One of the best things about Rwandan cultural products is that they are subtle and classy, it is not that I am biased as a Rwandan but this is what I have heard from outsiders.
Our pieces are refined, no demonic wooden sculptures, no fetishes as such and most Rwandan pieces sit comfortably in modern decorated homes due to their subtlety and symmetry. A number of small to medium-scale craft makers such as Gahaya Links have found lucrative markets in the west. However, in order to take it to the next level we need standards to be raised and stratified.
This is not a market you can saturate like coffee, the product has to be exclusive, high-priced and of a high quality. In this day and age of mass-production, the reason why a Gaseke basket costs a lot is because no machine can make one and it has to be done by hand taking days to make one. So the biggest cost, labour, is reduced because labour is cheap in Rwanda. Not all labour is the same, some weavers produce higher quality than others, and there is sometimes better quality management in some projects.
This type of industry started out small with modest objectives. It often aimed at helping to pull women out of poverty by providing an income, but has since expanded to become a major industry. Cultural products are essential in branding a nation abroad. Persian carpets from Iran, Turkish coffee tables, Japanese samurai swords and the multitude of Kenyan products are part of a multi-billion dollar industry.
What has helped these products grow is the imposition of standards. Products are graded to a set standard so the customer knows what they are getting.
Then there is the other side which the industry needs, such as branding, marketing, sales, distribution and overall packaging. There are a number of institutions in Rwanda that try to do this but there is no central authority on quality for export.
A Gaseke basket can collect more than a sack of coffee in the international market so the potential is huge, the basket is not the only product you are selling.
In the basket you are selling a culture that is over 1,000 years old, you are also selling the time and the knowledge it took to create it. Above all else you are selling a story, the story of Rwanda.
We need to tap into the hand-made quality goods market. I saw a program on hand-made leather goods and the process of making leather has not changed much in thousands of years. We Rwandans can do that, we do not need to industrialise first to start making large profits.
Cottage industries can provide the backbone for our industrial development while enriching and preserving our culture. The main ingredients we need are training, standards, branding marketing, and innovation. Crafts is a sector that appears to be statsis but innovation is happening all the time, in materials, in design, and function.
The functional aspect of crafts is important in maintaining their appeal.