Taking rural crafts out of the village and into the marketplace

Particularly in the rural areas of South Africa, stories abound of how artists and crafters either struggle to make a living or are exploited because of their lack of city smarts. An award-winning partnership between the private sector and Venda and Tsonga artisans in Limpopo is changing that, by encouraging villagers to use their creative skills to support their households.

The Madi a Thavha Mountain Lodge near Louis Trichardt in the Soutpansberg region has partnered with a number local beaders, weavers, potters and sculptors to help them monetise their talent while enhancing the lodge’s cultural tourism offering.

So successful is this collaboration that it won the 2019 Business and Arts South Africa award for cultural tourism, as a shining example of sustainable social entrepreneurship in the creative economy, practising responsible tourism that benefits the surrounding community. It is also one of the National Arts Council’s flagship projects.

Marcelle Bosch, the owner of Madi a Thavha, says when the lodge opened its doors 15 years ago, it began offering its mainly international guests arts and culture experiences through village tours and meeting the local artisans in their homesteads and workspaces.

This evolved into supporting the crafters with product development, production, training, and marketing, tapping into their skills to produce high-quality clay pots, wooden plates, baskets, sculptures and beadwork to sell to lodge patrons.

“In this way, we’ve built up a sustainable relationship with about 30 artisans in northern Limpopo,” she explains.

“Sometimes our projects are partly funded – such as by the National Arts Council and the Tourism Conservation Fund – but we don’t rely on project funding, because supporting these artisans is part of our business strategy. In such a way, we can offer continuous support to them to develop their businesses, which are often situated in remote and isolated rural areas. We hope such funding continues, but even if it doesn’t, we’ll carry on.”

Bosch believes there is a healthy appetite for authentic, handmade artisanal and craft items – as opposed to “tourist tat” or low-grade curios – and says their guests are genuinely interested in seeing how the locals live and work. “This way, we can offer a unique experience to tourists.” The lodge also “breathes local culture” in its decor, art gallery, museum, and shop.

“Buyers like to know the story of the crafters and the art and crafts they make. We present these stories at our lodge and at our CraftArt centre at Victoria Yards,” Bosch says.

The latter is an edgy urban art and lifestyle hub in Johannesburg, where the Limpopo artisans sell their products, take part in exhibitions, demonstrations, and workshops, and connect with their urban contemporaries through artisans-in-residence programmes.

“We are now also working with the crafters at Makuleke village, close to the Punda Maria Gate of the Kruger National Park.” Having recently had their dispossessed land restored, Makuleke residents are now benefiting from tourism by reviving their indigenous craft skills such as ilala palm weaving.

The realities of having to run households and look after extended families does affect the rural crafters’ ability to be self-sustaining. Their artistic output is consequently limited – which means their earning potential is, too. This, says Bosch, is why the lodge encourages the artisans “to contribute to the development of a ‘village tourism economy’ by offering village experiences and homestays” to supplement their income. Plus, she says, the project “also contributes to social cohesion and empowerment, especially among women”.

It’s mainly the younger artisans who can fully sustain their own business, she notes. “Rural crafters simply can’t compete with young entrepreneurs who have access to social media and are well-spoken. And they [the older crafters] want to stay in the villages and not move to the major centres.”

Rural Limpopo artists such as Noria Mabasa and Jackson Hlungwani have complained about being exploited by unscrupulous art buyers, but Bosch is adamant that “we have to avoid that. The main reason for exploitation in the past was that the relationship between the buyers and the artisans was not mutual and not sustainable. Nowadays, artisans are much more empowered and have a better understanding of the value of their work. And the overseas guests show so much appreciation for them and really empower them.”

For the future, the lodge will continue to offer support, quality control and market access to the crafters while exploring further retail, wholesale, corporate and online sales opportunities – being careful to keep standards high and not “overcommercialise” their offering.

Meanwhile, Bosch remains upbeat about this mutually beneficial partnership because it’s not just Limpopo’s rural communities who benefit, she points out: “Madi a Thavha wouldn’t exist without our relationship with the artisans.”

Issued by Flow Communications on behalf of the National Arts Council (NAC).

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