Ghana and Sierra Leone: TBT Linked to International Design Markets

Posted on: November 09, 2016

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Ghana once enjoyed a prestige and dominance in the niche ethnic home décor market. Two categories, wooden home accessories and baskets, prevailed as the leading aesthetic for the Afro-ethnic décor market.  Ghana’s brightly coloured baskets and adinkra symbol-studded trays and frames were seen on luxury boutique shelves as well as in mainstream department stores across the US and Europe. The sector was booming and Ghana was shipping many containers a year of handicraft products.

As trends changed and tastes evolved, Ghana had a difficult time keeping pace and sales waned, to the point that many of the major production facilities now have ground to a halt. These workshops that once employed hundreds of workers now lay in ruins with tall grasses filling once active workyards and broken workshop doors creak in the wind.

Starting in May 2016, a team of specialists under the ACP- EU TBT Programme funded project “Promotion of Quality Standards and Certification for Handicrafts from Ghana and Sierra Leone” has been in Ghana looking at the regulatory and technical barriers to trade for the handicrafts value chain. In recognition that that design-oriented value chains such as home décor, are motivated and sustained by the fine-tuned awareness of market trends, the team has also reviewed market-driven barriers to trade.

Team Leader and handicraft expert Elaine Bellezza says, “Technical barriers to trade are a moot point when sales are so dramatically in decline. Artisans don’t know what the market wants and have difficulty keeping up with trends, while buyers grow tired of seeing the same thing year after year and stop buying. The shame is that Ghana possesses strong production skills, export experience, and an abundance of raw materials. Good design is their greatest market-driven barrier to trade.”

Julia Wilson, international sourcing specialist for some of the largest retailers across the globe, and who was instrumental in bringing major handicraft buyers to Ghana, says, “if we are to keep going in Ghana, they urgently need to update their products - they look old, tired and are not interesting. I know buyers will reject them.”

Another challenge facing West African artisans is protection from misappropriation and imitation. Legal expert Souheir Nadde-Phlix noted, “There is no one-fits-all means of protection for handicraft products. The protection of each product will depend on the features and type of product. It can be ensured via Intellectual Property (IP) laws, unfair competition law, and other laws. Additionally artisans can form groups or associations to register a collective mark, if products have a common origin or characteristics.  Protection with geographical indications is also an option when their reputation or other characteristics are attributable to their geographical region. Bolga Baskets from the North of Ghana could fall into this category.”

Ghana faces a “problem” that many of its neighbors wish they had – the international market is ready and anxious to do business with them. Buyers know that if Ghanaians had the right products for their market, artisans could produce in quantity and consistently. To save the value chain from further dissolution it is crucial to invest in solid design inputs across the many sub-sectors in order to bring back the market. 

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