From kilim rug-making, pottery and wood-turning to glass-blowing, textile-appliqué and sculpture, Egypt’s craft heritage is as rich and diverse as its long history and culture.
For centuries, skills have been passed down the generations, children learning to hand-make decorative objects from materials such as camel bone, alabaster and palm leaves.
Now, Ebda3 Men Masr – an initiative launched by ALEXBANK, Intesa Sanpaolo’s Egyptian subsidiary – is helping the preservation and promotion of these traditions, encouraging their creators and bringing their work to an increasingly international clientele.
“The idea was sparked when we learnt about a group of artisan potters in Tunis Village, one of the country’s oldest craft centres,” explains Dante Campioni, ALEXBANK’s chief executive and managing director. “Nearly 50 years ago, a visiting Swiss artist was inspired to establish a pottery school and annual crafts festival to help preserve its traditional skills and workshops.”
"Ebda3 Men Masr provides not only an opportunity to learn more about Egypt’s wonderful aesthetic and cultural heritage, but also its people"
Dante Campioni, managing director, ALEXBANK
Campioni realised that expanding ALEXBANK’s existing sponsorship of Tunis Village festival as a more far-reaching initiative to support traditional crafts – many of them in danger of dying out – could help reinvigorate them for future generations while making a financial difference to less privileged communities.
The Ebda3 Men Masr programme is a central pillar of ALEXBANK’s corporate social responsibility platform, the aim of which is to move beyond philanthropy to the creation of shared value. “Our ambitions are to empower talented Egyptian artisans, increase entrepreneurial opportunities, preserve Egyptian heritage and boost economic growth,” says Campioni.
Since its inception in 2016, Ebda3 Men Masr has worked with more than 1,600 craftsmen and groups of artisans from 11 villages in Upper Egypt (the geographic south of the country), providing vocational training, apprenticeships, tools, networking, strategic partnerships and marketing assistance.
“This area has some of the most renowned handicraft clusters in the country and at the same time is the region most afflicted by economic deprivation – with minimal access to education and a reliance on subsistence farming,” says Campioni.
Particularly pleasing, he feels, is the fact that many of the programme’s beneficiaries are women (90 per cent) and the young (60 per cent). “With Egyptian women accounting for only 11.5 per cent of the labour market – among the lowest proportion in the world – this is a real chance to increase family incomes well above the poverty line,” he adds.
This outcome – one of the programme’s original aims – is in line with government plans to support women, young people and rural communities, boosting employment and the economy. Among the organisations with which Ebda3 Men Masr is working are government departments, NGOs and social enterprises.
Mrs Saeeda is one of those helped by the programme. Having left school with only a basic education – like most women in her village – she was able to enrol on a nine-month literacy course and then undertake training in garment making. She now has skills that will allow her to work from home as well as look for employment outside. “This has opened up completely different horizons for her,” says Campioni.
There are many challenges facing artisans in Egypt, he says, among them “competition from cheap imported goods and the monopolisation of raw materials, leading to exaggerated production costs in an industry that should be based on cheap, abundant local resources.”
The main aim of ALEXBANK’s work is to help artisans overcome these difficulties. Last year, the bank commissioned Tunis Village potters to make its corporate gifts. Alongside a package of hand-crafted pieces, clients and partners were sent a catalogue telling the stories of the village, its heritage and artisans. “As well as helping to decrease imports and encourage the export of Egyptian products, we were able to increase training and employ more potters,” says Campioni.
This year the bank is collaborating with more than 200 artisans for its corporate gifts, combining a range of crafts and materials. Campioni is particularly proud of a handmade, exclusively-designed lamp in wood, alabaster and brass.
The response so far has been enormously gratifying. “We received so many notes of thanks from recipients, many of whom were discovering these beautiful Egyptian products for the first time.”
“Raising visibility is crucial,” says Campioni. “Inability to market products has been a key problem, particularly in Upper Egypt, where the absence of communication channels between craftsmen and the end consumer prohibits the former from developing products to customers’ tastes.”
In 2016, ALEXBANK was a headline sponsor of the International Handicrafts Show, the first in Egypt and MEA region, where Ebda3 Men Masr was able to introduce buyers from home and abroad to Egyptian crafts and makers.
Future plans include preventing the art of handmade carpets from going extinct and exploring their export potential. They will also focus on kilim-making and the establishment of the first official glass-blowing training centre. Meanwhile a forthcoming online platform will provide an important showcase for sales worldwide.
For Campioni, this programme provides not only an opportunity to learn more about Egypt’s wonderful aesthetic and cultural heritage, but also its people. “We have met wonderful people who keep these endangered crafts alive. I am very proud of what we have already achieved.”
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