- The Washington Times - Monday, October 13, 2003

Small businesses in southern Africa are testing the United States as a market for a wide range of handmade products, from furniture and woven rugs to jewelry and garments.

Samples of the work were shown last week at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, where exhibitors were seeking opinions from potential buyers and other producers on whether the wares are fit for American markets or need improvement.

The African exhibitors are hoping to cash in on an agreement between the United States and sub-Saharan Africa signed in 2000 that allows duty-free imports from the region. Such imports were valued at $9 billion last year.

Florizelle Liser, the assistant U.S. trade representative for Africa, said that handmade products in particular were being shipped to the United States by only some of the eligible countries, and that other nations should be encouraged to do more.

The agreement, the African Growth and Opportunities Act, expires in 2008, but the special trade conditions could become permanent for some countries with the negotiation of bilateral free-trade agreements.

Southern African artisans and designers have made their products for centuries, said Gail McClure, vice president of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation’s Africa Program. “But to be able to enter competitive world markets they need to innovate by learning to add value, to commercialize and to produce in mass.”

Miss McClure said her program is designed to help African businesses “help themselves” by working with government and private organizations to train and guide producers with market-oriented and value-chain-based strategies.

Efforts currently are focused on Botswana, Lesotho, Mozambique, South Africa, Swaziland and Zimbabwe.

Mintek, a South African company, has turned to jewelry as a way to take advantage of the trade opening for handicrafts while adding value to its traditional efforts in mineral and metallurgical technology. It now has about 50 women at work using locally developed techniques to weave gold bracelets and necklaces, said project manager Louise van Stade.

Other companies are just learning to produce in mass. Kenneth Samson, from Zimbabwe, learned to weave objects such as owls, cars and photo frames from a friend in 1992 and now has 12 artisans working with him. He said he is ready to start producing merchandise on deadlines.

The textile area is probably the best developed so far, having generated 40,000 jobs since 2000. During the inauguration of the exhibition last week, seven designers organized a one-hour fashion show of casual clothes and party dresses.

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