PORT-AU-PRINCE, 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 U.S. 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 U.S. retailers to purchase Haitian handicrafts before the quake. “In a way, it was our way to provide much-needed assistance.”
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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 U.S. 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 U.S. group now known as Global Communities that helps foster sustainable development.
Macy’s is the biggest U.S. retailer selling handmade Haitian goods, followed by the West Elm and Anthropologie chains, along with stores such as MI OSSA in Charlottesville, Va., and online boutique shops like Noonday Collection and Maiden Nation.
Designers including Rachel Roy, Chan Luu and Donna Karan also have become big post-quake boosters, purchasing and selling jewelry designed by Haitian women.
At an Anthropologie store in New York, papier-mâché 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.
The gains by Haiti’s artisans fit in a larger trend called “ethical fashion,” in which small businesses employ women in developing countries to produce one-of-a-kind, handcrafted designs for “socially conscious” consumers.
Willa Shalit, CEO of Fairwinds Trading, a for-profit company that works with developing world artisans and entrepreneurs, says the 2010 earthquake generated interest in all things Haitian.
“All of a 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, 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 after 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 U.S. 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.
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 U.S.-based crafts websites, along with Port-au-Prince’s few high-end hotels frequented by aid workers, diplomats and contractors.