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    In South Africa, Crafts Revival Boosts Exports


    © International Trade Centre, International Trade Forum - Issue 4/2003 

    Interview with Tembeka Nkamba-Van Wyk, Talking Beads Academy

    A South African businesswoman spotted an opportunity when she noticed that local craft traditions were disappearing, while tourists were seeking locally-made handicrafts. In capitalizing on the opportunity, she has created an export business employing thousands of women in rural areas, and has invested in their communities by providing training and medical care.

    Ms Nkamba-Van Wyk set up the Talking Beads Academy in 1997, with the aim of keeping local traditions alive and providing employment for South African women. Women from rural areas, working in cooperatives, form the majority of the organization's membership. "Talking Beads allows women to work and stay with their families, rather than move to urban areas," explains Ms Nkamba-Van Wyk.

    Moving into exports

    By 1999, Talking Beads had trained so many women that the local market for their products became saturated, and the company decided to move into exporting.

    Initially, they decided to concentrate on France and the United States of America. Their attempts to target the latter market proved more successful because there was already a demand for the type of product that Talking Beads manufactured.

    Meeting start-up challenges

    At the outset, they experienced problems because the established business community assumed that, as women, they would lack the qualities necessary to operate successfully, and therefore did not wish to risk investing in their business.

    The company's main challenges were inadequate knowledge about their export markets; a lack of expertise in negotiating business deals; avoiding exploitation by 'agents'; and a shortage of funds for advertising and promotion.

    They rose to the challenges by reading books on trends and business dynamics; raising money from local sales and reinvesting their profits in training; forming local partnerships; and joining international networks. "Most important, we never accepted failure as an alternative," says Ms Nkamba-Van Wyk.

    Information and communications technology has helped Talking Beads increase its profits by responding promptly to requests from prospective clients, since even a delay of a few hours can result in lost orders. Therefore, the organization has invested in a fax line, an Internet connection and cell phones, in order to be accessible 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

    Training in remote areas

    Although Talking Beads managed to raise enough money from sales to train rural women in product development and basic skills, they need help with training in management, marketing and exporting to ensure the company's long-term survival. Input from designers in touch with the European market would be beneficial, enabling them to tailor their product range so as to maximize export sales.

    The organization also hopes to be able eventually to afford a mobile training unit, to provide women in remote rural areas with supplies of beads and designs, and to permit them to deliver training. They also want this unit to be able to provide basic health facilities and screening for HIV/AIDS. "If you are working with people from deprived backgrounds, you really need to see yourself not only as a businesswoman, but also as a social entrepreneur," says Ms Nkamba-Van Wyk.

    Company: Talking Beads Academy

    Sector: Artisanal crafts

    Location: Pretoria, South Africa

    Employees: 30 full-time, 4,500 on commission

    Yearly turnover: Approximately US$ 145,000

    Export sales as % of total turnover: 40%

    Current export markets: Austria, Brazil, Chile, Germany, United States of America

    Advice to other women entrepreneurs: "Work hard to overcome others' preconceptions about women-owned businesses. Research markets and financing opportunities thoroughly. Train your workforce. Network, and learn from others' experience. Focus, work hard and remember that help is only a phone call or e-mail away."


    Mary Treacy, Trade Forum contributing editor, conducted this interview.


    For further information about Talking Beads, contact talkingbeads@ananzi.co.za