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With Nest Guild member, Gone Rural’s Weaving Academy, artisan women are creating baskets inspired by their own stories and lives

Nest Guild member, Gone Rural, is a Fair Trade social enterprise in Eswatini (Swaziland) with the mission of creating economic empowerment for rural women in the country. Working with over 780 artisans from all over Eswatini, Gone Rural offers home-based work to basket-weavers in often remote communities, helping women to earn income from their beautiful traditional handcraft. Since 1992, Gone Rural has provided market access, product design, materials, advance payment and training to local artisans to develop a brand globally recognised for social sustainability and contemporary home products of high quality.

Passionate about changing the African narrative, Gone Rural Managing Director, Mellisa Mazingi, has a vision to create opportunities for Gone Rural’s weavers to grow “beyond the artisan” to increase their upward mobility, personal realization, and leadership. This vision informs Gone Rural’s overarching mission to create the means for indigenous women of Eswatini to have personal and cultural ownership over their craft. In pursuit of these objectives, Mellisa has designed two programs: the Artisan-Led Design Program and the Gone Rural Weaving Academy, both of which are helping to transform the Gone Rural mission into reality.

Through the Artisan-Led Design program, talented weavers are trained in product design and development skills to design their own product ranges and to become product designers in their own right. The Gone Rural Weaving Academy is a program to train master weavers in teaching skills, enabling the women to grow into handcraft teachers. It creates a compensation system for the informal teaching that already happens in the homestead, as well as formalises that training to ensure adequate cultural preservation and skills development for the next generation of weavers. Led by Anissa Dove, a community development specialist from Australian Volunteers International, the program has been piloted over the past 12 months, facilitating teaching training for 11 women from the Lavumisa region of Eswatini. The pilot has further guided the teachers’ creation of a weaving curriculum and the development of their own Artisan-Led Design collection. These trained teachers have now gone on to train two classes of weavers (a total of 35 students) in the community of eDlangeni – sharing their expertise in a more intricate, versatile and in-demand weaving technique that will increase the income of the eDlangeni weavers.

The impact of this pilot has been two-fold by enhancing the lives and livelihoods of both the teachers from Lavumisa and students from eDlangeni. The weaving teachers have experienced a greater sense of empowerment through their new status as handcraft teachers, and have realized greater ownership over the craft production process that they are a part of. As part of their teacher training, the women from Lavumisa also engaged in the Artisan-Led Design project – creating new products that are inspired by their own stories and lives. This process was transformative for the weavers – drawing out their creativity and confidence with results in the form of basket designs that carry beautiful stories behind them. These creative designs now form part of a new collection marketed through Gone Rural that is both giving women the opportunity to increase their incomes, as well as to earn royalties for their product designs. Furthermore, the new source of income the women are receiving as teachers is helping them almost double their incomes over last year. With this newfound level of financial independence, two women have cultivated their own herds of livestock and another has been able to pay for asthma treatment for her daughter. It follows that the impacts of the economic empowerment created reach far beyond the financial, to also transform lives.

The weaving students have used their newly-learned weaving skills to create a new product: the eDlangeni bowl is a shallow woven basket made using the Lavumisa technique, utilizing two new colourways and a range of classic tones. Gone Rural is supporting the sale of these new products in its Eswatini retail stores, with the products already generating increased sales and income for the eDlangeni weavers. Further, this investment in the women has increased their sense of pride in the handcraft that they produce and their abilities as artisans.

The Gone Rural Weaving Academy has been funded completely out of Gone Rural’s working capital, with the support of AVI’s volunteer placement. This is representative of the trade-off between social enterprise and non-profit organisation – being registered as a company to facilitate trade and export, Gone Rural has limited fundraising capacity to secure donor funding to support such programs. The investment has included training materials, support staff, transportation, meals and accommodation for the artisans – as well as investments in photography, branding and merchandising for the new products created. The impact created through this investment far outweighs the monetary expenditure, and Gone Rural plans to continue with a second phase of the Weaving Academy in 2020. To view images of the Artisan-Led Design collection created by the women of Lavumisa and the new Edlangeni bowl created by their talented students, please click here.