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Each day TFO Canada publishes a sample of trade news on the Canadian import market along with any new, updated or changed regulations and legislations regarding international trade; countries in which TFO Canada offers services and on the export sectors which it promotes.


Out of Africa

Monday, March 03, 2008 > 09:45:05

(Source: Globe and Mail - STEPHANIE NOLEN, March 1, 2008)

Product and textile designers from the Cape of Good Hope to the Nile are upping their game, creating sleeker, hipper wares and gaining new fans. And, as Stephanie Nolen reports from the continent's premier style showcase, they're doing it with help from Canada

CAPE TOWN -- Sleek, curved-hardwood stools from Ghana. Bold, black-and-white textiles from Ethiopia that evoke the Nile with their sinuous patterns. Mischievous, weirdly chic boulders made of felt from Cape Town. The Design Africa booth at the continent's premiere style event was loaded with beautiful furnishings this week. They were elegant and exquisitely made and quintessentially African, which is all part of the promise of the Design Africa brand.

But the funny little secret behind the brand - a recognized hit at the 2008 Design Indaba show, held here in Africa's prettiest city - is that it comes from Canada.

The hottest word in African style grows out of a small project by the Canadian International Development Agency and the Federal Trade Facilitation Office to bring the best of African products to a global market and boost local economies in the process.

Its booth won a top award for presentation and the six African producers it showcased found new markets for their wares. "Design Africa has been fantastic," said Denise Zidel, a distributor who picked up creations by several of the contributors for her Toronto business, Snob Stuff. "People have said, 'Oh, Africa, it's been tried [in the interior-design business] and it never works,' but Design Africa sees it on a different level. They've very much got the pulse of what's going on in Africa."

Design Africa serves a couple of purposes. First, it helps to change the predominant Western images of Africa - away from flood and famine and disaster, of course, but also away from the carved masks and woven baskets that dominate the cultural export market. Rather, these are high-design house wares and furnishings, dynamically styled and expertly made.

For the producers, there is also a major economic advantage in producing high-end pieces rather than curios. They are protected, for instance, from many of the worst perils of the market for African producers, such as price competition from China, crippling shipping costs and difficulty in meeting the demands of a high-volume trinket importer.

When they connect with a reliable export market for more expensive pieces, they can create more jobs, pay their workers more and introduce a new culture of design and production to their local economy.

Over the past couple of years, Design Africa has supported about 22 companies. The original idea was simply that Canada would connect producers in countries getting development aid with potential buyers in the north, but the trade facilitators soon realized that they could do more than that. They began to bring designers to work with the producers on product concepts, production techniques and marketing.

In Ethiopia, the program used local partners to audition businesses and selected six that had decent operational capacity and a product that could be adapted. They brought in a top South African textile designer to develop and adapt the products, then market-tested the results in Canada. They also coached the Ethiopians in how to present the products and worked with them to develop attractive marketing materials.

The new textiles have subsequently been picked up by several Canadian distributors, which translates, for the weavers, to an income of $4 a day (rather than $1) and much-improved working conditions.

Muya Ethiopia Inc., for instance, has grown from a half-dozen workers to a 500-worker factory under construction - and each weaver supports an estimated 15 people.

For Tekura, a furniture company in Ghana, Design Africa brought in internationally acclaimed Malian designer Cheick Diallo. Tekura's manager, Kweku Forson, said the experience of working with him was revolutionary for his carvers. "They brought Diallo, he looked at everything and he said, 'No, this piece is special. Take time and work it out.' He separated out what could go in the high end for us."

Tekura's "walking stool," which has legs at diagonal angles as if they are stepping forward, was one result. Its items are now selling at $180 rather than $30 apiece, which means that the company can afford to air-freight its wares and avoid many of their old distribution woes.

Forson has just completed training 40 new finishers in his burgeoning factory.

Two years ago, the trade facilitation office brought nine of its African companies to exhibit at Montreal's Salon International du Design d'Intérieur, where they were a huge hit.

"That told us there was something here that should keep going," chief executive officer Brian Mitchell said.

Half of the businesses brought to Montreal in 2006 and 2007 (at a cost of $30,000 each year) have picked up distributors well above the target they were hoping for.

In addition to increasing their sales, the visiting Africans also met with many interior designers and picked up tips. "They said, 'Make it flatter, let the grains come out more, don't put motifs on them,' " Forson says. "It's really helping" to broaden the products' appeal.

South African textile artist Ronel Jordaan, creator of the felt boulders, draws her work force from the country's most marginalized women. She has seen her business grow from four employees to 30 in the year since Design Africa took her work to Montreal, which was her entrée into the U.S. market, she says.

And Swaziland's Gone Rural, which employs village women to gather the sisal and grass for its woven products and then redirects the profits into a local AIDS-support trust, has made a crucial link with the Ten Thousand Villages chain of fair-trade shops.

"This has given us a way of sustaining an export market," Gone Rural's Philippa Thorne says. "What Design Africa did for us was really understand our product and understand our market and put it together. They helped us research colour trends and pricing and taught us how to work with a distributor. And then they made the introductions with importers. Our mission is to give as much money as possible to the women, so our budget is tight for marketing. Now, we have 700 women working and they're busy the whole year-round, not just in tourist season."

That sort of statistic pleases Mitchell's brass-tacky heart. "Ultimately this is about commercial results," he says. "These businesses can now be a spark for more growth or be a model. Maybe a competitor sees what they're now doing and goes off and does it better."

Surveying the sleek lines of the booth at the design show, he also believes that these products have two qualities that will all but guarantee more sales in the developed world. "The first thing is that it's a beautiful object and you want it," he says. "But the second is that it has this story - and that's what makes you have to have it."

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