The Empowering Resilience of Ghana's Female Artisans Amidst the COVID-19 Pandemic

Despite the hardships, these creatives looking forward with smiles on their faces.

The coronavirus outbreak resulted in the destruction of livelihoods of local communities and cultural institutions globally. Countries like Ghana, where local artisans make up a significant part of the informal sector, have had their entire industry affected. Reduction in tourism led to a disruption in trade and export channels, contributing to an overall downturn in the artisan economy in Ghana.

Dorcas Quainoo Batiker in Ghana
Courtesy of Tina Charisma

According to a Friedrich Ebert Foundation (FES GHANA) research, 80 percent of Ghanaians work in the informal sector. "The sector is characterized by underemployment, bad working conditions, uncertain work relationships and low wages," the foundation says. Most people are living with high income insecurity.

A woman working at Sunbead in Ghana
Courtesy of Tina Charisma

While artisans across all developing countries have been hit in one way or another, Ghana's economy reflects a resilient approach to a troublesome period. The artisan economy, made up predominantly of women, has seen a sharp decline in services and production due to lockdown.

Ghanaian artisans contribute to a range of products, from instruments, beads, pottery, and even local fabrics. The cultural heritage of Ghana is alive in its artistry: from colorful woven Kente fabric patterns and Adinkra symbols, to talking drums, and beads that boast colorful royal significance. Every aspect of the products created by artisans in Ghana carry with it a piece of the country's history, culture, and heritage that connects it to the world and beyond.

With country boarders shut due to COVID-19 there has been a crippling effect that left many struggling to keep afloat. "COVID has brought our business on to its knees," said Bob Ahiagble, founder of local Kente weaving company Atmek. "Sales from the various gift shops slammed gradually and finally stopped. We have laid off thirteen workers, leaving only two, so far, and seen a decrease in up to 90% of trade, supplies, and sales. Our workshop, which was a tourist attraction and a lecture center, became a cemetery."

The country has made swift efforts towards being safe again. Following the outbreak of the coronavirus in March 2020, it was one of the first African nations to implement lockdown measures. The government of Ghana introduced a public ban on all public gatherings and conferences to reduce the spread of COVID-19. It was also the first to receive the COVID vaccine under the COVAX program and has, in general, kept infection rates low (under 100,000 in a population of 30 million at the time of writing). Despite this, the global outbreak has led to severe costs to the economy in Ghana.

The challenges presented by the pandemic have revealed the underlining gendered inequities when it comes to the country's labor force. Before the pandemic, research showed that women in Ghana had unstable incomes with little or no social protections compared to men. The pandemic thus exacerbated this. The significant number of women in the informal sector has contributed to the disproportionate impact that the pandemic has had on women.

Interior of Sunbead in Ghana
Courtesy of Tina Charisma

A similarly devastating downturn was felt by Kati Torda, the founder of Sun Trade Beads, a women's organization in Ghana, which promotes the history and significance of beads. She spoke of the interference to supply chains that forced her business to close. Kati said that her "suppliers are bead makers, bronze casters, and traders. We had to stay closed for 3 months. No buyers, no income, but still had to pay rent".

Alice Grau, one of the founding members of another women's organization in Ghana, Global Mamas, added, "Sales have been impacted deeply. Most of our retail partners and [stores] that carry our products around the world were shut down for varying lengths of time last year, and when open, often had to reduce their capacity."

Global Mamas help artisan women find export markets, implementing practical business strategies that support them in accessing fair trade. Grau spoke on the contribution of women towards overcoming the pandemic setbacks on their businesses: "90% of our organization are women, so women have been a crucial part of all of our journey to getting back on our feet. They are all active makers in our community."

Founders Cover in Ghana
Courtesy of Tina Charisma

Without relief measures or stimulus packages from the government during the COVID-19 crisis, artisans have been forced to innovate to survive. Godwin Agbeko, director of aid for Artisans Ghana said, "We are being forced to be innovative as an industry." Many Artisans are venturing into other trades to sustain their livelihoods. Others are using social media and other e-shops to maximize their market.

Grau shared that social media has been essential to to connect with clients, stating, "Engagement via social media has proved helpful in amplifying our work and stories"

Despite the setbacks presented to artisans in Ghana and around the world, it is evident that the country represents hope to rise during this period — a true reflection of the country's resilience and inspiration to artisan economies around the world who are ready to open its boarders again to connect with the world.

In the words of the founding Prime minister of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah, " We face neither East nor West: we face forward."

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