Swaziland’s handmade revolution

Rosecraft1

We were leaving Swaziland – enchanted, after a mere two days by the rippling granite hills, the soft light, the weekend languor of the place. Before heading to the border, we stopped at the Ngwenya Glass Complex. While the little glass animals – much loved by German tourists – were a tad too kitsch for my tastes, I loved the factory shop’s elegant stemware and the curvaceous terrariums hanging from ropes. Outside, was a cluster of other stores – selling soft and brightly coloured scarves; striking jewellery made from the pages of old magazines; nguni cowhide-like rugs woven from recycled fabric.

I was impressed. Of all the things I had expected from Swaziland (grinding poverty, a lavish monarchy, skyscraper HIV rates, and bare-breasted virgins dancing before a potbellied king) this – a symphony of beautiful objects – was not one of them.

When I returned to the country for the Bushfire music festival two months later, there it was again: instead of the usual curio tat one might expect in the market close to the main stage, many of the items for sale were actually those you’d want to take home: batik printed fabric, hand-painted ceramic tiles, eerily modern woven baskets. I saw at the entrance that it was a “fair trade” market and I sniggered: in Africa’s last absolute monarchy, that didn’t seem bloody likely. And yet I couldn’t have been more wrong.

 

Overlooking thick green sugar cane and powdery blue hills, Malandelas is home to a backpackers, restaurant and concert venue where every year in May, thousands gather here for Bushfire, a spirited weekend of world music. What many of revellers attending don’t know, is that this is also the headquarters of Gone Rural, a design company founded in 1992 by the late Jenny Thorne.

Passionate about social upliftment, Thorne had worked closely with female crafters since the 1970s when women were still considered legal minors – unable to sign contracts or own property without their husband’s permission.

“She knew she couldn’t take on a government or a culture, but putting money into women’s pockets would one day elevate them to the status they deserved,” Julie Nixon, Gone Rural’s MD, tells me.

While Swaziland’s 2005 constitution recognises gender equality, both customary law and embedded societal attitudes mean that many women remain economically and socially marginalised.

Gone Rural is helping tackle this by working with 779 women in some of the kingdom’s remotest and poorest areas. Every January, they harvest indigenous lutinzdi grass that grows in the mountains. The grass is brought back to Malendelas and dyed with eco-friendly German dye in huge pots simmering above alien gum-tree fuelled fires. It’s then returned to the women who weave it into homeware – such as mats, lampshades and bowls.

While a brisk trade is done locally, Gone Rural’s biggest client is HomeGoods, a US chain.

“Sales are going through the roof,” Nixon says, citing a 109% year-on-year increase at Out of Africa, OR Tambo International’s souvenir shop – and their second biggest client. “In the last five years we’ve seen a change from price being the most important thing, to [consumers appreciating] something that has got a value and a meaning.”

Creative director Phillipa Thorne, aided by a stream of design interns (several of whom have gone on to launch their own businesses), ensures that Gone Rural’s designs constantly evolve. She often collaborates with other, smaller design companies – such as Swazi Ceramics which supplies clay elements to create mixed media pieces.

“We’re elevating craft – we’re tired of people thinking handcraft should be cheap. We want people to appreciate it for art,” Nixon says.

A third of Gone Rural’s profits are ploughed into its NGO, BoMake. Its initiatives include a mobile sexual health clinic and scholarships for 300 children each year. Gone Rural BoMake has supplied running water to 10,300 people, while its microfinance programme has seeded nearly 2000 tiny businesses selling everything from Vaseline to second-hand clothing.

Nixon founded Swaziland Fair Trade (SWIFT) when her application for a grant from British charity Comic Relief to establish a country fair trade network was approved in 2010. Already, the country’s largest handcraft companies (some of whom were World Fair Trade Organisation-accredited) had been working together – appearing jointly at trade shows, for example, or sharing shipping containers for exports. By formalising this collaboration, they would be able to help nurture other, smaller businesses.

Nixon is justifiably proud of SWIFT’s achievements. In its first three years, 486 jobs were created and 25 Swazi-owned companies – among a total of 48 members – were established. “It went from seven big companies run by expats to the majority of the handcraft business being Swazi-owned… that’s exactly the way it should be,” she says.

She explains how SWIFT’s tier system groups member businesses according to size. Artisans or crafters are at level one; they’ve received the most support and training, while the biggest, most established companies, at level three, “got the least and did the most work” – this included taking on four mentees each to share insights and best practice.

One of Gone Rural’s mentees is Mduduzi Dlamini, a graduate of its metalwork training programme. In 2013 he launched Lupondvo Design, a range of unisex jewellery that incorporates cow horn and bone.

Growing up in a rural homestead, Dlamini was tasked, as a child, with looking after his family’s cattle. He recalls the bones being thrown away when the animals were slaughtered – unlike long ago, when they were kept in commemoration.

“With cattle treated as our Swazi bank, I believe these waste products have currency and should be valued as they were by our ancestors,” he says. Lupondvo pays “tribute to the tradition of Swazi heritage with a nod to contemporary design”.

Dlamini says that SWIFT’s product development and sales training has helped his business grow, as has the way membership has allowed him to sell at trade shows such as 100% Design and SARCDA in South Africa, and markets like the one at Bushfire, where his sales have doubled each year.

 

When Coral Stephens needed curtains for her new house in Piggs Peak (where her husband was establishing a forestry plantation), she decided to weave mohair ones with a loom she had brought with her. So began the eponymous label in 1949: it wasn’t long before impressed visitors started ordering their own.

Textile doyen Jack Lenor Larsen fell in love with her designs and introduced them to New York, where they even found their way into Chase Manhattan’s boardroom.

Today Murrae Stephens, the wife of Coral’s grandson, owns the business. While its range has expanded to include raffia and cotton products, Stephens says, “Our main speciality is still mohair because we do it in a way that nobody else does: it’s not possible to replicate what we do in anyway with a machine. It’s the touch of the hand that makes it unique, that makes every piece slightly different in a good way.”

We walk through the airy workshop, as fingers dance over the threads, and pedals clatter under decades-old looms.

“There’s no trend involved. I’m trying to make a product that will last for 30 years. People don’t get sick of good design,” Stephens says – a claim that is supported by an order book bulging with exports to Italy, Dubai, the US and UK.

For Stephens, SWIFT “is a great support system”. “People are often quite surprised at how free the flow of information is between businesses,” she says. They’re able to help each other navigate challenges such as the recent changes to Swaziland’s VAT regime.

She is grateful that she’s been able to participate in “programmes that as a small business owner one never feels one has time to for – like strategic planning”. She also feels her staff have really benefited from training they’ve been sent on – and not merely from the skills they’ve gained. “It has a much bigger effect in terms of motivating people, making people feel that they are worthwhile and worthy.”

Halfway across the kingdom, we visit another venerable weaving company, Rosecraft, high in the mountains of Egebeni. Established in the ’70s, it was bought two years ago by Kerry James, an Australian former management consultant.

“I definitely wasn’t looking for a weaving business,” she says wryly. However, having fallen in love with the country when she adopted her Swazi daughter and subsequently met her partner here, she realised this was an opportunity to apply her business nous to a company that had no clearly delineated product ranges or product codes when she took over.

In an area plagued with low literacy rates, James has relished “giving an opportunity for the rural communities to learn a skill and earn an income” – people who would otherwise be wholly reliant on subsistence to survive. When we visit, Rosecraft’s 22nd employee has just joined them in the workshop; a further 20 work at home.

To incentivise high quality and reward good work, the weavers are paid a piece rate; this is in addition to free transport (some of them live as far as 20km away), a pension, holidays and sick leave.

Although the range of scarves, blankets, ponchos and kaftans includes merino, cotton, mohair and bamboo, James will be focusing on the last two fabrics to streamline production. She is also shifting away from making products for other labels to avoid Rosecraft being perceived as “a sweatshop”. With tasks like preparing a loom taking two days, the painstaking approach means, James says, “We’re about high quality, low quantity. It’s a human-driven thing: humans are involved so I want them to be recognised for that.” This in turn means a high price tag – “It’s just not financially viable to [be socially responsible] and be at a Mr Price price-point.”

Later this year, Rosecraft will be moving into Lomah, a hydro-powered eco-village in the Malkerns valley. There will be a crèche for the weavers’ children and dorms where those who live further away can live from Mondays to Fridays.

 

 

In the factory at Ngwenya Glass, men twist long poles into the furnaces’ 1000-degree orange. I watch from a platform high above, feeling the heat radiate upwards, before going into the office next door to chat to GM Gary Hayter.

He explains Ngwenya’s history. Established in 1979 by Swedish Aid and handed over to the Swaziland Small Enterprise Development Corporation, it was defunct by the mid-80s. The Prettejohn family resurrected the factory in 1987.

“The absolutely critical thing they got right was getting the staff who the Swedes had trained [to come back],” he says – not least, the Kosta Boda-trained master blower Sibusiso Mhlanga. Today Mhlanga is the company’s production manager, and has trained a whole new generation of glassblowers.

“Fair trade and environmental [friendliness] are not limitations – they’re assets,” says Hayter.

From safe working conditions to fair wages, he believes that the better you treat your employees, the better they work and the smaller the turnover of staff.

Ngwenya pays communities across the country for clean bottles which are then transformed by hand into new pieces. The original Swedish moulds are over 40-years-old; none of them are ever thrown out, which means that there is a lot of repeat business from clients wanting the same glasses.

While the factory shop accounts for about 40% of sales, Ngwenya’s glassware is a favourite for safari lodge portfolios such as Singita, AndBeyond and Wilderness. It also supplies Traidcraft, a fair trade-only UK store, as well as resellers in Australia and the US.

“Being environmentally friendly isn’t only trendy now –it actually makes sense,” he says. Converting the furnaces from diesel to a mix of paraffin and either old motor oil or KFC cooking oil has dramatically reduced Ngwenya’s fuel bills, ensuring that prices can stay competitive against machine-made non-recycled glass.

Compliance with SWIFT’s code of conduct – which members get audited on annually – was easy. “We didn’t have to do anything except fill in forms – we realised we had been fair trade all along.”

 

 

Back on Malandelas’ dappled lawns, I meet up with the bubbly Daniella Mastracci, SWIFT’s acting country manager, for a beer.

While Comic Relief has provided a new tranche of funding, SWIFT is using various approaches to become self-sustaining. This includes a shop selling members’ products at Ngwenya Glass. It’s biggest source of income, however, is from conducting its training programmes abroad; so far, they’ve worked with coffee and handcraft producers in Tanzania, Uganda and South Africa.

“Ultimately our goal is to create businesses,” Mastracci explains. “One of the biggest learnings was that not every artisan is an entrepreneur” – some crafters just want to make things.

With this in mind, SWIFT’s second training scheme has recruited professionals instead of artisans – people interested in running their own businesses who could collaborate with artisans.

100 underwent basic training last year. The 30 with the most promising business plans were selected in December to undergo a three-year training, mentoring and market access programme that will nurture another new wave of sustainable Swazi-owned businesses.

WHERE TO BUY

In Swaziland

SWIFT products are available from a number of craft centres in Swaziland, many of which are home to outlets for a variety of design brands.

Swazi Candles Craft Centre, Malkerns Valley
Zoggs Boutique, Malandelas, Malkerns Valley
Ngwenya Glass, Ngwenya
Peak Craft Centre, Piggs Peak – Matsamo road

Online and South Africa

Eclectic Swazi
Pure Swazi
The Handmade in Swaziland store at the Watershed in the V&A Waterfront, Cape Town, sells Ngwenya Glass Quazi Design, Gone Rural and Tintsaba products.

Photography by Mbongeni Dlamini.

This was first published in the March 2016 edition of Business Day WANTED.

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