Egyptian handicrafts on the digital map

Sarah Elhosary , Tuesday 12 Dec 2023

Efforts are underway to integrate Egyptian handicrafts and technology and place them on the world’s digital map, reports Sarah Elhosary

Traditional handycrafts
Traditional handycrafts


While there have been distinctive Egyptian handicrafts for thousands of years, these have required work to develop and adapt them to present and future purposes. In order to ensure the growth of these handicrafts today, public and private initiatives have joined forces to connect artists and their crafts with modern technologies, thereby placing them on the digital map. 

Initiatives have included producing an atlas to chronicle the crafts and workshops around Egypt and setting up websites to sell them. Other initiatives have educated artisans to use artificial intelligence (AI), social media, and electronic marketing to promote their products, aiming to raise a generation of artisans capable of making an enormous difference in the Egyptian handicrafts sector.

“One way we wanted to help the handicrafts sector was to put them on the world map. However, we believed that before we could begin, we needed to learn more about the handicrafts sector,” commented Yasmine D’Alessandro, programme manager at the Drosos Foundation, a non-profit based in Switzerland working in the sector. 

“Since 2005, the foundation has collaborated with civil-society organisations to improve young people’s skills and opportunities for economic involvement. When looking for ways to help artisans, we decided to learn more about their number, their geographical origins, the nature of their crafts, and the average scale of production,” she added.

“We also examined if their activity was family-based or supported by civil groups. This data was crucial in assisting us in selecting relevant programmes and approaches to promoting handicrafts in Egypt.

“We also collaborated with Osama Ghazali, a handicrafts expert, who initiated and led the project’s research team. The team travelled around the country, visiting communities and specialty handicrafts workshops to collect data for documentation. The data will be available soon on a platform called Atlas Herafy that will be the first in Egypt to provide a comprehensive map of all the country’s artisans. It will be regularly updated and already includes over 1,700 craftspeople in Egypt’s 27 governorates and in 315 neighbourhoods and villages.”

By placing artisans on this map, the project will contribute to creating an open community where institutions focused on handicrafts development, designers, retailers, and others can connect with artisans and collaborate to advance the field.

The atlas, which took almost three years to compile, documents 66 crafts, encompassing Bedouin, Coptic, and Islamic traditions, among others. Furthermore, the data will provide information to support institutions to empower women in the community, as 48 per cent of the artisans in it are women. It also sheds light on some crafts on the verge of extinction, such as traditional glassblowing. 

“The atlas only recorded three remaining workshops in this field led by experienced artisans,” D’Alessandro noted. “Some younger artisans find it difficult to engage in it due to the high temperatures required for glass blowing.”

Bringing research and documentation to the online platform unlocks endless possibilities. Users of the platform can search for artisans based on geographical region or the nature of the craft they are looking for, such as khayamiya (tent-making), woodcarving, or metalwork, as well as the different secondary talents associated with each craft. 

Users also can search by heritage type, including Islamic and Pharaonic. In addition to giving workshop locations, the platform displays images of the products produced by each workshop.

HANDICRAFTS AND TECHNOLOGY: Beyond the documentation platform, other work has focused on using digital platforms to market and sell handicrafts while also integrating sophisticated technical programmes with various handcrafting processes.

“Our digital presence on the handicrafts sales platform helped us to assimilate newly introduced crafts, merging stages of manual work, such as video printing, where an artist designs a sculpture using computer programmes and prints it with a 3D printer instead of sculpting it manually. Furthermore, our digital activity has contributed to the acceptance of products by many young people who have lately entered the handicrafts arena,” said Iman Al-Wasifi, chief executive of Muqbis, a marketplace for home-based businesses and customers.

“My colleagues Karim Hussein and Mohamed Nasser and I began working on the prototype for the platform in 2021, starting with 10 artisans. This year, we launched the portal, which features the work of 900 Egyptian artisans from various governorates. Our passion for handicrafts and technical expertise helped us to build and prepare the platform so that each artisan can easily exhibit products on our platform through an online store,” Al-Wasifi said.

“It wasn’t easy at first because by their very nature handicrafts entail uniqueness and a distinct character to each piece, necessitating direct interaction with the artisans who created them. Many platforms that solely relied on the technological aspect did not survive. Therefore, we emphasised having an offline operations team to support the platform’s real-world operations as well, with this guiding and assisting the artisans.”

“Our team shoulders the burden of marketing services, product photography, pricing, packaging, and customer handling, allowing the artisans to focus on their primary role as creators.”

Al-Wasifi also said that the digital presence has opened up new and rapid horizons for the direct development of handmade products. “Our technical staff provides customer research results from our platform to the artisans, alerting them about which works are most viewed, which sell the most, and which are most searched for on the platform,” she said.

“Our design team refines this information by turning into briefings for artisans, specifying the popular design forms in their respective sectors. Such knowledge of the market’s response aids artisans in their development and boosts sales of their products.”

By adopting different approaches to supporting handicrafts through technology, the Qodwa.Tech initiative also focuses on empowering artisans. As part of its efforts to economically empower women through technology, the initiative trained female artisans in digital marketing and e-commerce, allowing them to market and sell their items on the Internet.

According to Nagla Seddik, director of Qodwa.Tech, the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology launched the initiative with the goal of empowering women economically through technology. Its online presence allows it to reach women in all the governorates and aid them in developing their projects at no cost. 

Over the course of three years, it has graduated 50 online batches of trainees and six offline batches, assisting approximately 10,000 beneficiaries through seminars, sessions, and training. This year, it has expanded the curriculum by introducing two courses, one focusing on producing visual digital material and the other teaching advanced skills such as AI.

Empowering female artisans from different regions with technological tools and skills enables them to market, package, and export their work beyond Egypt. For instance, one member sold her handmade attire to a famous US fashion brand. Another, hailing from Arish, successfully shipped her handcrafted carpet pieces to Saudi Arabia. A doll maker also found her creations in demand across Europe. 

“The success of our participants in the global market has significantly motivated others to engage in our workshops, which is particularly vital as many artisans work from home and lack the financial resources to join specialised craft exhibitions or hire professionals for photography and marketing,” Seddik said.

Alongside training artisans to enhance their skills, the initiative also provides educational sessions to artisans through 16 partnerships with entities offering services in shipping, marketing, product pricing, profit and loss calculations, online payment security, intellectual property protection, registering trademarks, and other necessary services that will help to turn handicrafts into sustainable projects.

TRADITIONAL MARKETING: Besides digital efforts to market Egyptian handicrafts, exhibitions remain one of the most crucial forms of traditional marketing, said Walid Al-Shafie, deputy director of Electronic Marketing Management at Egypt’s Micro, Small, and Medium Enterprises Development Agency (MSMEDA). 

“In addition to providing support programmes for craftsmen and project owners at MSMEDA to expand their activities and offer opportunities for training and funding, we are committed to hosting an annual exhibition called Turathna [Our Heritage],” he said. “This exhibition aims to promote Egyptian handicrafts, showcasing crafts from various villages and governorates in Egypt, as well as featuring crafts from several Arab countries.”

Believing in the effectiveness of international exhibitions and forums as marketing tools, Hisham Al-Essawi, chair of the Egyptian Handicrafts Export Council, made sure of Egypt’s presence at the recent Révélations International Biennial and Exhibition of Fine Craftsmanship in Paris. 

“Egypt saw its first attendance at the biennial some 20 years ago. It also participated in the Francophone Handicrafts Exhibition at the Pavillon Baltard in France. We have been actively marketing Egyptian handicrafts worldwide through such participation and growing international engagements. These efforts have resulted in annual exports worth $300 million, which we intend to increase to $500 million next year,” he said.

“Our main objective today is to enrich the creative dimension of Egypt’s handicrafts,” Al-Essawi said. “This involves fostering ongoing partnerships between craftsmen and designers to craft distinctive products. These creations should align with present design trends, backed by market research for the target audience and respecting their standards and preferences.”

* A version of this article appears in print in the 14 December, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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