Heritage Exports More Than Art
those of us who have never been there, Africa remains an enigma.
We imagine giraffes loping across grassy plains, and violence in
the streets - sparkling diamonds, and starving children. To
Alan Donovan, co-founder and managing director of Africa Heritage Ltd.
“Africa is a continent of immense diversity and enormous
It is a continent of contradictions, of promise and failure, of
generosity and greed.”
experience with Africa began in 1969 as a relief worker for the U.S.
Agency for International Development. He helped implement agricultural,
health, and educational programs for the Nigerian people.
Donovan soon developed an interest in native art, and began
resigning from the agency, he traveled throughout the continent learning
more about African art and creative traditions, while adding to his
personal collection of jewelry and handicrafts.
He spent time with the nomadic Turkana herdsmen, being “particularly
impressed with the Turkana’s strong impulse for portable and
It disturbed him that traditional artistic techniques were dying
out as new generations left the tribe for urban employment.
spent two years researching the Kenyan arts and crafts market, and found
that it had become overrun by foreign middlemen who were only interested
in cheap souvenirs for quick resale to tourists.
This demand for “airport art” discouraged traditional quality
craftsmanship and damaged the reputation of Kenyan art.
Donovan became especially fascinated with Kenyan art because, “there
was more diversity in the crafts and talents available in Kenya than
perhaps anywhere else in Africa.”
investigating the Kenyan market, Donovan became acquainted with Joseph
Murumbi, an art collector and former Kenyan Vice President who shared
Donovan’s appreciation for authentic Kenyan art, as well as his
concern about declining quality and dying traditions.
“It is a tragedy that so few African appreciate their own
culture, and their own past,” observed Murumbi.
1971, the two men founded African Heritage to further their common
objectives: educating people in Africa and abroad about authentic
African art, and revitalizing the Kenyan art market by increasing export
emerged as the most effective way to reach these goals.
On the community level, African Heritage organizes groups of
villagers to create authentic handicrafts by traditional methods.
Accomplished craftspeople are brought in to teach production
skills, and the company provides all the necessary material.
The trained villagers produce the pieces according to prototypes
designed by the best artists.
Original work is also encouraged.
The finished products are exported or sold in the gallery.
control is essential to uphold the demand for African Heritage products.
“We have a reputation for being expensive, but people know we
deliver quality goods,” explains Donovan.
Common difficulties in co-op production include illiteracy, the
lack of energy sources, and the villager’s community obligations
during growing seasons.
the biggest production challenge for African Heritage is securing import
The red tape is exasperating.
“One may require only a tiny amount of input from imported
sources to complete
a product, such as an earring hook of stainless steel to meet
U.S. requirements, or a fixative to set dye, or even sand paper!
Yet it may be impossible to get an import license for such small
items, even though the end product will create income.
There are so many competing requirements on Africa’s foreign
exchange resources, and food production may be assessed as having a
higher priority than handicrafts for export,” explains Donovan.
As a result, he is reluctantly considering the relocation of the
entire operation to the United States.
would like to find a different solution to the import licensing problem,
because the co-ops provide the native people with an occupation and
According to Donovan, the social and economic infrastructure of
African cities are being strained almost to the point of collapse.
For this reason, he feels that developing family-run industries
in villages or rural areas is “of the utmost importance to the
well-being of African economies.”
production offers an ideal alternative to seeking employment in other
sectors, if raw materials are available locally in sufficient supply.
It creates a secure source of income that encourages young people
to stay at home to develop the family industry, and carry on native
traditions that would otherwise die out as Africans turn to imported
alternatives for hand made items.”
and the main gallery are only a part of African Heritage’s operations.
Near the gallery is a craft workshop where artists design product
There is also a fashion boutique that features a line of apparel
for men and women.
African Heritage sponsored fashion shows that helped to launch
the careers of Iman, the world’s highest-paid black female model; and
Khadija, the 1984 Miss Africa who appeared on October 1986 Cosmopolitan
1977, the African Heritage complex was completely destroyed by fire.
During the reconstruction, a restaurant and garden cafe which
specialize in authentic African cuisine, a sculpture college, a cultural
orientation center for visitors, and offices were added.
The cafe features a stage for performances by the African
Heritage Band and Dancers.
In addition, an outdoor craft demonstration center was built.
sculpture college is headed by the renowned African sculptor, John
He attracts and teaches dome of the most promising African
artists, making the cooperative a creative center of East Africa.
Heritage has encouraged the careers of artists, craftspeople, models,
actors, dancers, and musicians; several of whom have gone abroad to make
their names in other countries,” explains Donovan.
support of its educational goals, and to create greater exposure for its
artists, a traveling cultural outreach program called “The African
Heritage Cultural Festival” was developed.
Since 1975, a troupe of artists, models, musicians and dancers
has traveled to major cities around the world promoting African culture
with their unique productions.
is currently working with San Francisco’s Mayor Feinstein to
coordinate a visit of the African Heritage Cultural Festival with the
city’s “African Year” celebration in 1987.
Tentative plans include an extended trip up the west coast with
performances at four or five additional cities.
skill at such large scale planning may be attributed to his
undergraduate education in international marketing and two masters
degrees in journalism and international relations.
His experience and knowledge of African art made him the natural
choice as fashion consultant for Out of Africa, and jewelry designer for
The Color Purple.
In these capacities he spoke with Stephen Speilberg, met Robert
Redford (“a nice person”), and Meryl Streep (she dined at the
African Heritage Cafe on several occasions and was “very well-liked”
by the Nairobi people).
Donovan and African Heritage have earned an international reputation.
Beginning as a small gallery employing fifteen people with first
year sales of $ 15,000, the company has grown into a major firm
employing 3,620 workers with annual sales exceeding $2 million.
In 1977 its growth attracted EDESA Management, a Swiss investment
firm representing such clients as IBM, Ford, and Bank of America, who
bought shares in African Heritage.
addition to its commercial success, African Heritage has gone far
towards accomplishing it goals of invigorating the Kenyan art market,
sustaining native traditions, and encouraging worldwide appreciation of
African culture. It is both a successful import business and a gracious
envoy for Africa.
Donovan attributes this success to “the skills and talents of
people who want to produce the very best...
You’ve got to believe that there is a way to accomplish your
goal, and then create it.”
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