Dozens of traditional crafts are at risk of becoming extinct in Egypt. While there is no accurate count of the number of handicrafts in the country, a recent attempt has put them at 210 in 330 villages across Egypt, and it is these crafts that are today at risk of becoming extinct.
Osama Al-Ghazali, chairman of the Yadaweya Company for Traditional Handicrafts, has carried out a survey that has resulted in the production of an atlas of Egypt’s handicrafts, documenting them geographically and culturally. During a presentation of the atlas at a recent conference in Cairo entitled “Handicrafts in Egypt: Are We on the Right Path”, Al-Ghazali said that many of the handicrafts in the atlas had disappeared or were in the process of disappearing due to insufficient attention and support.
The atlas covers heritage products that have been in production for at least two generations and including everything from boat-making to embroidery. Organised by the Egyptian Centre for Economic Studies (ECES), a think tank, the conference brought together various stakeholders to talk about the obstacles facing the sector and attempts to come up with solutions.
According to Abla Abdel-Latif, director of the ECES, the information available about the sector is very weak. Presenting the findings of an ECES study entitled “Handicrafts: Opportunities and Challenges”, Abdel-Latif showed that the value of the local market for handicrafts in 2017 was about LE3 billion, most of which targets tourists.
Exports of handicrafts stood at $270 million in 2017, a meagre figure when compared to Vietnam’s handicraft exports of about $1.9 billion and Indian exports of $3.6 billion in 2018. The global exports of handicrafts were estimated at $146 billion in 2016, the study showed.
Hisham Al-Gazzar, chairman of the Export Council for Handicrafts, said there was a lot to be learnt from countries such as India, Nepal, Morocco and Turkey on how to market handicrafts abroad. He said that studying both the domestic and export markets was key to helping develop handicrafts and ensuring their sustainability.
The lack of the data needed to formulate the correct policies was among the main problems facing the sector, Abdel-Latif said. She added that there was an overlap of competencies between the parties in the sector and the legislation did not deal with the special nature of the crafts industries.
On the same note, Al-Gazzar criticised the government’s and other parties’ treatment of the sector, seeing it as similar to large industries whereas in fact the handicrafts sector was predominantly made up of micro-enterprises.
As Abdel-Latif pointed out, most of the workers in this sector are also working informally. If handicrafts are to be protected from extinction, then the craftsmen making them must be able to earn a decent living, which was not always currently the case, added Mosaad Omran, head of the Handicrafts Chamber at the Federation of Egyptian Industries.
Reforming the sector is essential to protecting the jobs it creates, the speakers at the conference said. According to the ECES study, there are also around one million women working in the sector.
“When you create a job for a woman, you are helping a family out of poverty,” said economist Heba Handoussa, who heads the Egypt Network for Integrated Development (ENID) that has helped create jobs for women who have never worked before in Upper Egypt.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 19 September, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly. under the title: Saving Egypt’s traditional handicrafts