Tabaka, Kisii in Gucha South district
Arriving in Tabaka Town in Kisii County
is home to one of Kenya’s best crafts centre. It has vast deposits of soapstone rock (about 25sq.km according to Kenya’s mining and geology department) that is used in the carvings of unique crafts. It is estimated also that only 20% of the rock has been quarried leaving a large amount of unexploited rock. As much as soapstone has multiple areas where it can be used, in Tabaka it is used almost entirely for carving while a smaller percentage is sold off to companies who buy truck loads of raw soapstone for other uses or export markets.
Soapstone Carvings Shop in Tabaka
The soapstone carvings business has been a major source of livelihood for residents of Tabaka who engage in its various processes of production. A completed carving can go through up to five processes from the extraction of raw stone. From the locals recollections and perhaps passed on stories, the soapstone mining and carving business might have started in the mid to late 1800’s.Most families in the small centre of Tabaka have at least a member engaged directly or indirectly in the trade. The building of the Tabaka Mission Hospital also opened the area to foreigners especially medics who have greatly boosted the trade by exposing the crafts to their friends and families in their home countries.
Soapstone carvings are very diverse in their sizes, designs, colors and patterns[See More Photos Here]. The artisans are incredibly ingenious and their works range from king size sculptures to small items like key holders which can be used as gift items, home decoration, souvenirs, collectibles e.t.c. The main markets are in Kenya are Malindi,Mombasa,Nyahururu,Thika,Nakuru. These towns are highly frequented by tourists who turn out to be the main buyers of the soapstone carvings. A large number of carvings is also shipped to overseas countries e.g. Japan, Europe, Australia, United States and other countries.
Soapstone carvings for the export market being packaged.
However in the recent years, there has been a disturbing pattern where has seen the trade slowly losing its momentum unlike recent years. This is clearly evident when you visit the centre, you will notice a substantial number of closed shops with fading paintings showing that once it was a curio shop dealing in carvings. We took an effort to establish why on the declining trend from a veteran carver, Daniel. Daniel is a local born in his late 40’s and has lived in Tabaka since his childhood. He has been involved in the trade since he was young. He talks proudly of his past days when business was good and vibrant. He has been involved in all aspects of the trade and knows all about it. He has been a carver, decorator, exporter and even a miner. He has worked on international projects and has toured several countries because of the trade. He has managed to build a nice permanent home and educate his kids from the trade. He says of late, the trade has remained for not the faint hearted and the old since most youth have sort to make a living from other trades. He talked to us about the change of status quo:-There has been interplay of various factors that might see once vibrant soapstone market slowly dwindling from its initial flourish. Some of the factors are:-
- Boda boda-a few years go most youth would have apprenticed and become carvers but this has greatly changed as many have turned to do Boda Boda (Motorcycle transport business) to earn a living. This gives them a more direct source of income other than laboring in the mines, carving or decorating the curios whose returns take time to get; that is if you are lucky enough to get anything.
- Lack of appreciation-Most countries with outstanding and recognized artworks across the whole world, starts with appreciation by its local citizens. Most Kenyans have not yet adopted art into their lives and setup. By appreciating and buying art, it not only boosts artisans’ works, it also grows the industry.
- Quality assurance-much of the soapstone carvings are destined for overseas markets. Most overseas markets have stringent restrictions and standards for imported products which some artisans don’t consider much when making their products. This is not to say that the products are substandard, their needs to be a way or protocol that ensures that the carving are par with World standards for crafts.
- Inadequate government support-inadequate and poor mechanisms by the local government in offering value addition support and programs to enable artisans properly manage their businesses, explore new markets, protection from exploitation, entrepreneurial programs are lacking.
- Poor marketing-a common saying in marketing goes like, if you don’t market your product, is well like you don’t exist. Lack of skills to properly market their products has been a huge hindrance to the growth of the trade. Poor internet connectivity and adoption of internet enabled phones has been slow within the artisan population in Tabaka.
- Unscrupulous middlemen-Most artisans sell their crafts to middlemen who in turn charge a premium for the crafts leaving peanuts for them. Many tales also abound of middlemen shortchanging artisans by not reimbursing revenue as agreed since most artisans get revenue based on what resellers have sold. This is quite discouraging given the level of work involved in making a craft.
- High membership fees-a noble move was the set up Kenya federation For Alternative Trade (KEFAT), a COFTA local representative to protect local businesses from unfair trade practices but it has not been fully utilized. It was a move in the right direction but has not benefited many due to lack of awareness programs, complexities in registration of businesses to join organizations and high membership fees needed to join becoming a major hindrance to small traders.
As a conclusion and many who have had experienced these beautiful crafts will concur with me that this industry that should be revamped and given a new breath of life. We need to also create a new generation of internationally renowned sculptors like Rodin the Thinker and the likes. This not only applies to Kisii soapstone carvings but also other Kenyan artwork e.g. Maasai beadworks, Akamba wood carvings, Kikuyu Ciondos etc
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