Black Gold

Mozambican carvers earn regular income

When product designer and handicraft aficionado Frederic Alcantara visited Mozambique for the first time in 1998, he struck “black gold” very quickly – in the form of the dark, well-polished, shapely work of Mozambican woodcarvers.  One of their favorite materials is Mpingo, a lustrous black Rosewood species, which they often lathe-turn and carve into gorgeous cups, jars, vases, and other home accessories. 
 
Many of the vessels Frederic brought to the New York International Gift Fair to present in the Aid to Artisans booth in 1999 are still selling almost 10 years later, and have provided a valuable economic lifeline for Mozambican artisans, for whom export sales are often an essential source of craft-derived income.  
 
Since 2000, Oregon-based Swahili Imports has represented Mozambican carvers in the US market – and they estimate that they have wholesaled approximately $400,000 of Mpingo and sandalwood items both to small, single-store accounts and to larger entities like the Smithsonian Institute. 
 
Along the way, the vessels also seem to have enchanted a large number of photo stylists: Mpingo pieces from Mozambique have appeared in the ad campaigns and brochures of companies as diverse as luxury textile purveyor Larsen and mass marketer Home Depot. Some of the vessels also appeared on set in the movie The Italian Job.
 
Mozambique’s hardwood forests were too difficult to reach during its lengthy and violent civil war – which helped preserve them from the kind of over-harvesting often seen in neighboring Tanzania.  Conservation initiatives enacted recently should protect the country’s resources in peacetime.
 
Aid to Artisans completed its program in Mozambique recently, and its role as export-facilitator is now filled by CEDARTE (a Portuguese acronym for the Center for the Research and Development of Handicrafts).  CEDARTE represents carvers and other artisans in export activities, and also provides design training and other services. 
 
Leslie Mittelberg, founder of Swahili Imports, travels to Mozambique at least once a year to visit artisan homes or cooperatives in person to develop new products. She was in Mozambique in February 2009 and returned with new items made of mpingo, sandalwood and jambhiri wood. Her visits give her a chance to make sure artisans are being paid properly for their work, to provide new sources of inspiration for product design and to reinforce Swahili Imports’ goal of sustainable prosperity for each artisan or group. Leslie says that the best description she can find for the varied carvers she works with is "renegade: each has his own way of operating – which does not necessarily mesh with the needs of discerning (ie, picky) buyers, myself included! But that’s where CEDARTE’s in-country presence is essential.” 
 
With Swahili and CEDARTE working in close coordination to address the needs of both artisans and customers, Mozambican carvers should be able to continue to depend on sales for a healthy portion of their income.
 

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