Artifacts dealers in Liberia are expressing grave concern that Liberians are not interested in purchasing their products, thus making it difficult to survive by the business.
Making the complaints in interviews on the compound of the United States Embassy in Monrovia where the 9th biannual Arts and Crafts Fair was carried on Saturday, May 10, vendors noted that the only advantage they have in the business is the products are durable, but other than that it takes a long time for them to realize the principal invested.
Michael Stone, a vendor of Arts and Crafts said his products like other products on the fairground, reflect the true image of Africans and good for design, but only foreigners are interested in buying the products and not Liberians.
He sells some of the products by set, and based on the varieties, prices are determined.
According to him some are sold for US$20 while others are US$15 and below.
In response to question why Liberians are not interested, Mr. Stone indicated that many are not just interested in what is produced by them.
“We can only receive buyers when season is approaching and foreigners or Liberians living abroad come to buy, but ordinary Liberians living here are not interested in products made locally,” Stone noted.
Mr. Stone and others who spoke to this paper stressed that the cultural arm of the Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism (MICAT) is not proactive in fostering cultural affairs that will bring them on board to carry on exhibition as the US Embassy did.
He described gesture by US Embassy to conduct the Arts and Crafts Fair as an “opportunity” that enables them to exhibit their products, and further said it helps to create awareness to prioritize locally made products.
Ellen V. Zeze, a vendor and artistic designer, also said she has been in the business for a long time. She noted that it has made her to have customers who usually come to buy from her.
She, however, stressed that most of her customers are foreign visitors or those living abroad, but not ordinary Liberians living here.
According to Ellen, fair initiated by the US Embassy helps to showcase their products, and they were grateful to the embassy staff for helping them because cultural artifacts they sell are of less interest to Liberians.
Also Osman Keita, who sells masks, said only foreigners buy from them for history making and studying, but Liberians are not interested in buying things that reflect their cultural heritage.
US Embassy Charge d’Affaires
Giving the background of the fair in an opening statement, Sheila Paskman, Charge d’Affaires of the US Embassy in Monrovia said the artifacts fair on May 10 was the 9th biannual fair and is one of the favorite traditions of the embassy.
She also said the fair was the biggest so far since they started five years back, giving the total number of vendors showcasing their products to be 121.
She said while the event may be a biggest money making event of the year as people would believe, it is also meant to get vendors display their products, promote entrepreneurship and to learn how to package their goods.
In an exclusive interview, Ms Paskman said the biannual event is a start-up point for government to build on in conducting similar thing to help its citizens promote entrepreneurship.
Gender and Development Minister Julia Duncan-Cassell said as they travel to other countries they see handicraft works of other people and they admire them.
She said, “This is time now for Liberians to showcase their works and we are proud of the US Embassy for the biannual event and we thank the artists for doing their work which we think they will always do.”
Some products displayed during the fair included handmade country garments, shirts, dress, shoes, slippers, lady bags, artifacts of various designs, preserved spice and many others.
Analyses on Liberians’ attitude towards local product
Besides food that Liberians are compelled to buy for consumption, they hardly give much preference to locally produced materials like handicrafts for several reasons.
Among them, prices of most of these artifacts are exorbitant that the averaged Liberians cannot afford. Prices are charged in the United States Dollar and not many can afford the dollar. Moreover, the Liberian dollar is depreciating to the US dollar as the exchange rate stands at 90 in most places. As a result prices are skyrocketing beyond the income of an ordinary Liberians.
Besides, there is a general attitude that artifacts are old fashion not in conformity with contemporary materials, and therefore many Liberians see users to be uncivilized. Moreover, some religious people, mainly Christians see artifacts as idols and therefore do not accept them in their homes.
Even though imported Jeans and other fancy clothes on the market have prices ranging from US$10 upward, many young people and adults prefer wearing these fancy clothes that expose sensual parts of the body to wearing lapper suit or dress which covers most parts of the body.
As referenced to earlier, government has not been much involved in trade fair for Liberians to create awareness about their products. In addition, Liberians are not protected under the “Liberianization Policy,” something that’s gets aliens and foreigners to have edge in the business sector and discourages Liberians to involve in entrepreneurship.
The US initiated arts and crafts fair was also characterized by raffle draw. This means that the highest buyer was offered a price apart from what he/she bought, and this created motivation for buyers to purchase more from vendors who have over the time been struggling to survive by the business.