Harnessing the Rich History of Weaving in Swaziland

Weaving together tradition with innovation, Gone Rural is championing a new model of social enterprise to empower women in rural communities. The company supports 750 women artisans in Swaziland, producing world-class collections of baskets and tableware that are crafted from locally sourced Lutindzi grass and other natural fibers. The results are stunning. Gone Rural’s handmade products are featured in design showrooms around the world including in Canada through Ten Thousand Villages and Far and Wide Collective. When Gone Rural started its work in the 1960s, women in Swaziland had the status of minor children under the law. But through a strong commitment to women and organic growth, the company is using creativity to ignite change in rural communities.

Gone Rural was first introduced to TFO Canada Associate Kathleen Holland at a trade show in Johannesburg, South Africa. After seeing the quality of Gone Rural’s products, the company was selected to participate in TFO Canada’s Design Africa program. Under the Design Africa Program collaborating with trade experts and designers from across Africa, Gone Rural received business support and exposure to international markets. “The marketing materials they put together were way ahead of their time and did justice to our work. It really innovated our brand,” says Julie Nixon, Managing Director at Gone Rural. Design Africa also sponsored Gone Rural to attend a number of international trade shows, including the Ingarda Trade Show in South Africa and the SIDIM design show in Canada in 2007. This exposure helped to increase the company’s sales and presence in international markets.

“90% of our women now report that they are the chief decision makersin their home economically, compared to 38% nationally.”

The key to Gone Rural’s model is flexibility. With the goal of taking craft to market, Gone Rural builds on women’s traditional artisan skills to train them in new techniques and contemporary designs. Weaving allows the women to work at home on their own time, so the fabric of their lives does not change. Gone Rural’s philosophy is to pay its artisans twice the minimum wage in Swaziland: for every product sold, between 38-42% of the wholesale price goes back to the woman who made it in wages. This income is helping to elevate women’s status and control over resources in their own homes. “90% of our women now report that they are the chief decision makers in their home economically, compared to 38% nationally,” says Julie.

Like many women in Swaziland, Sibongile Zwane learned to weave from her mother, who had learned from her grandmother before. Now with her own three children to care for, Sibongile was looking for a way to boost her family’s income. She began weaving with Gone Rural seven years ago, learning new techniques and designs to expand her skills. When Gone Rural created an Artisan Board in 2009, Sibongile was elected as group leader to represent her community. Artisan Board members are trained in leadership skills and given a real say in how the company is run. They also set the strategic direction for boMake, a nonprofit organization that Gone Rural founded to improve social welfare in its artisans’ communities. Ensuring that women like Sibongile have a voice and a seat at the table is the real secret behind Gone Rural’s ongoing success.

“What we are doing is dignity work. It is not a hand down to poor women. These women are amazing, strong, talented artisans and they are doing it for themselves. If they were not making such beautiful products, we would have nothing to sell to the rest of the world. It is their skills, their power, their company.”