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Handicrafts Chief Pouya Mahmoudian: ICHTO Planning to Open New Permanent Handicraft Stores in Europe, Elsewhere

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Iran is one of the top three producers of handicrafts in the world. Export of Persian handiworks show a steady increase in the past five years. And the Iranian government has given it a priority to help expand the size of markets for Iranian artifacts as part of efforts to restore the global glory of Persian handicrafts, create jobs and reduce unemployment.

The handicrafts sector is an increasingly important source of employment creation and sustainable income generation. It makes a substantial contribution to the country’s exports.

Iran’s Cultural Heritage, Handicrafts and Tourism Organization (ICHTO) has drawn up a wide range of plans to promote Iran’s handicraft business both at home and abroad.

Iran Europe Business Digest (IEBD) spoke with Pouya Mahmoudian, Deputy Head of ICHTO, about her organization’s roadmap for the handicrafts industry and its future plans.

Mahmoudian leads the handicrafts branch at ICHTO. She is a veteran who has led operations at ICHTO for long years including heading ICHTO’s Handicraft Exports Department.

The veteran holds Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree from the prestigious Sharif University of Technology in Tehran and Doctor of Business Administration (DBA) from University of Bordeaux in France. In addition to her native Farsi language, she speaks English and knows some French.

Here’s the full text of our interview with Mahmoudian:

Development and promotion of handicrafts are the responsibility of ICHTO. What are your plans to promote handicrafts and increase exports?

The ICHTO has pursued a wide range of policies to support artisans and promote handicrafts including marketing support, design and technology upgradation, export promotion, research and development, and training.

Providing low-interest rate banking loans and life insurance protection are just two examples of many measures implemented by ICHTO in support of artists.

Apart from those measures, ICHTO is pursuing a ‘commercialization plan’ that seeks to encourage commercialization of designs, promote brands and upgrade packaging of Iranian handicrafts to improve competitiveness in the global market and create new sources of revenue and employment.

Registering villages, towns and regional clusters where handicrafts are produced is one of many plans pursued by ICHTO to promote brands and commercialize Iranian handiworks.

For instance, the village of Kalporegan in Sistan and Baluchestan Province in southeastern Iran has been named the Global Village of Pottery. This has helped the ancient village to be recognized globally as a center of pottery production in Iran. Now, Kalporegan is a brand name in pottery and business has improved there.

So, popularizing the products is among specific measures being taken by the government for promotion and development of handicrafts.

Every year, favored villages and cities across the country with celebrated craft products are selected and named to the global audience as part of efforts to make them known to the world and popularize their products.

Handicraft exports fetched $281 million in the last Iranian calendar year, ending 20 March 2018, showing a considerable increase on the year before that. This indicates that Iran is gradually taking a bigger share in the global handicrafts market. An ever expanding sizable increase in handicraft exports since 2014 shows Iran’s increasing impact in the global markets.

Iranian craftsmen and craftswomen participate in more international exhibitions and in greater numbers than before. That has helped Iranian artisans and businessmen to be seen by the global audience.

Additionally, the ICHTO has supported establishment of websites to help promote handicraft electronic business. Now, there are more than 200 websites promoting Iranian artistic works and selling online.

We are also encouraging producers and exporters to improve packaging for their products. For instance, we provide 30 percent discount (bringing down costs of exhibition participation) to those with best packaging designs at exhibitions since packaging handmade products in a creative and professional manner creates an unforgettable unboxing experience for customers and helps artisans expand their business. Attractive packaging adds value to their products. Iranian artists have now learned that packaging matters and people notice it.

Publicity packages, including films and video clips, have been prepared to introduce Iran’s handicrafts to the outside world.

Exporters complain that there is no permanent exhibition or stores in foreign countries to display their handiworks. What have you done or you are going to do to get the global population familiar with Persian handicrafts?

This has been ICHTO policy to locate permanent handicraft stores in major cities across the globe to extend Iran’s reach to the international markets.

We opened our first permanent handicrafts store in Leiden, Netherlands, in 2016. It was set up with the private sector investment. It’s fascinating to note that the Dutch people have shown a great interest in Iranian pottery, specifically handmade flower pots and vases.

We are already planning to set up more permanent marketing and exhibition centers selling Iranian handmade crafts in other parts of the world. We are already in the process of finalizing talks to set up handicraft showrooms in Spain and Berlin in Germany.

Our showroom in Germany will be on the basis of a deal to be signed soon with the Berlin-based Iran Europe Business Center.

Touring & Automobile Club of the Islamic Republic of Iran is planned to be an Iranian agent abroad selling Persian handicrafts.

We embrace with open arms any investor, Iranian or foreign, to set up permanent stores to sell Iranian handmade crafts across the globe.

The ICHTO is now considering opening a permanent handicraft marketplace in neighboring Iraq, one of the biggest buyers of Iranian artworks.

Some Iranian artists complain that there is no large showroom in Tehran dedicated to handicrafts for domestic audience and foreign tourists or foreign trade delegations visiting Iran. What have you done to respond to this call?

There are efforts already underway to set up a permanent handicrafts exhibition in Tehran. However, two districts in the capital have been turned into a hub for handicrafts and walking places for foreign tourists. One is Nejatollahi Street, also known as Villa Street, and the other is Oudlajan neighborhood, both in central Tehran.

Both districts are permanent handicraft marketplaces. Handworks from all 31 provinces in Iran are on display in both districts. Tourists visiting Iran may not be able to visit all 31 provinces but they can see artistic works representing all parts of Iran in one marketplace.

The new designing and popularizing scheme is expected to boost the two districts. Oudlajan, one of Tehran’s oldest neighborhoods located in the heart of the city, is becoming an attractive tourist destination. Restoration and beautification projects _ such as rebuilding and restoring old houses as well as pavements using traditional materials _ are tremendously changing the landscape in the district. Organizing colorful events, festivals and package tours is expected to make Oudlajan a striking destination and a walking tour for both Tehran residents and foreign visitors.

Another plan under study is to set up an open-air night handicrafts market in the capital.

We have also taken other measures to support artists. Exporters were previously required to exchange their foreign currency earnings at the Forex Management Integrated System (locally known by the acronym Nima). That means they would get the equivalent in rials at government-authorized rate. But now, they are allowed to sell their foreign currency earnings at the unofficial open market rate (which is sold nearly double the Nima rate).

Additionally, we have banned the import of foreign-made handicrafts to support Iranian artists to push up domestic sales of craftworks.

Import of foreign handicrafts has always been one of the main concerns for Iranian artisans. Banning importation of foreign handicrafts has greatly eased their concerns.

Have Iranian embassies _ cultural or commercial attaches – been required to help promote Iranian handicrafts in countries and cities of their residence?

Yes. As part of structural changes at the Foreign Ministry, a new economic department was created in January 2018 to help promote Iran's international trade. It was aimed at giving more importance to economic diplomacy.

A tourism desk was set up at the department. Promotion of handicrafts is part of responsibilities of the tourism desk.

Promoting non-oil exports is a key responsibility of the economic department at the Foreign Ministry and handicrafts is part and parcel of that.

Where do women stand in Iran’s handicrafts business?

More than 70 percent of Iranian handicrafts are produced by women. They also play an important role in Iran’s tourism sector. The ICHTO seeks to empower women in the IT (Information Technology) and ICT (Information and Communications Technology) sectors.

What have you done to help capture new markets?

Our policy is to preserve and deepen our presence in the existing markets and tap into new markets.

Our studies have traditionally been based on the marketing experience our exporters and businessmen achieved in global business. But lately, we have been carrying out academic, professional studies as part of stepped up efforts to expand our handicraft business.

We are now involved in a research and development scheme. The basic goal of this scheme is to create a regular system of obtaining feedback on economic, social, aesthetic and promotional aspects of various craft goods. Carrying out field studies will help planners and artisans to learn about customer preferences in various countries and produce artistic works on the basis of those findings.

As part of a plan to capture new markets, we have concentrated on the five emerging economies _ Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (BRICS) _ and there are clear indications that these countries are waking up to the Persian handicrafts. The BRICS market is of special significance for us. We participate in exhibitions in these countries with smart plans.

We are attaching special significance to wealthy people in Russia and China to meet their demand for luxurious handicrafts.

Iranians living abroad are the honorary ambassadors of Iranian handicrafts in foreign lands. They can put handiworks on display in their pages and help promote the business.

The ICHTO has lately been publicizing the idea of “Iranian home.” What’s that?

The idea basically is to promote usage of handicrafts in the construction industry. “Iranian home” is a living place equipped and decorated by handicrafts excluding electronic devices. From kitchen appliances to furniture and from dinner table to internal designs and everything else _ excluding electronics _ are handmade works.

The goal is to promote use of handicrafts in modern homes through presentation of their usefulness in practice. Our motto is embedding traditional handicrafts in modern homes.

We are planning to set up “Iranian home” in other parts of the world and put it on display to captivate the heart of visitors. There are very luxurious handmade artistic products in an “Iranian home” for wealthy people. And there are also lower-cost artworks in an “Iranian home” for the middle class families.

We opened the first “Iranian home” in Tabriz, in northwestern Iran, earlier this year and are planning to set up at least one “Iranian home” in each provincial capital in Iran.

Additionally, the ITCHO is also encouraging designers and architects to use traditional handicrafts in decorating high-rise buildings, hotels and homes. Handicrafts can contribute greatly to the construction industry by creating lavishly decorated structures and apartments.

We are also getting handicrafts into Iran’s car industry as well as the toy and doll industry, meaning that handmade works will be among their features.

At the same time, the ICHTO is taking measures to turn historical houses into handicraft marketplaces across Iran.

Iran-Europe Business Digest (IEBD) magazine has been launched to facilitate and promote business between Iran and Europe. 

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