The new Handicraft Market buildings were completed last November as part of the Port Vila Seafront Beautification project. The Project, which included the new walking paths along the seafront from the Port Vila food market to Fatumaru Bay, the reconstruction of the seawall, building of playgrounds, green spaces, market houses and more, was funded by the NZ government and the Vanuatu government and it cost a total of 17 million USD. Successfully completed, locals and visitors are both very happy with the results.
The two huge new market buildings replaced the old structures that were previously in place and which were heavily damaged by Cyclone Pam.
Not only the buildings are new, but there is a new vision and direction for the market house.
As part of the new Handicraft Business Development program, which also enjoys funding support from the NZ Government through Vanuatu Strategic Tourism Action Plan (VSTAP), the Department of Industry, in their endeavor to develop local handicrafts and products, decided to take on the management of the market buildings and dedicate the space to 100% local handicraft and products. Some of the program’s objectives are to promote and increase the sale of locally made products, to develop the skills of producers and hence the quality of the products, to improve and facilitate access to market for the local producers, and to facilitate communication between all partners.
Mahi Tahi and Haus Blong Handicraft are the names of the two new buildings that house the 50 small businesses showcasing locally made products only, marking the first time that the government has stood firm and dedicated a location to Vanuatu-made products. The markets are being managed by the Department of Industries under a MOU to the Municipality.
The previous markets had an abundance of imported stuff that was cheaply bought and cheaply sold to tourists. But the main beneficiaries of this trade were the importers of these goods; little money went to Ni-vanuatu pockets.
All these has changed now and the stalls display a great mixture of local crafts such as baskets and carvings as well as value-added agricultural products such as local coffee and fragrant oils. There is an exciting mix of local art and crafts with vendors sourcing from all provinces across Vanuatu.
Vendors were chosen through a selection process, in which each vendor had to firstly apply and spaces were given according to merit, to those offering quality local handicraft and products, and ensuring that a good mix of goods would be showcased within the buildings.
The market houses were designed to reflect the traditional Melanesian style, with cathedral-high natangora roofs and big open, breezy areas with fantastic views of the ocean only metres away. In a great location, right in the centre of Port Vila, along the gorgeous waterfront, it maximized sellers’ opportunities to do good business.
Being professionally managed by the Department of Industry is another plus, as the market manager ensures that the displays are optimum and take cares of vendors’ queries and concerns. Part of this management and plan is also to offer vendors further business training so they can keep growing their skills and improving their small businesses.
Another great strategy in place to increase sales is the new bio security signage, informing visitors of the products they can safely take overseas. In the past, many visitors failed to buy locally made handicrafts such as carvings and weavings, for fear that the products would not be allowed into their countries. This is actually not true, and carvings and baskets are perfectly safe to take back, providing they meet a few requirements. The new signage is clear about the requirements of what can be taken, which greatly facilitates visitors’ decision making at the time of buying local handicrafts.
The impact and benefits for the economy of the outer islands of local handicrafts sales cannot be understated. It is estimated that the Tourism Souvenir
Market is worth around VUV 1.3 billion. In Vanuatu, everybody has an island, and even those who were born in Port Vila have strong ties with their home island. Within the market houses, there are vendors from Ambae, Ambryn, Pentecost, Malekula and the rest of the outer islands. These vendors buy their handicrafts from their family in Port Vila and also their families and relations back in the islands. Hence Ambae vendors buy from Ambae and Pentecost vendors buy from Pentecost and the tourist vatu trickles all the way into the small villages, in the outer islands, far from the capital.
The current efforts by government to improve the economic opportunities for the outer islands don’t stop at providing a space in Port Vila. Part of the government vision and the full scope of the project, has been to develop the products themselves, to provide higher quality handicrafts, to develop the business skills of providers and to improve access to market for those on the outer islands. As a result of the various initiatives undertaken by different government departments and associations, working in partnership with each other, immense progress has been made. For example, the Malampa Handicraft Centre, located in Malekula, now has over 300 women producers from the Malampa province registered as weavers and producers. The women sell their weavings to the Malampa Handicraft Centre and the center sells and transports these products to, for example, the market houses in Port Vila. The Vanuatu Skills Partnerships, previously known as TVET, has been running different training programs in the outer islands to improve the quality of the products as well as the variety of items being manufactured. Five years ago, most of weaving consisted of traditional mats and baskets. Today, weavers have expanded into making hats, trays, lamps, placemats, and baskets of all shapes and sizes, with new contemporary designs emerging all the time. The speed in which new designs have been appearing has been historically groundbreaking. These new designs are not kastom but they are based on elements of kastom if the item has a traditional purpose.
Ian Bani, first officer for the program at the Department of Industry, has seen the results first hand. “What this means is that the money goes right down to the communities,” he explains, “and instead of people in the outer islands having to come to the ‘big city’ as their only way to make an income, they can remain within their village and derive an income from traditional practices in a traditional way, hence preventing urban drift and all the negative implications associated with it and facilitating life in the outer islands.”
The vendors in the market houses are happy and believe that it is working. Herveline Lite is a member of the AWIS art association, who has a stall in the markets. “It is good because now we have a space to display and sell our art,” she says. She explains that sales are good and most sales come from visitors staying in the country.
Women from WEAV, ‘Women Export Association of Vanuatu’ are another local association who are benefiting from the new market houses. These women have been furthering the weaving landscape by adding new items and designs to the list of products which were traditionally crafted. Through courses offered by the Vanuatu Skills Partnership Program, they have been able to receive training in new weaving techniques as well as the knowledge and courage to try something new and experiment beyond what they know.
Lee Tari from Pentescost is not herself a weaver, but a business woman. Starting her first shop at the Vanuatu Handicraft Markets, on Wharf Road, she moved to the new market house last November “Sales are good, we are only just starting but it is good,” she says. Her crafts come mostly from the island of Pentecost. Another business woman and weaver is Lolany Eric, who used to be a weaver and sell her products elsewhere until she decided to open her own little shop within the markets “I make more money now that I can make and also sell my own product directly to the visitor,” she smiles.
Narsong Taleo is a well-known local artist who is also benefiting from a shop within the new market house, “I have a space where I can display and market my art, and it is not only about sales but about the possibility of my art having exposure as well,” he explains. “It is great to see how the buildings are full of such a variety of art and crafts and being able to see and interact with each other gives us inspiration to try new things and the opportunity to share different skills. So it is a very creative and innovative space as well,” comments Narsong.
A small step for humanity but a huge step for Vanuatu in reviving our local arts, creating new industries and developing and protecting our local economy.
Story and photography by Patricia Gil Garcia.