From Rural Swaziland to The World

In the first of a new series profiling our suppliers, we introduce you to Gone Rural – an inspirational success story combining traditional craft and contemporary design to create globally sought after homeware that uplifts rural communities in Africa.

Gone Rural’s roots stretch back to the 1970s: to a small craft shop housed in a thatched hut in rural Swaziland. It was founded by the visionary Jenny Thorne, who wanted to empower women in some of the country’s most remote areas. She created an innovative business model that provided female weavers with home-based work and a sustainable income. An entire product line of tableware has been created, all completely hand made in Eswatini (Swaziland’s new official name). What once was a small start-up organisation now has a global reach, with big markets in Europe, Australia, and the United States.

Managing Director Mellisa Mazingi gave us some great insight into the journey of her company in an in-depth interview that covers the history, products and weavers of Gone Rural.

Gone Rural started in a mud hut as a small craft shop selling handmade clothes, accessories and anti-Apartheid literature. The person behind it, Jenny Thorne, must have been a special woman. Can you tell us more about her?

I always say that Jenny was a visionary with the Gone Rural business model. Long before “social enterprise” was a trendy buzzword, she created a system that solved a problem and worked in the context of rural Eswatini (Swaziland’s official ‘new’ name). To this day, many of the women we work with – who worked with Jenny in the formative years of Gone Rural – still refer to their bread-and-butter product of placemats as “Jenny’s”, which is really testament to the legacy she left behind. She has just been honoured by the African Women’s Peace and Development Foundation on the occasion of Swaziland’s 50th year of independence for her legacy contribution to national development.

Most of us have never been to Eswatini. Can you paint a picture for us of the landscape and setting where Gone Rural is based? How does it look, feel, smell?

Eswatini is a beautiful country – full of mountains, many, many cattle and home to lovely people. What strikes you most is how genuinely good-hearted and welcoming everyone is. Gone Rural’s workshop is located on Malandela’s Farm, the family farm now run by Jenny’s children, and it’s a beautiful setting to come to work in every day. The smell of the grass we work with is everywhere, a lovely fresh and organic smell. And at any given time you will hear laughter or the sound of the dye team singing as they work – we have some pretty impressive baritones from the male members of our team!

Tell us about life in the villages of rural Eswatini, where your baskets are made. What kind of lives do the women weavers lead?

Rural Eswatini personifies the warm nature of its people. The society is made up of communities of families that support each other, particularly the women. As Gone Rural operates on a home-based work model, the women weave baskets and other home products in their homes or under the shade of trees while chatting, in between the daily household tasks of cooking, cleaning, raising children and farming. These tasks are often shared among family members. While some of these communities do not have access to electricity and other modern conveniences, their homes are warm, welcoming and familial and the women are always happy to share their life experiences.

 

 

What does it mean for these women to have regular employment?

The sustainability of work from Gone Rural is an essential part of the livelihoods of the women we work with. There are often few economic opportunities in the areas that the weavers hail from, especially as 50% of artisans are the primary income earners for their families. That’s what drives us to continue marketing and selling our products as widely as possible in order to increase the income of the women.

 

Furthermore, our impact goes beyond income-earning. Our sister NGO, boMake Rural Projects, provides funding for school bursaries for the artisans’ children, digging boreholes and building community halls for the groups that we work with. Working with Gone Rural means the women are able to be a part of developing their community as a whole.

 

Can you share with us some examples of the multiple generations of women who have worked with Gone Rural?

One of the most compelling stories of a multi-generational family of weavers is that which inspired the Song of the Weaver collection. Gogo Christina is the head of her family, and has been weaving since the inception of Gone Rural 27 years ago. Her daughter, Siphiwe, and granddaughter, Bonakele, are also weavers. She is proud of her children, and their family tree inspired the Framework basket showing how all the generations are woven together.

 

Siphiwe is the backbone of her family. Leaving school after falling pregnant, she began weaving to support her family and had six more children with her husband. One day he sold all their cattle and left, not returning for four years. Siphiwe had to leave her husband’s family homestead, but with her income from Gone Rural she was able to start her life again – building a house and buying animals. The Arc series, incorporating cow bone pieces along a ribbed basket spine, is inspired by her strength.

 

Bonakele is Siphiwe’s first daughter, who like Siphiwe left school at 16 after falling pregnant. She learnt to weave from her mother and joined Gone Rural to support her child. There are many ups and downs in her life but her daughter brings her great joy; this is represented in the Mother and Daughter basket pair and the Ups and Downs basket, showing how the lifeline of these women, with their various twists and turns, produces something beautiful and births a next generation of hope.

 

 

How has your NGO made a tangible difference to the women’s lives?

boMake Rural Project’s water project is one of the most impactful initiatives in the women’s communities. By drilling boreholes in drought-stricken areas of Swaziland and installing hand pumps to support this, the women have access to clean drinking water and do not have to travel long distances to collect water each morning. This not only improves the health of the overall community, but frees up time for children to attend a full day of school and more time for the women to do income-generating work. The difference that this makes is long-lasting, beyond the day-to-day.

 

How do you keep your designs fresh and innovative?

Our current focus for product design is on the artisans themselves. Through the Artisan-Led Design programme, initiated in 2017, we are training communities of weavers in design and product development skills, as well as drawing out their creativity and confidence to create contemporary, high-quality and beautifully designed products that tell their own stories and reflect their own inspiration. This has been carried out in three artisan groups and is being expanded to a fourth in 2019. This is the purest source of inspiration and results in products that are both innovative and grounded in the hearts of our weavers.

 

 

What makes Swazi baskets distinctive from other African baskets?

The quality of Gone Rural’s baskets is unmatched! We are also the only producer using Lutindzi grass to produce high-end basketry – this waxy, water-resistant grass is heat proof and hard-wearing, making it the best medium. Furthermore, our product designs are contemporary and chic, with constant injections of new design.

 

Swaziland is a tiny country, but it’s positively exploding with creative energy and some of the most interesting craft coming out of Africa. Is there something in the water?!

I think it really boils down to the generous nature of Swaziland’s people, especially her women. Because the women invest in teaching each other, creating together and sharing their work, the products of that work can only be beautiful.

The world seems to have fallen in love with woven baskets. What do you think is behind this trend?

I believe this is down to a desire to reconnect with nature and handmade – natural materials have a grounding power for our spirits, minds and homes while the knowledge that something has been painstakingly woven to perfection holds a value for the love that went into making it. Our baskets are beautiful, but in addition they hold an intangible beauty that I think we’re all craving in our increasingly hectic lives.

 

 

What is the most unusual object Gone Rural has made from woven grass?

Every day we’re making something new and exciting! The products that really allow the creativity of our talented artisans to shine are a series of functional sculptures designed by American artist Misha Khan for Friedman Benda gallery. The women bring the artistic vision of Misha to life through an eclectic and unexpected mix of woven grasses and upcycled materials from local junk yards, and the results are breath-taking.

Hand Woven

From rural plains to bustling cities, people are brought together by an ancient tradition passed down from generation to generation. African Basketry is a craft that weaves communities together, as they create pieces that are imbued with practical and decorative value. 

Techniques and methods of production are as rich and abundant as the diverse cultures that make up the continent, and an informed eye can trace the origin of a basket from its weave, patterning and composition. Like any art medium, basketry is highly versatile and recent creative developments have seen new techniques and materials being integrated into the artistic language of the craft. Utilising recyclable materials, exploring varied colors and forms, working at grander scales are just some of the new directions allowing artists to interpret moving trends while working with authentic processes. This evolution is creating pieces that have intrinsic worth and significant impact in the contemporary design world. 

By supporting African Basketry, you are invited to join a movement bringing authentic craft to the world, honoring and preserving traditional craftmanship and uplifting communities in a truly meaningful and profound way. 

Eco-Conscious Design

“The felting process is magical. You can mould wool into any form. It’s like a form of meditation”

– Ronel Jordaan

When Ronel and her team of artisans are at work, hand-felted South African merino wool is transformed into designs inspired by her favourite shapes in nature – from giant pebble stools to floral cushions and seashell poufs. Revering the organic properties of this versatile material, she steers away from the traditional chemical method of carbonisation and uses lead-free dyes and biodegradable soaps in her process. The result is a multifarious range of felt products that introduce eco-conscious sensibilities to the home.

It’s no surprise that internationally acclaimed designer Porky Hefer sought out her expertise for his latest project – the Endangered series in collaboration with Southern Guild, commissioned by SFA Advisory for the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation. Debuted at Design Miami/Basel in June 2018, the pieces co-produced by the Ronel Jordaan team include a snuggly orangutan and a reposed polar bear.

 

 

‘We loved the challenge of creating larger-than-life soft ‘toys’, knowing they are for a good cause,’ she says (25% of all profits go toward the Leonardo diCaprio Foundation’s work in climate resiliency, protection of vulnerable wildlife and the restoration of balance to threatened ecosystems and communities).

 

 

That these animals were produced with a renewable fibre coming from sheep not subjected to mulesing practices made the choice a conscious one for Porky and his collaborators. Each animal is stuffed with polyester formed from recycled plastic bottles, all part of Ronel’s approach to maintaining environmental awareness throughout her production process, an ethos perfectly suited to the eco-friendly brief for these collectible, designer animals.

 

 

Having personally trained her team in the art of felting, Ronel continues to empower the women who work with her, affording them the opportunity to create items of value for people and for the environment.

Her homeware range for Source is another manifestation of this journey, where products are created with sustainability and a deep respect for the environment from which all materials are sourced.

 

Meet the Pioneers

In recognition of their ongoing contribution to the African design and craft industry, Source founders Trevyn and Julian McGowan appear on the cover of Business of Home’s current ‘International Issue’.

In the magazine feature, titled Mapping the Makers, Trevyn explains their journey: ‘Through photography and storytelling, we were able to create a demand for—and build an understanding of—a contemporary African aesthetic with a rich narrative.’ The 12-page article highlights people around the globe who are making a difference to the way products are manufactured and supplied. Trevyn identifies the strength of African design stemming from customers wanting to connect with what they put in their home so that they feel their environment has meaning. ‘They want to feel they are making a difference by buying products that will have a direct impact on the makers’ lives, not the CEO of some large brand.’ Source’s meaningful range of homeware – from glassware and crockery, to lighting and basketry – highlights a diverse range of work passionately conceived, woven, moulded and crafted on the African continent.

As founders of The Guild Group, the McGowans have been leaders in the evolution of African design, establishing multiple design platforms, including Source, Southern Guild collectible design gallery, GUILD studio and concept store, Odeon homeware store and a number of design-related development programmes. Their pioneering vision and insight into global design markets has earned them places on USA Art+Auction magazine’s ‘Power 100’ list of the most influential players in the global art world, City Press 100 World Class South Africans and Fast Company’s Most Creative People in Business.

Ngwenya Glass

In the African Kingdom of Swaziland, a mountain that resembles a basking crocodile can be found. At the foot of this mountain lies the village of Ngwenya – the Swazi word for crocodile – home to Ngwenya Glass.

The scene from the balcony above the furnaces is a compelling sight. Highly skilled workers manipulate molten glass in a series of fluid moves. Theirs is a rarely practiced art form requiring a studied precision born of patience and focus.

Founded in 1979 as a Swedish Aid Project that employed and trained locals in the art of glassblowing, the factory faltered and closed in 1983, leaving the artists without work and the collectors without their much-loved wares. One such collector, Cas Prettejohn, travelled to Swaziland with his family in search of the elephants they loved and found a derelict factory, coated in cobwebs and invasive wattles. The Prettejohns became the owners of what was the single glassblowing factory in Africa at the time, renaming it Ngwenya Glass, and within months had reinstated a handful of the former glassblowers ­and reignited the furnaces.

Ngwenya Glass has evolved into an inspiring success story with over 70 employees who, through Source, supply curated ranges to leading retail outlets around the world. Each piece of glassware is made with the age-old techniques, resulting in a superior and enduring product range. All the ranges offer a wide selection of designs within which to curate a unique collection. Master glassblower Sibusiso Mhlanga, who underwent advanced training at the Kosta Boda Glassworks in Sweden during the seventies, tutors apprentices and continues to travel abroad to work with some of the leading glassblowers in the world.

Community upliftment and the preservation of the environment are core values at Ngwenya Glass. Used oil from Swaziland’s KFC outlets is used to fuel the furnaces, and the wood from invasive exotic trees is used to create moulds needed for production. All the products are made from 100 percent recycled glass, most of which is collected by the local Swazi community who are paid for their contributions. In exchange for waste clean-up campaigns, local schools receive sponsorships that go towards funding the development of the schools. In 1989, Ngwenya Glass launched the Ngwenya Rhino & Elephant fund – Swaziland’s most successful wildlife conservation fund. A percentage of the factory’s profits are donated into the fund, which go directly to funding Mkhaya Game Reserve – a refuge for endangered species in the Swaziland Lowveld.

Wonki Ware

Wonki Ware is an artisanal ceramics studio that specialises in handmade dinnerware, serveware and home accessories.

The studio has cultivated a loyal following for its extensive product range in a dynamic offering of multiple colourways, shapes and distinctive decorative patterns.

Quality stoneware finished with non-toxic and lead-free glazes fired at 1300 degrees Celsius gives Wonki Ware its lightweight yet durable, microwave and dishwasher safe quality. The slow-craft, human-touch approach to production ­­means that each Wonki Ware piece passes through 18 pairs of hands from clay mixing, rolling, shaping, sun drying, and firing, to decorating, waxing, glazing, and quality checking. Due to the handmade nature of these products, no two are identical, making each piece unique.

At Source, our selection criterion goes beyond the appeal of good design. We’re committed to choosing suppliers that also contribute to the communities and environments in which they operate. Since its founding in 1999, Wonki Ware has been dedicated to training people from economically disadvantaged backgrounds in the art of ceramics and today the company has grown to employ over 100 people. Wonki Ware is currently distributed in numerous countries globally, making it one of South Africa’s most successful design exports.

Singita Sweni

Source is passionate about the evolution of African design, and given the continent’s cultural wealth, unique narratives and incredible natural beauty, it’s no surprise that its fast becoming the new design frontier.

Singita Sweni – the most intimate of the Singita lodges – is an example of refined African design at its best. The lodge is a tranquil sanctuary nestled in a riverine forest that unfurls onto the banks of the Sweni river. Its location in an exclusive concession in the south-eastern part of the Kruger National Park, is an area well known for its high concentration of the Big Five and four notable prides of lion.

In keeping an authentic sensibility, the immediate environment continues to be an important source of inspiration for African design. Outwardly unassuming, Singita Sweni is inspired by the structures of lairs and dens found in the region. Notes from nature are carried into the interiors and enhanced through an effortless blend of light, warm colours, textures and contemporary design features, like their polished timber floors and chrome balustrades.

Built on stilts, each of the six suites and shared public spaces have been fitted with floor-to-ceiling glass panels and expansive decks, creating a seamless flow between the natural surrounds and interiors. Eucalyptus poles line the walls and ceilings, lending a dappled light effect that preserves the feeling of outdoor living. Each space is dressed in shades of brown, ochre and taupe – echoing the hues of the natural landscape, while leafy greens, teal and canary yellow have been added to refresh the earthy colour palette.