African Heritage Exports More Than Art 



Store Association USA,
Winter 1986


To 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 problems.  It is a continent of contradictions, of promise and failure, of generosity and greed.”

Donovan’s 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 collecting pieces. 

After 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 functional beauty,”  It disturbed him that traditional artistic techniques were dying out as new generations left the tribe for urban employment.

Donovan 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.”

While 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.

In 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 sales. 

Cooperatives 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.

Quality 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.

But the biggest production challenge for African Heritage is securing import licenses.  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.

He would like to find a different solution to the import licensing problem, because the co-ops provide the native people with an occupation and income.  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.”

“Handicraft 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.”

Co-ops and the main gallery are only a part of African Heritage’s operations.  Near the gallery is a craft workshop where artists design product prototypes.  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 cover.

In 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.

The sculpture college is headed by the renowned African sculptor, John Odochameny.  He attracts and teaches dome of the most promising African artists, making the cooperative a creative center of East Africa.

“African 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.

In 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.

Donovan 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.

Donovan’s 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).

Alan 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.

In 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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