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4 Ways We Can Support Women’s Economic Empowerment in Sub-Saharan Africa

A Tanzanian mother wearing her handmade jewelry.

The creative manufacturing and handmade sector is the second largest employer in developing countries. The African continent is renowned for its diverse culture and heritage. Many handmade artisans in rural Africa contribute to the development of their regions by crafting unique products for the local and international markets. These products are not limited to traditional crafts like basket weaving, wood carvings, jewelry, fashion and pottery but also paintings, clothing, home décor, kitchen wares and stone works.

The handmade sector has played a significant role in the economic and social development of Africa. However, it receives minimal support and is not yet considered a vital economic and social development tool. Most artisans are limited to local sales and often find it hard to support their families with little income.

How are rural Sub-Saharan African women engaged in the creative manufacturing and handmade sector?

Women are catalysts towards the achievement of transformational social, economic and environmental changes necessary for sustainable development. According to a report by Powered by People, women make up 76% of the creative manufacturing and handmade sector as business leaders. Additionally, women in Africa are more active as economic agents than in other parts of the world. However, in rural Africa, they face many barriers such as poverty and high illiteracy levels hence resorting to activities such as handmade craft business and agriculture to improve their livelihoods. Thus, with this, women are gradually becoming empowered, contributing to poverty alleviation and global economic development.

In the past few months, I have travelled to different parts of East Africa to meet the women artisans that I have partnered with in my social enterprise, Africnette, which I founded with the aim to support women and youth handmade artisans in rural Africa. Through these visits, I was able to get an overall perspective of how women take part in the handmade sector. The first thing I noticed is the sisterhood, bond and happiness as they weave their baskets. It is evident that crafting contributes to their well-being. They give themselves the space to develop new knowledge and skills, make mistakes, and grow together as a team. In the process, they develop a sense of empowerment, unity and individual development.

Handmade crafting is not only beneficial in terms of improvement in emotional experience or self-realization of the women artisans but also their economic development. The growing handmade sector economy has provided a way for poor rural women in Sub-Saharan Africa to achieve financial independence. In my country Kenya, rural women benefit from the sector through job creation, especially given the high unemployment rate. This has positively impacted their access to health, food, education and clean water.

Opportunities and challenges for women handmade artisans in Rural Sub-Saharan Africa

Market access

Currently, there is an increase in demand for ethically sourced products, giving the handmade sector an upper hand to navigate the international markets. However, most of these artisans – particularly rural women, lack access to the international markets and experience challenges in keeping up with the changing trends in consumer needs. Moreover, most of them find it extremely hard to deal with international purchases because of inadequate knowledge of the processes. This has led to an increase in the number of intermediaries who exploit the women artisans by buying their products and selling them at higher prices. Thus, they end up not being recognized for their craft with a less monetary benefit.

Production Skills Development and Training

Many women artisans in rural sub-Saharan Africa have low literacy and low education levels but are artistically talented. Most of them have no idea that their products are in high demand in the local and international markets. Therefore, they end up not changing their crafting techniques and creativity to meet the competitive demands of the global market. In Kenya, there is an increase in vocational centers and programs that offer knowledge and skills development programs for handicraft artisans. Unfortunately, very few women artisans have access to these programs. There are social enterprises working directly with them at the grassroots level by training them on financial literacy skills and product value addition processes

Digitalization

A majority of women in rural Sub-Saharan Africa lack access to internet connections and technological devices. Also, due to the high levels of illiteracy, they lack the skills needed to operate digital devices. In the changing world of digitalization, improving rural women artisans’ access to information and technology can help them navigate the local and international markets. This can enable them to acquire more knowledge on how to sell their products directly to wholesalers or retailers without passing through the middlemen and how to design their products based on the market trends.

Financing

There is a need to assist women artisans in rural Sub-Saharan Africa financially. This can be in the form of women-focused grants and credits. Most of the women artisans in rural areas can’t afford to purchase materials or attend skills development training. In Kenya, social enterprises, governmental sectors, and Non-Governmental Organizations are already providing financial assistance to women artisans. This has enabled them to register and expand their businesses therefore increasing their income generation opportunities.

How can you be part of the empowerment of rural women artisans’ stories?

  1. FUND women artisan cooperatives and projects that support the Creative Manufacturing and Handmade Sector in Sub-Saharan Africa.
  2. SUPPORT women artisans by helping them market their handmade products and to get them closer to potential niche markets.
  3. BUY ethically hand-crafted products by women. How are we going to financially empower these women if we don’t buy their products?
  4. Lastly, let us give the women artisans the spaces to tell their artistic or natural craftsmanship STORIES in their own ways. Their stories need more recognition and support.
Okech Annete Adhiambo
Okech Annete Adhiambo is a Kenyan, a community organizer and gender equality advocate. She is the Founder and Managing Director of Africnette Stores, a social enterprise that supports women and youth handmade artisans in rural Africa. She is a trained peace-builder and has a Bachelor's Degree in Commerce, Finance, graduate.