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Crafting global success in arts and crafts exports

Zimbabwe boasts a rich and vibrant of arts and crafts, a tradition that has thrived for generations and supported communities for centuries.

From meticulously carved wooden sculptures to intricately woven baskets, these creations are not just beautiful objects, but expressions of Zimbabwe’s cultural heritage passed down through families and communities. 

What is exciting when looking at the sector is that Zimbabwe’s arts and crafts have not been a hidden gem, but the country has shared its artistic legacy with the world, exporting not just these stunning crafts, but the very essence of its culture.

From pre-colonial era to modern times, Zimbabwe has had a strong reputation for high-quality and unique pieces, and its art is in demand around the world.

For example, Zimbabwe’s stone sculptures have gained international recognition for their unique style and beautiful depictions of human and animal forms, sculpted from hard stones like serpentine, lepidolite, and black granite.

In light of the strong emphasis from President E.D Mnangagwa’s Second Republic to position Zimbabwe at the centre of global supply chains, it is important to consider the arts and crafts sector as one of the low hanging fruits for the country.

Already, President Mnangagwa has since pledged support to local creatives, indicating that his Government will create an environment that supports the culture and creative economy.

Last year, President Mnangagwa launched the National Culture Month in Binga, designed to showcase the country’s rich cultural diversity, with a strong emphasis on unlocking economic gains from the unique aspects of Zimbabwe’s localities and cultural heritage.

To ensure that local creatives improve earnings from their hard work, national trade development and promotion organisation – ZimTrade – is working with local and international experts to develop capacities and improve competitiveness of local artists in international markets.

These interventions, including some insights that will be shared in this article. are designed to make it easy for local artists to unlock access to lucrative international markets, such as Europe, Middle-East, and Asia.

The renewed focus on the arts and crafts sector has had positive outcomes for the country’s exports in the past few years.

According to Zimstat, the sector recording a 15 percent growth in 2023, from US$8,7 million in 2022 to US$10 million.

In the start of this year, arts and crafts exports increased by 19 percent to US$683,000 in January 2024 from US$572,000 in January 2023.

The coming in of export clusters established by ZimTrade to integrate small players in exports, such as the Mashava Arts Cluster are expected to contribute towards further export growth from the sector.

To ensure sustained growth, there are areas local artists need to consider as they curve a strong presence in export markets.

Segmentation and unlocking niche markets

The first step in exporting arts and crafts is understanding the diverse preferences of the global consumer base.

Although arts and crafts exports are about sharing Zimbabwe’s cultural diversity, there is need to ensure that the local practices and interests align with the expectations of the market.

For example, issues of eco-friendly and ethically sourcing are increasingly becoming important to buyers in Europe, and when targeting the market, there is need to ensure that the locally-produced products respond to such emerging issues.

Artists targeting European market must consider use of natural materials and sustainable practices in their production process.

This will ensure easy sales.

Through segmentation, businesses can identify specific groups with common interests, behaviours, and needs.

This approach allows artisans to tailor their products to niche markets, ensuring that each creation resonates with a distinct audience.

Further to this, the broad buyer groups identified for Zimbabwe’s arts and crafts are locals, tourist market and the export market.

Too often, artists wish to export all they produce without a good grasp of what products appeals to which audiences.

For instance, when one considers the segmentation of traditional handmade pottery, while some consumers may be drawn to the rustic charm of traditional colourful designs, others may seek more plain, modern and minimalist pieces.

This differs from country to country, and region to region.

Some pieces make sense for a tourist visitor because they have a connection to the place and understand the piece, especially if they have met the artist.

The same piece may have no appeal whatsoever to a person in foreign market who has neither been to Zimbabwe nor has any connection to the local traditional art.

By recognizing these distinct preferences, artisans can refine their offerings and effectively cater to a variety of tastes.

Connecting with the right audience

Once segmentation is complete, the next crucial step is targeting—the process of directing marketing efforts towards the identified segments.

Crafting a compelling narrative that aligns with the values and preferences of the target audience is essential.

This not only fosters a connection but also increases the likelihood of successful sales.

A classic example used is that, if an artist specializes in creating eco-friendly and sustainable crafts, targeting environmentally conscious consumers becomes paramount.

Communicating the use of recycled materials, ethical production processes, and the impact of their purchase on local communities adds depth to the product story, making it more appealing to the targeted audience.

Going a step further by creating information cards with full product descriptions also helps draw the environmentally conscious buyer who has enough information to use when discussing and showing off the piece with friends and peers in Europe.

Increasingly, acquiring certifications to back claims of ethical extraction and use of raw materials has become important in some markets that are serious about sustainable environmental practices.

Carving a distinct identity

Positioning is the final piece of the puzzle, determining how a brand or product is perceived in the market.

In the arts and crafts export industry, effective positioning involves highlighting the unique cultural and artistic aspects of each creation.

This not only differentiates the product from competitors but also adds value in the eyes of the consumer.

A good brand name comes in handy as it helps the product be easily recognised and to build a loyal audience faster.

Consider the case of a small studio producing hand-made baskets, turning these into lampshades.

By positioning their products as usable decorative pieces of art inspired by traditional techniques, they create a narrative that transcends the functional aspect of a basket.

This artistic positioning elevates the product to a unique and desirable level in the market.

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