Zimbabwe has a rich cultural heritage, which is known around the world for its unique arts and crafts products.
For a long time, stone sculptures have defined the Zimbabwe’s offerings to the world, with artists like Dominic Benhura and Agnes Nyanhongo positioning themselves uniquely in international markets through provision of products that are of high quality and consistent standards.
In recent years, Zimbabwe’s offerings such as basket weaving, wood carvings, metal sculpting, music and performing arts have been gaining traction in international markets, particularly in Asia and Europe.
Undoubtedly, the sector plays an important role in the economic development of the country.
The potential for its contribution to national exports is even more.
According to Trade Map, Zimbabwe’s exports for arts and crafts in 2019 amounted to around US$10.5 million, with products weighing around 10,612 tonnes exported mainly to South Africa, Europe and America.
Although figures available on Trade Map indicate a downward trend in exports, from US$10.4 million in 2019 and US$13.4 million in 2015, past trade performance from the sector indicate potential for growth.
To improve the contribution of the sector to the economy, His Excellency, President Mnangagwa launched the National Arts, Culture and Heritage Policy in Bulawayo last year.
The Policy laid the foundation for development of artists and a confirmation of the Government’s support towards the industry.
Further to this, the Government launched the Cultural and Creative Industries Strategy (2020 to 2030) this year to guide the development and growth of arts and crafts sector so that it contributes meaningfully towards the attainment of the Upper Middle-Income Society as spelt out in Vision 2030.
So, the policy framework is now in place to support artists.
What is required to transform these into economic gains and increase exports from the sector is creation of stronger synergies between local artists and partners in regional and international markets to create sustainable local representation in foreign countries.
For example, Zimbabweans based in the diaspora play a critical role in promoting Zimbabwean arts and crafts in the same way they do for foods and other manufactured goods.
Networks, such as ZimThrive, that endeavor to direct foreign currency into the various industries such as tourism, business and entertainment through collaborations, creations and innovations of the diaspora communities must also develop keen interest in exporting Zimbabwean arts and crafts.
This will not only ensure a ready market for local artists but also increase the penetration of local cultures in international markets, which in turn will stimulate growth for cultural tourism in Zimbabwe.
Drawing lessons from African countries
Remember the days when African movies became a hit on ZBC TV?
Or West African dresses, known as African attire, became a huge trend in Zimbabwe?
These examples only scratch the surface of how Nigerian culture has dominated parts of the continent and beyond through export of arts and crafts, including creative industry.
One of the reasons behind the growing popularity of Nigerian film industry and clothing elsewhere around the world is the effort undertaken by the country’s diaspora in promoting their arts and crafts products.
For Nigerians, promoting products from home country is a matter of pride, regardless of political or religious opinions.
The same could be said about South Africa’s #JerusalemChallenge where most people, at home and abroad, took part in promoting the song by Master KG.
There is a level of cooperation among players from different sectors of the economy that underpins successful exports of arts and crafts from African countries.
For Zimbabwe to grow its exports of arts and crafts, there is need for stronger linkages between local artists and partners in foreign markets, including diasporans who can help in creating an appetite for local products in their resident countries.
Recently World Remit sponsored an online musical show which showcased some golden greats from Zimbabwe with music from Bundu Boys and Oliver Mtukudzi being renditioned by UK bands. The success of this show points to that if we can package our artist well, there is a market internationally for our artists.
Improving cooperation for exports
Growing exports of arts and crafts will depend on strengthening linkages between local artists and partners from across the world, who will assist in creating inroads for Zimbabwe’s creative industry.
For the country’s diaspora, whose sentimental attachment to communities back home could be the foundation for creating markets, they can assist in building networks of influence and make use of formal and informal connections that draw on the expertise and business contacts of the diaspora, including encouraging interaction with colleagues at home; and promoting purchasing of locally produced pieces of art.
Currently, the value of market linkages is critical in growing exports.
Creating stronger market linkages will reduce the time between production and purchase, which is central in growing exports.
The middle and higher end markets such as Germany and the EU markets offer more diverse opportunities for uptake of arts and crafts.
However, these markets will require more value addition through product design and the essential manipulation of good craftsmanship and material use.
Credible business to business engagements can also help grow exports of arts and crafts.
Currently, there are efforts to link local artists with international buyers undertaken by ZimTrade – the national trade development and promotion organisation – with some promising results as some local sculptors of recycled metal are already exporting to Germany.
As more businesses are taking part in online trade fairs, local artists should complement efforts by ZimTrade and other institutions by actively participating in virtual exhibitions.
Virtual platforms such as Etsy (www.etsy.com) have allowed for unique products in arts and crafts to be accessible from anywhere in the world.
This promotional site for diverse arts and crafts has provided unlimited insight into the creative world and local artists should ensure they have registered and actively engage potential buyers.
Further to this, stronger market linkages for the arts and crafts sector can be formed through intensified synergies with the tourism industry and local communities.
The history and myths behind some local arts and crafts can be a key selling proposition in developing the market linkages with the tourism sector.
For example, myths and facts around the Nyami-Nyami legend in Kariba could be packaged together with the walking stick and sold around the world, which in turn could help in improving sales of such products.
This has worked in countries like Swaziland where products of arts and crafts can find their way in national dressing, rooted in national history and heritage.
Those with appreciation into this heritage will market the products in their circles and networks thus creating added value for these products.
Imagine what such a concept would do for our local Zimbabwe fabrics used to identify with the country.
Riding on recognized brands
In securing new markets, emphasis could be drawn to established artists whose names are synonymous with unique Zimbabwean offerings.
Musicians such as Stella Chiweshe, Thomas Mapfumo,Iyasa ,Mukoomba and the late Dr Oliver Mtukudzi successfully created lasting impressions in the music industry that has given the local arts industry an international recognition.
These are just a few examples of many artists who have earned an international recognition, which could be used to springboard more artists to the international arena.
There is also need to build contemporary national brands, riding on emerging artists who will spearhead the nation and increase cultural assimilation.
Establishing centers of excellence
The creation of an Arts and Crafts Village would provide such a forum for the young budding artists cropping up and under recognized around the nation.
This village can be utilized to draw knowledge from renowned artists and provide a platform for showcasing of the Zimbabwean products and unique visual taste.
The Crafts Village will encompass many aspects of the value chain including the inputs (raw materials, skills and creativity), marketing, distribution channels, physical infrastructure and consumption (tourists).
Such a center can accommodate utilities such as a traditional food restaurant for foreign visitors to take in a taste for local foods, knowledge sharing/exchange programs with international artists and working site for crafts creation.