‘Preserving the past, understanding the present and pioneering the future’. When Gone Rural (GR) was officially registered in 1992 by founder Jenny Thorne, this was its mission. To date, the brand offers home-based income to over 700 women in Swaziland; who represent 13 different rural communities. Not only are GR products available worldwide, allowing them to significantly increase their artisans’ incomes, they are able to channel 30% of their profits into their Gone Rural BoMake; which is their community development organisation. Something that, before 2006, was probably wishful thinking in Swaziland.
To understand this a little better, you have to realise that Swazi law categorized women as minors up until 2006. But long before that, this handcraft company and design brand knew they had to ignite some change at the community level. With figures such as 82% of their significant others being unemployed and the fact that each woman supports an average of eight dependants, it was clear that women needed to be empowered. They needed to be able to manage their own lives with the freedom to make their own decisions.
According to Mellisa Mazingi – GR Managing Director – as much as they wanted to empower women artisans, they had to do it in a way that allowed them to fulfil their homestead responsibilities and traditional duties. Therefore, Jenny would help them make some income by selling their crafts in a roadside stall in Malkerns, Swaziland in 1992. Their hand-woven decor items, baskets, bowls, and placemats proved so admired that they have now expanded to more than 32 countries and 1000 retail outlets globally. And it’s easy to see why.
The contemporary basketry as well as home décor and giftware products are the product of fusion techniques. Their basis comes from traditional weaving techniques where they primarily use natural grass – in particular Lutindzi grass, indigenous to the area – and sustainable materials such as reeds, sisal fibre and clay. They then experiment with contemporary shapes to create functional as well as aesthetic pieces that speak to local and international audiences.
The women are fully invested in the product development process, from harvesting and dying of the grass to the design and production techniques. And the creation depth doesn’t stop there. Their main line, GR Collection, is entirely created from recycled materials and natural fibres that are all locally sourced. It was crucial that their modern design didn’t compromise their environmental sensitivity. This includes learning to innovate the recycled materials they have, like textile factory off-cuts to using sustainably-harvested Lutindzi grass that is cut, not pulled, out of the ground. They also use eco-dyes to colour it, and dry it naturally under the sun.
In addition, they launched a signature collection, The Song of the Weaver, which is a design project that creates products made by generations of the same family tree. To imitate their lives, the baskets are rich in Swazi tradition and cultural beliefs, to capture the Swazi woman’s story and way of life. These woven memoirs are considered designer homeware that are investment collectors’ items.
With their Rural Evolution collection, they push the barriers of innovation in weaving. Working with their weavers, they challenge what can be made with grass. So far, the hand-made creatives have made everything from fashion and sculptures, to lighting and accessories.
The brand is quick to clarify that this is definitely not a hand-out situation. The women are given a platform to work, decide how involved they want to be and decide for themselves how they use their money. However, they aren’t just getting a sustainable income. Remember the programme called BoMake (meaning ‘women’ or ‘mothers’ in Siswati) we mentioned earlier? GR established it to bring health clinics, clean water and a school bursary fee program, among other social needs, to impact to more than 20,000 community members. In addition to all this, they have empowerment programs that educated the women on their basic human rights, micro-enterprise and business literacy. They also have social workshops on gender-based violence and victim support.With a bottom line of ‘People, Planet, and Profit’, Gone Rural has managed to create a platform that continues to go from strength to strength for decades. It’s the way they’ve managed to create a poignant connection between the work that goes on behind the scenes and the final product. But also that they’ve managed to empower women, as they challenge themselves with innovation and sustainability. And better yet, all these attributes are passed down to generations of women, creating a continuous chain of positive change.