Part of Africa Foundation’s rural businesses and entrepreneurship initiative is the support of craft markets situated in the communities in which we work. These markets create and sell high quality souvenirs including crafts and jewellery to tourists visiting the conservation areas around which the markets are positioned. Africa Foundation provides support to these rural businesses, in partnership with Global Gift Innovators (GGI), by facilitating infrastructure development, helping crafters to develop their product quality and range, and supporting financial and business literacy, to ultimately attract a variety of customers.
While these training programmes have been an undeniable success, improving the quality of products and the business acumen of the crafters, the markets remained dependent on the tourism industry to sell their goods. COVID-19 travel restrictions and the subsequent closure of the tourist sector have therefore denied thecraft markets a customer base, leaving them unable to generate any income.
Africa Foundation’s goal has always been to empower businesses to function independently, ultimately encouraging sustainable community development. COVID-19 however, brought unprecedented challenges never before seen by rural businesses reliant on tourism. In this context it was imperative for Africa Foundation and Global Gift Innovators to provide additional support to prevent irreversible to the craft markets.
At the beginning of May a re-pivoting strategy was implemented. The goal was to increase the markets that the crafters could sell to, effectively replacing lost trade. A two-pronged approach was developed:
- Assistance was given to three craft markets – collectively called ‘Lala Africa’– to open an online shop that would enable them to continue to sell products despite the travel restrictions. Website construction for Lala Africa (lalaafrica.shop) is well underway and will launch later this month with 150 unique handcrafted products from the three craft markets .
- An intensive training plan was developed in order to diversify the product ranges that the crafters made, to produce goods valuable to the local, non-tourist market. The most obvious new product line was cloth facemasks, tapping into a newly created market and an urgent global need for these items.Training on sewing machines was provided at Ku-Humelela craft market, as soon as lockdown restrictions allowed. Imparting the skills and knowledge to begin to make cloth facemasks, and fabric shopper bags.
What followed was a drastic turn-around. In the month of May, Ku-Humelela sold over R40,000 worth of masks, and orders for June continue to come in fast. With no intervention, this craft market would have been severely behind their annual sales target, jeopardising the crafters jobs, families, and livelihoods, and forcing them to face the potential shutdown of business entirely. However with a timely intervention by Africa Foundation and Global Gift Innovators, and a clever re-thinking of products to make and sell, Ku-Humelala has been able to position themselves ahead of their sales target and are more successful than ever – without a single tourist visiting their market.
The fact that this craft market can stay in business, and thrive, not only saves the jobs of the 15 women who work here, but it also directly impacts the 65 dependents of these women. A well-timed ‘helping hand’ and a strategy pivot not only saved a small rural business, but in the words of the business development manager for GGI who has been an integral part of the success of this initiative; it has ‘impacted the hope, purpose, sense of belonging and the dignity imparted to the members’. And that is something to truly celebrate.
Donor funding has now enabled the purchase of additional sewing machines and related tools to commence training at Bohlabela Craft Market, also in Mpumalanga, this month, extending to Mbhedula Craft Market in KwaZulu Natal in July. As local and international businesses begin to reopen and return to their new normal in coming months, and schools reopen, the three craft markets – employing 49 rural women – will be equipped and ready to supply quality branded or patterned cloth facemasks, keeping theirs and others businesses alive and well.