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 Swaziowned 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 metal work 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 SA, 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 any way 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 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 1970s, 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.” Rosecraft is 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’ 1 000° orange. I watch from a platform high above, feeling the heat radiate upwards,
before going into the office next door to chat to general manager 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-1980s.
The Prettejohn family resurrected the factory in 1987. “The absolutely critical thing they got right was getting the staff 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 more than 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 – on which members get audited 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’s dappled lawns, I meet up with the bubbly Daniella Mastracci, Swift’s acting country manager, for a beer. Although Comic Relief has provided a new tranche of funding, Swift is using various approaches to become selfsustaining. This includes a shop selling members’ products at Ngwenya Glass. Its 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 SA.
“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. A hundred 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.