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Monday, 3 February, 2003, 07:10 GMT
African crafts go online
Samuel the coffin carpenter
Samuel's peacock will be shipped to the US

Traditional African craftsmen are starting to sell their wares to collectors on the other side of the globe, thanks to one disillusioned aid worker.

Cordelia Salter-Nour was an IT expert for development projects in Africa for more than 20 years before setting up

She chose to branch out alone after becoming increasingly frustrated that the new technologies did not seem to benefit the poorest people - ordinary Africans.

"If technology can't benefit the least advantaged members of society, including traditional African artisans, then it doesn't have much value," she says.

Marketing for snobs

Surfers who stumble unawares across could be forgiven for thinking it is an outlandish kind of site.

Coffin in the shape of a barracuda fish
Fisherman can be buried in a barracuda - for $1000

It features, amongst other things, designer-made coffins in the shape of fish, aeroplanes or beer bottles, which are for sale at $1,000.

But, unlikely as online coffin sales may seem, the site is specifically targeting people who want that kind of specialised and highly unusual product.

"I want to tap the snobbery market - the people who want to swap stories at dinner parties about the originality of their artefacts," Ms Salter-Nour says.

Samuel's success

To feed the story-value of the crafts, her online shop is about to relaunch with detailed information about each individual craftsman and the underlying traditions behind the products.

coffin in the shape of a chicken
Chicken-shaped coffins can be used for storage space in the front room
Those fish-shaped coffins, for example, come from the Ga culture in Ghana, where the coffin traditionally reflects how the deceased earned a living.

And Samuel, the coffin carpenter, has been able to pay off his apprenticeship fees, thanks to his overseas sales.

Ambitious displays in Rome and Paris later this year will again try to get specialist buyers on board.

Fraud fears

The site has, perhaps unsurprisingly, had its fair share of problems.

Foremost among those is that taking credit card payments online is not an option for African businesses.

African basket weaver
The site aims to create a sustainable business for local people

African banks are not yet up to the task, and internet credit card service providers usually require the business bank account to be held in the West.

"It's unfair to demand that African markets open up to international market forces and then not give them access to banking facilities," Ms Salter-Nour says.

The situation has only been resolved by finding a somewhat unsatisfactory loop in the system - using her personal credit card account for business transactions.

As a Westerner she had no problems getting the banking facility sorted.

Fake threat

The US market, meanwhile, has been unexpectedly difficult to crack.

It had been hoped that African Americans, often keen to get back in touch with their roots, would be enthusiastic buyers.

Malian mud cloth
Chinese products are often sold into the US as "African"

But mass importers of cheaper African crafts can easily undersell by dealing in bulk - and are sometimes accused of paying unfair wages to the African craftsmen.

Part of the ethos of the site includes abiding by a strict code of fair payment and ensuring there is no forced labour involved.

Ms Salter-Nour also claims that many goods sold into the US market are actually Chinese products made to look African.

Money matters

The website is not making money.

But that's not what it's all about, according to Ms Salter-Nour.

Software giants such as Microsoft are in Africa to make money, she says, targeting the richest of Africans and selling them licences at the same price as they sell them to Westerners.

But the purpose of is to create a viable business for African craftsmen.

And Ms Salter-Nour won't be drawn with talk of sales targets and break-even dates.

She wants five African artisans a year to be able to create a sustainable business from selling their wares online.

"That's the only goal."

See also:

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