Kenya firm weaves success on taste for baskets in Japan

Kyodo

A small Kenyan company involved in weaving African baskets for export has snared a larger market share in Japan than anywhere else in the world.

Black Gold Export, a partnership company of businesspeople in Kenya, has basket enthusiasts in Japan talking about its quality handicrafts.

“Our market in Japan has now developed into that of a supply market, as opposed to Europe and the United States, where we have selling markets,” said Sophia Masoa, the company’s executive director, in a recent interview with Kyodo News. “We now get many orders from Japanese companies that want baskets with specific designs.”

Founded in 1994, the firm has been using creative artisans from remote parts of Kenya to weave baskets for export. Using sisal and banana fibers, the artists come up with a variety of woven products. Women generally do the weaving and men finish the products.

“First, the Japanese demand to see a sample of our products, and then approve it before placing an order with us,” Masoa, 52, said, adding that once they are satisfied with the artwork, the Japanese traders sometimes place orders for 500 pieces or more.

The company started with a low profile, initially engaging in the import-export of precious stones. However, when that business proved hard to turn a profit, the company turned to handicrafts.

“Though it was a tedious task trying to penetrate the Japanese market at first, we do not regret it at all,” Masoa said.

She says her company took time studying the tastes and preferences of Japanese to come up with artwork that would suit the market.

“We realized that the Japanese . . . took pride in their culture and ancestral background, and we needed to keep that in mind.”

She said it was doing their homework that earned Black Gold the trust of Japanese traders who wanted baskets of a particular material with specific colors and textures.

In 1995, the company took part in the Fukuoka International Trade Fair and tried to access the Japanese market directly with the help of the Japan External Trade Organization.

The company, with assistance from JETRO, took part in five more trade fairs in major cities, which helped boost demand.

According to Masoa, the company’s strategy has paid off in Japan, which has become Black Gold’s main export market with annual sales more than doubling to around $200,000 from $80,000.

Officials of the company now visit Japan on a regular basis — two or three times a year — and its clients include leading trading houses such as Marubeni Corp.

The company also dispatches a representative to Paris to attend the annual “Passion of the Year” event, to check out fashionable colors appearing on world markets.

In Japan, women often use the baskets as bags, while men sometimes use them as briefcases. In summer, they are popular as beach bags, while top hotels use them as flowerpots, for decoration, as penholders and for holding items such as earrings.

Some of the proceeds from the sale of the baskets are going back to Kenya to help improve the lives of the impoverished and people with AIDS.

The company is operating a center for around 40 children whose parents have died of AIDS-related illnesses.

It has also encouraged local communities in Kenya to fight child labor.

Masoa, who visits Japan regularly, says her company of about 38 permanent employees has provided an alternative source of income to hundreds of men and women, especially during the dry spell, when most of Kenya suffers from drought.