By Natalie Shriber and Liesbet Peeters, both formerly with the Grassroots Business Initiative of the World Bank/IFC, a long standing partner of Gone Rural
As a poor, land-locked country, Swaziland – 70 per cent reliant on subsistence agriculture – is plagued by drought, soil degradation and erosion. As a result of recent droughts, GDP growth remains low at 2.3 per cent while high oil and food prices have led to inflation increasing to 7.5 per cent. It’s estimated that 40 per cent of the population is unemployed and nearly 70 per cent live below the poverty line. With these poor economic indicators, coupled with an HIV/AIDS rate of more than 38 per cent of the population, the effects of climate change and environmental degradation on economic development and on the population only add to the country’s problems.
In the midst of such tough economic and social circumstances, Gone Rural, a small grassroots social enterprise, is generating much needed income for rural women and, at the same time, promoting the sustainable use of one of Swaziland’s more unknown natural resources – Swazi Lutindzi grass.
Gone Rural – set up by the late Jennifer Ann Thorne, an entrepreneur who first went to Swaziland from England as a trainee nurse in the late 1960s – assists local women in producing handicrafts, ranging from tableware to floor mats, gifts and accessories and clay pots. These are then sold to tourists, thereby putting a stop to the flood of handicrafts that are imported into Swaziland from other parts of Africa and marketed as native produce.
For its production, Gone Rural utilizes an outsourcing model through which rural Swazi women are engaged by the business to grow lutindzi grass. Gone Rural purchases the grass from these women, dyes it into a range of rich colours at its workshop and sells it back to them to weave and plait in their homes and create the artistic products as requested by Gone Rural’s design and volume specifications.
When the women have finished their products, Gone Rural sells the merchandise through its sales and distribution network. Gone Rural also trains the women in latest fashion trends in handicraft production and only purchases merchandise that meets the highest quality standards. While training is primarily focused on the skills and techniques required to produce specific Gone Rural products, more broadly applicable skills and handicraft techniques are also taught.
The employment created through Gone Rural’s business operations – which provides vital income and stability to respective production communities – is at the core of its operations. The company is committed to increasing its sales so as to generate employment for more women in Swaziland and thereby encouraging local economic growth and enabling the women to deal with such problems as increasing numbers of orphaned children. The business has grown to the extent where the company employs over 20 people in its workshop at Malkerns in Swaziland and works with more than 770 rural women, 80 per cent of whom rely on Gone Rural as their sole source of income.
Gone Rural is a highly successful business and now operates at the prestige end of the market in 35 countries. Its products can be found in stores in London, Paris, Tokyo and New York and have been featured in numerous home ware magazines, including Elle Decoration, a top-rated US magazine covering home improvements.
Additionally in Swaziland, Gone Rural has created a not-for-profit organization, Gone Rural BoMake, which provides various social training, literacy, and health programmes designed to improve and enhance the women’s lives, thereby achieving three things: profitability, social/development impact and environmental sustainability. It also pursues educational and social initiatives that focus on increasing the life expectancy of women, the primary victims of poverty and HIV in the region.
Through Gone Rural BoMake, the participating Swazi communities receive HIV/AIDS awareness/education programmes as well as basic treatments/products and prevention skills. People also learn various methods of capturing drinkable water, training and support in the development of trench gardens and unemployed young men are given support in trying to find jobs. In addition, 660 AIDS orphans within these communities will receive schooling that would not be possible otherwise – youth and women across these communities will also receive training in entrepreneurship, general literacy, nutrition and women’s rights.
Gone Rural is now one of the top five handicraft producers in Swaziland and has received several awards for its products and development impact. Having proven its worth as a social enterprise over the last decade, successfully trading in both the domestic as well as export markets and having made strong advances in product quality and innovation, Gone Rural is now hoping to expand its operations in order to improve revenues and so increase employment and income levels within Swaziland’s rural and most disadvantaged communities. Central to Gone Rural’s commitment as a social enterprise, is the belief that through a strong and robust business, it can continue to provide sustainable jobs, training and renewed hope to its rural Swazi producers and their communities.
As such, Gone Rural is an excellent example of how creative and innovative grassroots solutions, combined with environmental sustainability, can provide help in promoting economic growth and alleviating poverty, thereby reversing the negative trends of environmental degradation in one of Africa’s poorest economies.
The big significance of small forestry enterprises
It is estimated that exported timber only represents five per cent of the wood cut in tropical forests. Ten per cent of timber used locally and the majority – 85 per cent – of wood is for fuel.
While exports are generally the realm of large-scale enterprises, the domestic market is dominated by small forest enterprises. In many countries, the forest sector constitutes mainly small forest enterprises – employing from 10 to 100 full-time employees. They create more than half of the jobs in the forest sector and are responsible for over 50 per cent of the government revenues. While small and medium enterprises are important for local wealth creation, they can have a strong environmental accountability as their managers belong to the local community and social control is more personal.