Covid-19 hastens death of ailing Akamba handicraft industry

Secretary of Akamba Handicraft industry cooperative society, Stephen Mainga shows some of the carvings at the handicraft in Mombasa. Akamba Handicraft has lost business due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The society has 2,785 members. April 23, 2021. [Omondi Onyango, Standard]

Along the busy Moi International Airport Road in Changamwe, Mombasa County, sinewy men chisel away at blocks of wood under the humidity of the hot mid-day sun.  

For over 50 years, generations of artisans have converged in the huge makuti-thatched workshop under the banner of the Akamba Handicraft Industry Cooperative Society to practice their craft of turning the blocks of wood into beautiful pieces of art.  

But in the recent past, fewer and fewer of the artisans have been turning up to work amid an unprecedented slowdown in business made worse by the Covid-19 pandemic.  

Of the 250 shades that formed the working stations for the artisans, less than 50 are still in operation.

Many of them have abandoned the trade and currently eke out a living doing menial jobs in the area amid the ravages of the Covid-19 pandemic that has compromised many people’s spending power and curtailed international travel.

Most of their customers are international tourists who have since dried as governments around the world, including Kenya, imposed travel restrictions to contain the spread of the virus.  

Akamba Handicraft Industry Cooperative Society officials told Financial Standard they are stuck with stocks worth over Sh100 million, with the slump in the industry having started long before coronavirus struck last year.

“We even have some finished works that have been in the showroom for over a decade. It is not only the Covid-19 pandemic that has led to low international tourist arrivals,” said the society’s secretary Stephen Mainga.

“We are starring at an uncertain future, and unless we are included in the latest government stimulus package like the rest of the hospitality sector, we can as well kiss this age-old skill that was handed down to us by our great grandfathers goodbye,’’ said Mr Mainga.

Skilled artisans

He said the craft of wood carving was introduced to the Akamba people, especially those from Wamunyu in Machakos County in the Eastern region by soldiers who had been drafted to fight in the First World War for the British Colonial administration.

“They quickly grasped the knowledge of sculpturing out of wood from skilled Makonde people of Mozambique who were talented in making human figures from wood,” said Mainga.

Benard Mbithi, the society’s vice chairman, said the pandemic might as well have dealt a death blow to the industry.

“These are very depressing times, with the economy struggling, unemployment on the rise and people’s spending power at an all-time low. The pandemic and subsequent lockdowns have had a devastating impact on the handicraft sector,’’ said Mr Mbithi.

He added that disruption in international flights had locked them out of traditional overseas markets such as Canada, the US, UK and France.

He said the closure of hotels and curio outlets has also seen orders fall significantly.

The cooperative has 2,785 members. But the secretary Mainga said when the facility is operating at full capacity, they are able to accommodate close to 10,000 other casuals to offer much-needed support to the artisans. 

These artisans make finished wood products like ornamental sculptures, wooden walking sticks, utensil sculptures, book stands, ashtrays, wildlife decorations and sculptures of the big five (lion, leopard, rhinoceros, elephant, and Cape buffalo).  

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