Artisans thrive again in post-quake Haiti

Updated 20 December 2012
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Artisans thrive again in post-quake Haiti

The sharp tang of varnish hangs in the air as a dozen women and a few men cut and scrape logs into bowls destined for US department stores. In other Haitian workshops, vases sparkle with sequins of pink, green and blue, and dragonflies leap from picture frames cut from recycled steel drums.
Three years after a devastating earthquake, there’s still not much economic traction in this long impoverished Caribbean country, but one small niche has taken off: arts and crafts.
The artisan industry is enjoying a boost from advocacy groups that are helping organize workers and improve quality. Big retailers Macy’s and Anthropologie and three high-end designers are among those working with at least five artisan groups to export Haitian arts and crafts.
“We saw an increase in (our) purchases soon after the disaster,” said Michele Loeper, a spokeswoman for Ten Thousand Villages, one of the few US retailers to purchase Haitian handicrafts before the quake. “In a way, it was our way to provide much-needed assistance.”
The number of artisans has increased and more workshops have opened across Haiti, thanks in part to an injection of more than $ 3 million from outside groups like the Inter-American Development Bank and the Clinton Bush Haiti Fund, a pro-business nonprofit set up by former US Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.
The number of regularly employed artisans jumped from 450 in September 2011 to 2,100 as of July this year, says the Artisan Business Network, a newly formed advocacy group based in Port-au-Prince.
But in all, an estimated 400,000 Haitians engage in at least some craft work, with roughly 1 million people directly supported by artisan producers, according to a 2010 report financed by the Canadian artisan advocacy group BRANDAID Project and CHF International, a US group now known as Global Communities that helps foster sustainable development.
“We want people to come buy from Haiti not because they have pity for the Haitians but because the product is well-made, it’s well-priced and it’s something they can use,” said Nathalie Tancrede, co-founder of the Artisans Business Network.
Macy’s is the biggest US retailer selling handmade Haitian goods, followed by the West Elm and Anthropologie chains, along with stores such as MI OSSA in Charlottesville, Virginia, and online boutique shops like Noonday Collection and Maiden Nation.
Designers including Rachel Roy, Chan Luu and Donna Karan have also become big post-quake boosters, purchasing and selling jewelry designed by Haitian women.
At an Anthropologie store in New York, papier-mache busts of zebras and rhinos pop out on a wall display. Children relish the animals made of old books, cement bags and French-language newspapers.
“A lot of customers like them for their kids’ rooms or for the living room,” manager Megan Hovey said by telephone. “It’s an item customers come in for specifically. They’re unique.”
The gains by Haiti’s artisans fit in a larger trend called “ethical fashion,” in which small businesses employ women craftsmen in developing countries to produce one-of-a-kind, hand-crafted designs for “socially conscious” consumers.
Willa Shalit, CEO of Fairwinds Trading Inc., a for-profit company that works with developing world artisans and entrepreneurs, says the 2010 earthquake generated interest in all things Haitian.
“All of sudden Haiti was on everyone’s minds,” said Shalit, whose company received a three-year loan of $ 174,832 from the Clinton Bush Haiti Fund. “The brand of Haiti became instantly recognizable.”
There are no solid figures on how much Haiti’s arts and crafts contribute to its exports, but they rank far behind clothing. The garment sector accounted for 93 percent of Haiti’s $ 768 million in exports last year, which were up from $ 563 million the year of the quake, according to Haiti’s Central Bank.
Haitian crafts had peaked in the early 1980s, when thousands of artisans were employed. But the industry, and the rest of Haiti’s economy, collapsed following a United Nations-imposed embargo in 1993 that sought to restore constitutional rule after a military junta ousted then-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
Artisans are again seeing their crafts compete on the international market and create jobs in a country where steady employment is elusive. There are no official figures on unemployment since the quake but the jobless rate was around 60 percent from 2007 to 2010, according to the World Bank.
The money made at Haiti’s end can seem far removed from what the crafts bring at a US retailer, where the final price is pushed up by shipping, stocking, marketing and other costs.
Craftsman Felix Calixte said he earns $ 6.50 for a metal picture frame in a style similar to one selling at Macy’s for about $ 40. Still, Calixte can make three in a day, and the total income of nearly $ 20 is five times Haiti’s daily minimum wage.
In the densely packed district of Carrefour, an entrepreneur curiously named Einstein Albert leans over workers as he walks through a courtyard and inspects the latest order of wooden bowls.
“When we look at Cuba, they have their cigars. Colombia has coffee,” said Albert. “If Haiti has an image to sell and can compete in the Caribbean, offer something or create more jobs, it is through the handicraft sector.”
His bowls are made from logs harvested from the forest of 25,000 trees he grows in southern Haiti — ochebe, a hardwood prized for its lack of splinters and resin.
Each bowl takes six weeks of carving, sanding and sealing with 13 coats of lead-free varnish. They’ve been sold at select Macy’s stores for $ 75 each and by US-based crafts websites, along with Port-au-Prince’s few high-end hotels frequented by aid workers, diplomats and contractors.
The artisans themselves make significantly less. They’re paid by the piece or the hour, but prolific workers earn more than Haiti’s minimum wage — 200 gourdes a day, which is less than $ 5. Albert said some of his workers take home twice that amount.
Albert said the family business he inherited has benefited from the new demand for Haitian crafts. It now brings in $ 60,000 to $ 80,000 a year, twice the amount before the earthquake, and he invests part of the proceeds in a school he runs to train craft workers.
“People say that my family was right to call me Einstein because we provide quality,” he said.


Arabs ‘crazy’ about British royals

Updated 24 April 2018
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Arabs ‘crazy’ about British royals

  • Cafe Diana's owner Abdul Basset Daoud named his shop 30 years ago after the late Princess Diana 30, who lived across the road in Kensington Palace
  • People from the Middle East really respect the Queen and not just because she is old, says one Arab restaurant owner

LONDON:  The cakes are ready, the flowers are ordered and the drinks are on ice. At the Cafe Diana in London’s Notting Hill, all was in place for a celebration marking the birth of Britain’s newest royal, the baby boy born Monday  morning to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.

“Of course, we’re having a party. We always do,” said manager Fouad Fattah.

The same was true a few kilometers away at the Fatoush restaurant, where manager Alaa William Chamas kept a watchful eye on the news headlines and a lookout for extra police traffic heading towards at St Mary’s Hospital, the venue for the royal birth. “We’re expecting a busy evening,”  he said. 

While an element of celebration might be expected at some British establishments,  Cafe Diana and Fatoush are Middle Eastern-owned and run. But they are embracing the latest royal event —  as well as the forthcoming wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle next month —  with all the enthusiasm of the most ardent monarchists.

“Are Arab people interested in the British royal family? Are you kidding? They are crazy about them!” said Lebanese-born Fattah, 55, who throws a party for his customers on every notable royal occasion.

 

Royal neighbor 

Cafe Diana forged a very real link with the royal family 30 years ago,  when the owner, Abdul Basset Daoud, decided to name his cafe after his royal neighbor, the late Princess Diana, who lived across the road in Kensington Palace.

He put up the sign at around Christmas time in 1988 and to his amazement, she came in two weeks later. She had seen it as she drove out with her bodyguard and it had made her smile, she told him, so she decided to drop in for a coffee.

It was not her only visit. She came again a couple of weeks later and Basset Daoud asked her if he out up a photograph of her. She returned the next day with a black and white studio. Then she began dropping in regularly, sometimes alone and often with her sons for a full English breakfast.

“The boys loved it. We are not a five-star restaurant. This is just an ordinary  neighborhood coffee shop. She wanted the princes  to experience things like normal kids,” said Fatah. 

“She didn’t mind queuing like any other customer. She usually sat with her back to the room. The other customers did not realise who she was until she stood up and they got a real shock.” 

And that, he insists, is why Arabs love the British royals.

“It’s because we can see them. They are not far away from the people. When the Queen goes out, there are just two cars with her, not 200. If the Queen goes past and you wave at her,  she waves back. You can shout out to the royals and they just smile.”

The walls of the cafe are now covered in  photographs of the princess, both formal portraits and informal snaps with the staff, and letters thanking them for sending her flowers for her birthday. The last is dated July 1, 1997, just two months before she died.

“Everyone who comes here wants to talk about the royal family,” said Fattah. “There was a lady from Kuwait who came in recently and she was crying her eyes out. I gave her a cup of tea and asked what was wrong. She said, ‘I loved Diana so much’.”

 

Arab love

It is much the same at Fatoush, a popular Lebanese restaurant on Edgeware Road, in the heart of what has been dubbed “Arab Street.”

Chatting over coffee, manager Alaa William (“Yes, that really is my name”) Chamas was adamant. 

“Arab people LOVE the British royal family. If they are living here, they really care about them. If they are visiting, they just want to talk about how they visited Buckingham Palace,” he said.

“I’m not interested!” boomed an unseen voice from the kitchen. “Be quiet!”  Chamas boomed back. Having admonished his wayward employee, Chamas returned to his theme.

“When there is a wedding in the royal family, the public are invited to share it. Now there is a new baby and they share this with the people.

“People from the Middle East really respect the Queen and not just because she is old. Some other rulers are also old but nobody thinks much about them. In some places, the people fear their rulers. Here they see that the Queen is loved.”

At the nearby Simit Sarayi cafe, manager Mukhtar Mohamed agreed. “It’s because the British royal family seem so accessible. You can visit Buckingham Palace — actually look round where they live! Arab visitors who have been coming to London for years follow all the news about the royals and they buy every souvenir they can get their hands on. If it’s got a picture of the Queen or Diana or William and Kate  on it, they want it. With Prince Harry getting married in a few weeks, they are buying like crazy.”

Back at Cafe Diana, Fattah is recalling a poignant visit by Harry a few years after the death of his mother.

“He must have been about 16 or 17. He was with his uncle, Prince Andrew, and he had just been to the barber next door to get his hair cut. On the way back to the car, he put his head round the door of the cafe and said, ‘Hi.’ Then he looked at all the photos and smiled and left.”

In four weeks’ time, Prince Harry is getting married. Cue for another party? “Absolutely!”