At her office overlooking El-Falaky Street in downtown Cairo, Rania Salah Seddik is busy revising the promotional videos of a group of artisans from Upper Egypt who talk about the legacy of the weaving crafts that they were born to.
“This man is in his mid-80s; he is the only man who does the four-colour and two-sided tapestries. He lives in Sohag, and he says he has been doing this for over six decades,” she said while examining one video.
Moving on the second video, she added “And this man is from Qena, he is also into weaving; he is in his early 70s; he is trying to pass on his exceptional weaving skills to younger people; but it is not easy.”
The videos Seddik was revising are to be played at her booth at the upcoming International Handicrafts Show (IHS), which is scheduled to open in Cairo on 15 November for two weeks.
“It is not just enough to show the crafts; I think it is very important to show the labour behind the crafts and the many years that those artisans have put in the work they do; I guess it adds value to the crafts and it gives due credit to the proud artisans,” Seddik says.
Seddik is actually planning to have some of the artisans she has been closely cooperating with for the past five years – since the official launch of her social enterprise GebRaa – come to the IHS to demonstrate their skills before the potential buyers who are expected to have the first two days of the event, and the public, who will take over the fair on the third day.
GebRaa, Seddik explains, is a combined name of two Pharaonic names: Geb, the deity of Earth, and Raa, the god of sun.
Seddik chose this name for two reasons that relate to the mission she decided to take in her expanding start-up: to stress the unique Egyptian identity and to commit to the sustainability of the traditional crafts made of basic Egyptian material.
“We try as much as possible to make it as close to 100 percent Egyptian as possible,” she said.
GebRaa was officially established in 2008 with a mission that has recently seen keen interest from the private and public sectors: to give a new lease of life to highly challenged traditional crafts by expanding their sale, essentially through exports, and by encouraging younger men and women to join the increasingly neglected world of craftsmanship.
“For the younger generation, it has not been appealing to be an artisan; partially because the financial benefit has not been very high, especially during the past few years with the decline of the tourism market,” Seddik said.
She added that another reason for the dwindling interest of the younger generation is due to the low-profile social status of an artisan.
“Nobody fancies being an artisan; a man in his twenties would rather be a driver on a small rented vehicle than to be an artisan,” she argued.
“This is why I think it is important that we give artisans public credit at events like the IHS so they feel prestige; this could help uplift the profile of the industry and maybe encourage more people to join,” she argued.
Seddik says that another way to help revive the declining interest in taking up crafts is to make it more profitable.
“This is why more and more people should be investing in the exports of traditional handicrafts, because from a financial perspective, that is the highest option for reward,” she explained.
The lax market, Seddik said, had allowed some of the newer craftsmen to lose their interest or their edge.
“It has been frustrating, we know; but once they realise that they could be hitting the international market through an effective export system, they brush up fast,” she said.
Seddik is also convinced of the need to invest in upgrading the skills of the workers, especially those of the younger generation. For this purpose, she has been establishing a non-profit foundation, Karama, to help upscale the edge of artisans with whom she has been working.
Meanwhile, through the past five years, GebRaa has been able to secure markets in Western Europe and North America for a selected group of artisans.
“I would say we have been on the right path, but we still have a long way to go,” Seddik said.
In parallel, GebRaa has been acquiring large-scale local customers like banks and firms who wish to have their company gifts made of traditional crafts.
“I would not say it is a trend really, but yes there is a growing taste for this style,” she argued.
In the process of expanding, Seddik is eying the need to make the products available for low and medium income Egyptians. To serve this purpose, she has been trying to opt for maximum use of local basic material, “and we do encourage a lot of recycling too,” she said.
“This actually is not just about economizing, it is also about going as green as possible; and obviously ‘green’ products are very fashionable for the international market,” she added.