In recent years many Zimbabwean businesses which make goods have, for the most part, had a difficult time competing with imports and an even harder one trying to export in the opposite direction. This means that for most business people, the only way that they can produce a product which they can reliably export is venturing into a primary industry such as farming, mining or quarrying. However, there is another often overlooked industry which holds great export potential even for the smallest of businesses. I am talking about the export of locally produced handcrafted items.
Our locally produced arts and crafts will always be able to hold their own against their counterparts from all across the world because of the mere fact that they are for the most part unique. Not only are these products different from those produced in other countries but many of the country’s artists also have their own distinct styles. Here I list some of the products (many of which are currently being peddled on sidewalks and roadsides) that are being produced by our handicraftsmen and women which probably have sizeable markets waiting for them outside the country.
Before they had access to china clay and modern ceramics, our ancestors made everything from kitchen utensils to water containers using clay which they then baked in fire. This practice and the skills it requires have far from died off as products made in this manner are still being produced even up to this day. Some of our traditional potters have adapted to the modern world and are now using their skills to produce even more beautiful and intricate designs. Plant vases and other more traditional products made in this manner should be able to find a market outside the country. One of the possible downsides of exporting clayware items is their fragility compared to their weights and sizes, which can become a problem for long-distance transportation.
Woven mats, baskets etc.
There are a number of products which can be made from woven grass and reeds, both traditional and modern. Woven decorative mats, baskets, laundry baskets, hats, chairs, coffee tables and drink coasters are all great export candidates. Even more likely to be appealing to the environmentally-conscious first-world consumer are woven shopping bags or baskets whose reusability and (obvious) biodegradability you can tout. Reeds and grass can also be replaced with recycled material such as package strapping in the making of these products in order to further appeal to the same group.
There are a lot of talented artists out there who can carve anything from salt shakers to life-size animal statues out of all manner of materials. Carved products which you can buy or commission from artists for export include bottle openers, knife hilts, pen holders, salt shakers, lampshades and small to medium-sized statues. The challenges, opportunities and requirements can also differ greatly based on the type of material which the object which you wish to export is carved out of.
Makers and sellers of wood carvings may need licenses from the Forestry Commission, particularly if they want to export their creations. You will discover that wood carvings may be the easiest to export in this list.
Some artists make their carvings from rocks such as granite and soapstone. One of the disadvantages of stone carvings is their sheer weight. This makes them relatively expensive to transport especially across borders.
Game product carvings
While carvings (and other handicraft items) made out of (or containing) animal products like tusks, skin, shells, fur and horns may have relatively less weight—which makes them easier and cheaper to transport—they are subject to significantly far more laws and regulations. For instance, in order to work with game animal products, you will need a Trophy Dealers license from the National Parks and Wildlife Management Authority. The license comes with some strict conditions, one of which is the requirement of a secure shop/warehouse. Extensive and accurate recordkeeping of your sources and clients is another requirement. To add to all the work, in most cases your products will also have to comply with similar, if not more, complex regulations in order to enter the destination country.
To achieve your goal of selling such kinds of products, you must pursue potential foreign clientele such as art collectors, gift shops, curio shops and galleries. The top countries to export such kinds of products include the United States of America, the United Kingdom, some Asian countries and neighbouring South Africa. If you find out that you are unable to break into these markets by yourself, there are always dealers who can do that for you but you will have to sacrifice a significant percentage of your profit margin in order for this to be worth their while.
Utilise online stores and marketplaces
You can also avoid the drudgery of trying to find foreign retailers who are willing to import your products into their own countries by directly selling to the international customer over the internet. You can do this by either selling through your own online store (which will have to accept international payments methods such as Visa and Mastercard) or through any of the other popular online marketplaces or auction sites. Remember that while courier companies may handle some of the logistics of delivering your e-commerce packages across borders, a lot of that responsibility will revert back to you if there are any special regulations which apply to your package. In some cases, the courier company will completely reject handling your package.
Special thanks to John Joe Chiwaka (Artist/Carver) who helped with notes on carving and the regulations around the business. You can get in touch with him at firstname.lastname@example.org or +263 77 232 3581