KARACHI, Pakistan —Often neglected in the national discourse about economic growth are the cottage and handicraft industries which informally employ thousands of people.
These products include traditional goods that have been made for centuries by families in Pakistan’s interior provinces. The goods include ceramics, bangles, jewelry, and certain pieces of cloth like the ajrak, which is a traditional shawl adorned by both men and women, as well as ralli, a fabric made by stitching together different patches of cloth often presented as a dowry by women in the villages.
“These pots are birthed from the earth, making them resilient,” said Muhammed Haroon, owner of a pottery store.
Even though business is going well, it is almost impossible for Haroon to expand because of poor access to credit. “We cannot get money from banks because they are not interested in us since we cannot guarantee payback. Even if we are able to find a loan, our profit margins are not large enough to pay back the high interest rates,” Haroon said.
Haroon thinks the craft businesses represent an untapped market in Pakistan that has the potential, not only for greater growth within Pakistan, but also abroad through exportng.
To reach that potential, the industry must overcome serious challenges. Many of the craft shops are informal, often have no roofs, and are located on land leased to them by the government. “One day, government officials could come here and tell me to move all my things, pack up and leave, and I would have no choice but to obey,” said Musheer Ahmed, the owner of another pottery store.
Most of these artifacts are purchased by urban consumers. However the informal nature of these shops means the owners have little means for promotion, preventing them from accessing many markets present in a city.
AHAN (“Aik Hunar, Aik Nagar” or “One Village, One Product” in Urdu) is a nonprofit organization affiliated with both the government and the private sector. AHAN aims to remove barriers faced by poor artisans and craftsman in rural areas.
“There is a link missing between the craftsman working in the rural areas and the markets in the urban areas where they have no access,” said Shakeel Abro, the AHAN manager in the province of Sindh. “Those craftsmen in the rural areas also are not acquainted with modern trends and fashions, so that is where we step in” .
AHAN was modeled after the One Village, One Product program which started in Japan and has been replicated in many countries. AHAN has identified geographic clusters in Pakistan where they provide training and backup support for artisans and their products. AHAN also subsidizes transportation costs and subsidizes raw materials.
“We work on behalf of the artisans by helping them make brochures and websites, then buyers can come into contact with us and we link them to the craftsmen in the village,” said Abro,who added that USAID has expressed interest in their organization and has placed sample orders.
“AHAN trained 25 other girls and myself, and now we get orders from them to make goods,” said Yasmeen Mirza, who was trained by AHAN to make jewelry. “I just completed an order of 12,000 pieces for them yesterday.”
Still, the problem of access to credit remains. There are no banks willing to make loans to small traders and while a few microfinance banks have started, their reach is still very small. “If I even want to think about exporting, I need an international contact who is willing to take up a significant amount of the cost as I am unable to do so on my own,” said Haroon.
However, while AHAN ultimately aims to attract international buyers because of the limited Pakistani markets, they cannot advertise abroad. The best AHAN can do is sponsor their artisans at various expos around the world.
Mirza, too, one day wishes to see her crafts sold all around the world. “I’ve often thought of selling them to Malaysia or America one day,” she keenly added.