Basketry, a promising sector but little valued

Basketry, a promising sector but little valued

 A more or less rare raw material at an unstable cost; an unstructured sector of activity where actors excel in the informal sector and anarchy; a clientele that is more foreign than local, although the costs of the products are within everyone’s reach.  A market where a trader struggles to sell 2 to 3 pieces of furniture after 30 days.  It is with difficulty that the players in the sector manage to earn a profit of 50,000 FCFA or even 60,000 FCFA following the sale of furniture made from rattan.  This is the dismal image presented by the basketry sector, in particular in Cameroon.

File produced by Raphael MFORLEMRotin, maraka at the heart of furniture manufacturing
Sitting on a makeshift bench, Gaston Biegni, in his sixties, has worked in basketry for 32 years at the Boulevard Bambou establishment on the new Bastos road.  Mechanically, this cleans the maraka, one of the materials used to make the plinths and to shape the piece of furniture you want to make.  Close to Gaston, Jean Paul, his colleague using rattan, another material used to make objects, weaves an object whose shape mounted with maraka suggests a potential armchair.
Contrary to the popular imagination which suggests that rattan objects are mainly made with rattan, we discover that these furniture and decorative objects are made from two essential materials.  This is on the one hand the maraka (long, cylindrical in shape, stronger and more solid than rattan, used for mounting frames, the base of the furniture or the object to be manufactured), and on the other part of rattan (material smaller than maraka, flexible and easily rollable; used for ties, weaving, bands and finishes; used to weave the base of the object to be made beforehand with maraka).
To obtain these raw materials, Albert Ngah, promoter of Boulevard Bambou in the Bastos district in Yaoundé, said that “three main departments supply the markets of the capital Yaoundé with maraka and rattan.  These are the department of Nyong-Esso, Mefou-et-Akono and Mefou-et-Afamba which are localities with a high percentage of marshy areas.  Maraka and rattan are produced in wetlands and particularly in lowlands, especially swamps,” he says.  Guy Marcel Mba, promoter of the Mvog-Mbi Basketry Center adds: “Two regions that are: The South region, in particular in the localities of Zoétélé, Nkilzock and the Center region precisely in Mfou, Nkolafamba, Metèt provide raw material in Yaoundé”.
The purchase price of this raw material varies according to the seasons and the availability of it on the market.  “In normal times, a pack of 20 to 25 rattans is bought from wholesalers at a price of 6,000 FCFA.  When there is a shortage, the same package can cost 7,500 FCFA, 8,000 FCFA, 9,000 FCFA and sometimes 10,000 FCFA.  As for the maraka, it costs 12,000 FCFA today due to its scarcity on the market at certain times, the price drops and the package varies between 5,000 FCFA, 7,000 FCFA, 10,000 FCFA « , explains Gaston Biegni.  Whether it is rattan or maraka, basketry professionals source according to the work to be done.  If it is a living room, armchairs or any other object to be manufactured, these assess the quantity of materials to be used and place the order which is either delivered on site to the workshop or purchased from the wholesaler.Valves: Operation against a background of anarchy
Any business that wants to be serious is hierarchical, and follows specifications, except that this is not the case with the basketry business.  This activity, which is the responsibility of the craft industry, operates almost in the informal sector and in anarchy.  In some structures, it can be seen that in each workshop there is a manager, a manager of the structure generally called a promoter or boss.  It is this person who owns the establishment.  The latter responds legally to the authorities in the event of a problem within the company.  Far from being a simple promoter, he plays the roles of general manager, operations manager, general secretary and even interface between the company and the client.  He also fulfills the functions of director of human resources because he is responsible for recruiting employees, not to say stain and is responsible for their dismissal not to say dismissal.
At Boulevard Bambou in the Bastos district, Gaston Biegni reports that « within our establishment we have a boss who is the promoter of the establishment, a technical director and a sales director, scrapers, assemblers and finishers.  It cannot be said that this is a sector that truly meets the standards of a company in the true sense of the word. « Guy Marcel Mba indicates: “It is difficult to present documents attesting that we are evolving legally.  We work in the informal, like you have a little bit of money, you find a space and you settle down; you recruit one person and others come like that, and you decide to work together so that everyone can have a livelihood. « The remuneration of workers in the basketry sector is different from that of employees in well-structured companies.
The basket maker is not an employee who expects a salary after a month.  Whether you are a scraper, fitter or finisher, you are paid by the task.  « For example, if an order is validated by the chef and the equipment is available, it is according to the performance and professionalism of everyone that the boss can say, you, take care of the assembly of the base, you do the weaving and to someone else he can say, you, take care of the finishing touches.  And it is at the end of the work that you are paid « .
The trade of basket maker operates in an informal way.  Recruitment is not done as in other structures where you apply and following a job interview you are retained or turned away.  At Boulevard Bambou as in other basketry establishments, recruitments are not done in a hurry: « When someone shows up and wants to work, we try to find out what he can do and then we submit him to several tasks.  It is at the end of these that we assess whether he is likely to be selected or not, « says Gaston Biegni.Armchairs, Livings: Works of art within everyone’s reach
Painted in colors, black, white or even varnish and matched with foams covered with green, orange, blue, yellow fabrics or afritude fabric, the armchairs made from handcrafted rattan are real mosaics.  These are part of a series of furniture produced by basket makers, illustrates Gaston Biegni: « We make living rooms, beds, living rooms, wall applications, decorative objects and baskets of various kinds, to name just a few examples ».
Whether on foot or in a vehicle, these masterpieces leave no one indifferent to the eye.  On the Rond-Point Mvog-Mbi / Poste Centrale axis or on the Ancien-Echangeur / Sous-Préfecture Tsinga section on the new Bastos road, places of manufacture and marketing of basketry products in the city of Yaoundé, users and enthusiasts of crafts and made in Cameroon are amazed by these creations.  Some people stop to admire the skills of Cameroonian artisans in terms of furniture and interior decoration items up close.  Compared to industrially produced furniture produced locally or imported, rattan-based products have the particularity that they are handmade.  From the assembly, weaving or finishing phase, no machine is used throughout the process.  Craftsmen take their time and the necessary energy to achieve an attractive and flawless finish, we learn.
Seen from a distance, one has the impression that the furniture, objects and interior decoration in rattan are very beautiful to be within the reach of all speaking of the cost; except that up close, the observation is different.  The actors of the sector report that the costs of articles from basketry vary according to the model, the customer’s need and especially the means of this one.  For example, for a simple dining room with 4 seats, the price varies between 80,000 FCFA, 120,000 FCFA.  For a dining room with 6, 8, 10 seats, prices can range from 200,000 FCFA, 250,000 FCFA, 300,000 FCFA.  Speaking of armchairs, the costs vary between 50,000 FCFA, 100,000 FCFA, 150,000 FCFA, 200,000 FCFA, 300,000 FCFA.  For the cabinets, the least expensive are estimated at 120,000 FCFA and the most expensive around 250,000 FCFA sometimes more because, the prices vary according to the designs and the dimensions which can be medium or very large.  Evolving in the informal sector in Cameroon, it is difficult for actors in the craft and basketry sector in particular to assess the gains they can make at the end of a month.
Guy Marcel Mba points out that after obtaining an order and that the necessary for the realization of the work is purchased, the rest of the money is distributed among the workers.  This, depending on the task of everyone.  He adds, indicating that estimating monthly income is all the more difficult because there is no accounting department like in serious structures.  Gaston Biegni, on the other hand, believes that despite the various parameters highlighted by Guy Marcel, after delivery of a production, one can be satisfied with a profit of 50,000 FCFA to 60,000 FCFARattan market: A clientele more foreign than national
Embarrassed by the refractory and disinterested attitude of Cameroonians towards artisanal products and basketry in particular, Gaston Biegni expresses his desolation.  « Whether in terms of beauty and durability, furniture made from local materials, entirely hand-crafted, has nothing to envy to furniture of local or imported industrial production.  Well-crafted rattan furniture has a lifespan of around 40, 50 or even 60 years.  The concern with these productions is the Cameroonian consumer; it does not promote art, made in Cameroon, but rather obtains imported furniture « .
The non-valuation of this sector by nationals is not the only factor plaguing this activity.  Even if consumers are scarce, the question of financing is one of the difficulties faced by Cameroonian basket makers.  As a result, it is almost impossible to produce furniture or interior decoration products for exhibitions, as explained by Thomas Ondobo Solo, basket maker and seller of rattan furniture at Carrefour Mvog-Mbi in Yaoundé:  at the level of the business; there is no capital to produce furniture for display.  To create a living room or armchairs intended for the exhibition, it is necessary to have at least 100,000 FCFA in capital.  When I don’t have the means to do it, it is difficult to attract customers.  When I have furniture on display, I can sell an average of one living room per week and I say thank God.  Those customers who place orders are extremely rare,” says Thomas.
At Boulevard Bambou, guests visiting the establishment come from various walks of life.  Some are wealthy and art-loving customers and others are just regular customers who need a living room or dining room made from rattan at an affordable cost compared to industrial furniture.  These clients are mostly expatriates residing in Cameroon, or foreigners fond of art objects passing through Cameroon, explains Gaston Biegni.  Although the activity operates informally and the actors are not valued, it is an activity that nourishes her man; if it was not the case, it would not be there any more, said Guy Marcel Mba.

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