Supporting Artisans for Development

mitra bali artisan

Supporting Artisans for Development

This article was updated on March 6th, 2018 and first published on January 28th, 2015

The other day I was searching out of curiosity for information on national and international agency support for artisan projects. I came across an article by the Aspen Institute in which they mentioned artisan industries were the second largest employer in the developing world.

In the article there was a fascinating 37 minute video of a panel discussion with the Alliance for Artisan Enterprise, an Aspen Institute initiative that promotes the artisan sector as a driver of economic growth.

Employment in the Artisan Sector

Agriculture is the largest source of employment in the developing world. It provides not only employment but a necessity for daily life. So it’s easy to understand the importance of agricultural projects, whether they be large-scale or smallholder. And naturally that’s reflected in numerous development funds and projects.

But I wondered how much of the workforce worked in the artisanal industries. So I decided to break down employment within some of the countries with which we have worked.

I found that according to statistics from the International Labour Office (ILO), based on official data, in Indonesia over 11 million people were employed in artisan (craft and related) industries in 2008, representing 12% of the total classified workforce, Ecuador 603,000 (15%), Bolivia 759,000 (16%), Uganda 463,000 (5%), Viet Nam 5.2 million (12%). These figures compare with developed countries such as United Kingdom 3.2 million (11%), Germany 6.2 million (17%).

The numbers above don’t identify how much employment in the sector is due to local trade or overseas trade.

Although in financial terms, overall international trade in handicrafts is big. Craft exports from developing countries total roughly USD 25 billion (worldwide USD 34 billion) in 2012 at current prices according to the UNCTAD, which represents a 10% increase since 2008.

Funding for Artisan Projects

Browsing a handful of overseas aid websites in search of artisan projects I found: USAID currently has one project that specifically focuses on artisans and handicrafts; DFID doesn’t have specific artisan-related projects; GIZ has 5 out of over 1500 projects that involve artisans compared to 74 agricultural projects; and out of over 2600 World Bank projects, around 10 were focused on artisanal industries.

Given the size of the artisan sector why isn’t there more support for artisan projects?

In the video, one of the participants raised the point that artisan projects tend not to be considered a viable means of development due to negative perceptions of them as ‘real’ jobs.

I found it interesting from the figures above to see that developed countries also have significant craft sector employment. This suggests that maturation of craft industries is an important component of development.

Why so Few Projects ?

From my experience (echoing points made in the video) here are possible reasons for a reluctance to promote artisan projects:

  • I think a lot of artisans are looked at through the lens of the individual or group level. This results in perceptions of small capacity for scalability due to constraints in the organisational structure and product. For example, many artisan businesses are community organisations or family businesses. They may be less likely to grow into a large-scale business, resulting in a relatively low perceived impact.


  • Related are the issues of design/quality control/differentiation. Many artisans make products that are similar to other products made in different regions or countries. Some artisans make products for a lower-quality tourist market. This then limits the potential for export and reduces the value-added if producers are making generic products.


  • Further to this, producing artisanal or handicraft products as an income-generating export activity is as risky. Crafts are seen as a luxury product (as opposed to a necessity like food or coffee!) Thus they are at the whim of fast-changing consumer preferences, trends and the state of the importing economy.


  • Focusing on artisans for export or tourists makes it easy to overlook the importance of artisanal production for domestic markets.  Artisans make homewares, tools and other goods for everyday life in their communities. I get why this happens. For one thing there’s the idea that exporting brings higher prices and income. But with burgeoning middle classes in places like India, the domestic market for higher quality artisanal goods is large.

Potential of the Artisan Sector

A small artisan group itself may not grow into a large company employing thousands of people. But on aggregate, if looked at as the small and medium enterprises they are, they play an important role.

One way to achieve aggregate scale is through developing business skills such as, marketing, product design and development, quality control, and skills training.

Mitra Bali, an Indonesian fair trade organisation works with 2000 artisans to market and develop a wide range of products, exporting to Europe and the United States.

Craft Link, a fair trade organisation in Viet Nam, works with 50 groups totalling 5000 artisans to sell ceramics and other products to Altromercato in Europe and Oxfam Australia.

Lombok Pottery Centre (LPC), a cooperative that has over 200 mainly female members and one of the artisan groups we work with and import our products from, was born out of a joint venture between the Indonesian and New Zealand governments. The project developed a traditional artisanal skill and profession into a exportable product.

LPC now works with large retail partners such as Ten Thousand Villages in the US, as well as Altro Mercato, and Oxfam Australia. LPC has a small marketing department made up of locals with appropriate skills that liaise with overseas customers, drive the business and product development, as well as handle the export process.

Some national governments are putting more resources into the artisanal sector. On my last trip to Ecuador I found that the government trade promotion organisation, PRO ECUADOR, was actively working to promote and support artisans domestically and internationally.

Japan’s International Cooperation Agency (JICA), through its One Village One Product movement, works in numerous countries throughout Africa, Asia and Latin America. OVOP works with artisans and small manufacturing with a focus on product differentiation and specialisation to develop their products for local markets and also provide linkages to overseas markets and customers.

MUJI, a large Japanese retailer, collaborates with OVOP and sells their products in stores.


Overall, a key ingredient to a sustainable artisan business (in addition to having the right technical skills, a great product, and a conducive local business environment) is a strong marketing capacity. It could be part of the organisation itself or a committed outside organisation. One that is able to keep up with trends and develop the business and relationships with overseas customers.

As mentioned in the Aspen Institute article, for exporters it’s also important to have support from overseas partners. Overseas customers are not purely a source of revenue. Those that understand the challenges facing artisans, and are willing to put in the resources, help keep the artisans abreast with the needs of export markets.

Furthermore, we should also consider the potential of growing domestic markets and their increasing demand for quality products.

Kickstarting these elements would go some way to maximising the artisan sector as a vehicle for economic growth and employment. There is greater room for more development projects that promote this capacity.

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