still not commonly viewed as a powerful means of development and remains a decentralized and largely unsupported field.

The Alliance for Artisan Enterprise recently hosted a panel discussion called “Scaling up Artisan Businesses: The Story of Sahalandy in Madagascar,” to discuss the different challenges and success stories of bringing artisan businesses to scale.

The artisan sector is a major driver in advancing women’s economic empowerment for peace and security.  

During her opening remarks, Greta Schettler, senior economic policy advisor of the US Department of State, Office of Global Women’s Issues, explained that by improving the economic opportunity and livelihood of women, the stability of a country increases. The artisan sector offers the opportunity for tremendous economic stability for women, market access, improved skills, and capacity building. 

Mundy explained the impact artisan work has had on women through her work with Sahalandy in Madagascar:

“The change is profound. The impact is profound. [Sahalandy] provides employment for 2,500 people in three regions. They have sent all of their children officially to private schools. None remain in public schools. One hundred percent of their kids have passed the national exam and are now in the best colleges that Madagascar has to offer. They’ve built better housing structures for themselves and now they have access to healthcare. That shows the sustainability of the business.”

Financial training and western marketing support are necessary to bring artisan enterprise to scale in developing countries.

Natalie Mundy, director of finance and operations of Sahalandy, stated that the organization, which has more than 2,500 beneficiaries in three different regions, has been successful due to financial management training, access to credit, access to grants, and access to western markets. It is significantly important to have western marketing support; organizations that have tried to eliminate this backing have not been successful. 

Reframing how people think about economic development is necessary so that the artisan sector is taken more seriously as an economic booster.

“One of the biggest challenges that the artisan sector faces is that people for some reason don’t think it’s real economic development, revenue or jobs,” said Peggy Clark, Aspen Institute vice president of policy programs and director of the Alliance for Artisan Enterprise. Clark asked Shari Berenbach, president of the United States African Development Foundation, why she thinks these obstacles still exist.

“I think that part of the challenge is that most people look at the US and look at what a job looks like here — and what a job looks like [in their own country] — and they make this vast assumption that either [the person] is desolate, totally poor, and unable to feed themselves, or [they live in] the kind of economy that we have here in the US,” Berenbach replied.

In fact, as we see such economic growth in Africa and in many parts of the world, you are seeing multiple phases of economic development occurring at the same time. It’s not an either-or situation. When you recognize that the smallest producers themselves are producing items that they can trade in international markets, the perspective of the producer is that they are making great economic strides.”

The artisan sector has the power and potential to lift billions of people out of poverty.

“When you think about the billions of poor people in the world, and recognize how much all of them are busily producing, people can be very poor, but it doesn’t mean that they aren’t busily striving to earn a living and to benefit themselves and their families,” Berenbach said.

When you add all of that productive capacity together, it really does amount to [what] can move the needle from a national perspective to a global perspective, and a household prospective.” 

Natalie Deuschle is a program associate with the Aspen Institute Alliance for Artisan Enterprise.