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September, 2002

Local Artisans Go Global
Web companies preserve cultural traditions by selling souvenirs online


Conde Nast Traveler, New York, NY

While technological advances are often blamed for the dilution of indigenous cultures around the world, select organizations are using the Web to do the opposite: They are preserving artisanal traditions by connecting an international community of artists to consumers via the Internet.  From Indian silk rugs to Peruvian pottery, authentic, unique crafts can now be bought with the click of a mouse.   Best of all, these e-tailers are committed to fairly compensating the artisans.


devilmask2.jpg (15755 bytes)   Kenya mask $53
One of the biggest forces in the field is eziba.com, the brainchild of Amber Chand, a former museum gift store director, and Dick Sabot, a global development economist.  Here's how it works: A network of buyers and agents scour more than 70 countries to stock this virtual bazaar with about 1,500 items, ranging in price from less than $20 to more than $1,000 (there is also a companion monthly mail-order catalog with a pared-down selection of about 200 choices). Eziba helps sustain artisans and their traditions through fair pricing and cooperative product development.

"Some companies go in and buy products for a season and they don't come back," says CEO Bill Miller.   "We make long-term commitments to the groups we work with."  The Eziba Foundation gives grants for improving living conditions in the artisans' communities, and its Gifts That Give Back program makes direct contributions to linked charities when designated items are purchased. (Recent recipients have included Aid to Artisans and the Twin Towers Fund.)

The site is polished and shopper-friendly, with items organized into categories such as home, art objects, and jewelry.  The offerings rang from the functional (colorful hand-woven rugs from Peru, an amber necklace from Poland) to the esoteric(a Ghanaian "talking drum," hand-carved figurines from Mexico).

The other major player is novica.com, whose socially conscious business goal is a simple principle: "Artists make more, customers pay less."  On the site, you can browse through department store-style categories or click on a world map to shop by region (appropriate for the site affiliated with the National Geographic Society).  It might take longer to find what you like since there are more than 8,500 products from about 1,700 artists, but for a travel-loving shopper, that's part of the fun.

Novica has more than ten field offices throughout Latin America, Africa, and Asia, which the company says strengthen the link between artists and consumers.  Purchases are sent directly from the country of origin.  (When we ordered a Mexican vase from the site, we discovered that overseas shipping can mean a wait of two to four and a half weeks for delivery, since orders have to pass through customs and surmount other hurdles.) And every item comes with a photo of the artist and information about his or her background.

"We work directly with the artists," explains Novica's vice president of communications, Catherine Ryan (who does double-duty as "wander Woman," traveling to meet the artists and report their stories on the site).   "[We] establish a fee structure for their work to ensure that they earn better than local prices, while still allowing customers to purchase from them at less cost than traditional international retail."

Novica merchandise ranges from fiery Moroccan kilim rugs to Balinese dance crowns, with a nearly endless parade of one-of-a-kind wall hangings, Cuban folk art scenes, traditional Rajasthani paintings, and lush photographs of the Salvadoran countryside.

While not as extensive or refined as Eziba and Novica, two other Web sites nonetheless offer help in finding singular crafts.  One, peoplink.org, which calls itself a "nonprofit marketplace," is a grassroots virtual showroom for artisans.  Along with paintings, clothes, musical instruments, and toys, it has a gifts section, where products are divided into price categories beginning at less than $15.  The other, globalcrafts.org, was founded in Kenya by two former international-relief volunteers.  It remains committed to fair trade and focuses on affordable African art.  Shop here for the kinds of collectibles you'd find in local markets while traveling, from painted-tin greeting cards to decorative carved gourds.  Although it took more than a month for the Kenyan mask that we ordered to arrive, Global Crafts was very diligent about sending us e-mail updates on its progress.[webmaster's note:  Conde Naste Traveler caught us as we were relocating from Kenya to the U.S. and the goods were tied up in customs.  But we still like the article!}


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