Metamorphosis of a Butterfly

Metamorphosis of a Butterfly


Innovative practices with trade partners revive a dead market and improve crafts quality

Written by: Ali Elkerdany


Since Egypt was ancient, Egyptians developed crafts drawing on their environment to design products that add quality and beauty to their lives and as a source of income. Crafts have useful uses but they are also an art form as decorative accessories for homes and for personal attire. In homes and at workshops, skills were passed-down from generation to the next making an impact on people’s appearance and wellbeing – an imprint on their individuality. Crafts were in many cases replaced an identity card.

Sold crafts brought additional income to households and especially to skilled women. Some crafts were monopolized by artisans: a closely guarded family knowhow, a particular environment may grow plants suitable for textiles and may treasure minerals for dyeing; this is not replicable.

The honeymoon between art and income did not last forever. Several crafts are now deemed extinct. A craft may have lost its demand: its traditional use. Newer material may have entered the market enabling the making of a different but competitive product: cheaper or more durable.

During the 90’s a partner of Markaz joined a documentation project on North Sinai’s (a small albeit craft-rich part of Egypt) patterns used in traditional embroidery. The results of this endeavor screamed out loud the challenges: neglect and lack of stimulus. Some crafts deserve to be hash-tagged “endangered”.

The traditional craft consumer has disappeared. The current consumer prefers a cheaper product. A traditional customer’s profile is now that of a bazaar owner who caters to tourists “en mass”. Customers today look for ready-made products and high profit. Quality and choice of material are no longer as important. The nature of demand has become highly commercial chiming to the call for mass tourism.

Now clear that revival and development of those crafts is an essential action that needed to be undertaken, the partners of Markaz set out to tackle these challenges in an untraditional endeavor by creating their new products using crafts as their main input material.

Markaz has thus regrouped the challenges threatening crafts into two key areas: the rapid change that took place in the market for the supply of the material needed as input to the craft, and the sudden shift in market for the finished product itself and the nature of its demand.

Traditional small markets for inputs to crafts were close to communities that needed them. These markets have become rare and too far. Trade credit is no longer an option for artisans. Instead, they are faced with new material on the market forcing the artisan to change their method of work and quality of product.  Unlike before, women embroiderers do not compete over who produce the most elaborate dress.

Markaz re-introduces traditional Egyptian crafts domestically and internationally in a contemporary array of personal and home accessories. In managing this metamorphosis, Markaz focuses on reviving those traditional skills through fashionable “modernization” that takes them along step away from their original and traditional uses.

Markaz starts off the process by creating demand for a theme or color of high quality home and personal accessories that caters to the new demand that has a taste for quality and richness of material, color, design and patterns. The mixture of traditional patterns with roots in historical crafts within high quality products for 21st century use is what Markaz seeks.

Most of the time the work of a crafter supplying Markaz is not a complete product, but rather a part of a larger and richer product that can, in some cases combines the work of up to 3-4 household and artisans – sometimes even from different areas of Egypt. Following that, Markaz partners with skilled women trained by Markaz to deliver a finishing of superior quality.

In their approach to this process, Markaz adopts two key operating principles. The first is their commitment to originality of new products while maintaining allegiance to the craft’s spirit. Markaz ensures that by commissioning those products artisan retains their originality and creativity in context of the environment. Markaz does not create or encourage new patterns that are out of context of tradition.

The second operating principle is their commitment towards both the artisans and households (especially women) in generating income through a fair trading agreement. Markaz supplies the artisans (in most cases) with the necessary material (for example: cloth, thread and beads) at no cost to the crafters and pays fairly for their effort to manufacture it into finished work. This part of the operation offers access to quality material and reduces sourcing pains to partners which enables them to refocus on quality.

In its operations, Markaz puts high on its agenda and invests in its long-term relationships with its partners: suppliers of material, skilled women and artisans and the modern marketplace. As a Center of Operations amongst those three partners, Markaz has improved the cooperation and market dynamics between all three and has managed to serve them better. 

Markaz is extending its outreach continuously. From its headquarters in Maadi Cairo, it now works with communities in 14 diverse regional areas in Egypt. Between 20 and 50 households per regional area and more than 10 artisanal workshops benefit from its activities. Finished Markaz products have traveled to several markets in Europe, West Asia, North America and Japan.

We must always remember that crafts have developed in response to lifestyle needs. They must continue to evolve as the environment demands. It is one thing for craft traditions to vanish because they become irrelevant; it is quite another thing for them to vanish because of neglect or lack of stimulus.

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