Gone Rural was registered in 1992 but founded many years before that by a British nurse—the late Jenny Thorne. Thorne and her husband owned a farm in Swaziland that now houses the House on Fire, Malandela’s restaurant, an internet café and the Gone Rural workshop and store.
“Jenny’s vision is that she really wanted to give independence and a voice to Swazi women,” says Philippa Thorne, her daughter-in-law.
Thorne has a background in design and came to Gone Rural 11 years ago as a volunteer after hearing about it from a friend. She is now the company’s creative director.
Gone Rural is a member of the World Fair Trade Organisation and makes eco-friendly handicraft made from lutindzi—a brittle mountain grass harvested in January. The grass is colored in wood burners for up to 30 minutes using eco-certified dyes from Germany. The raw materials are then sorted and weighed onsite according to orders. Gone Rural employs over 760 workers from the rural areas, a big jump from 30 in 1992. There are 23 permanent staff members in the workshop.
The women get the raw materials delivered to them and they decide how much work they can take on. Once the orders are finished, they are picked up and brought to the workshop. This eliminates any traveling issues the women may have. Baskets can take anywhere from two to 10 days to make and if any new products are developed, training workshops are held with selected group members, who go on to train the rest of the group.
Many of the women came to Gone Rural via neighbors and relatives. The minimum working age is 16 years. Forty-eight per cent of the wholesale price goes to the women and the prices are revised every year.
“Our women are their own businesswomen and we’re basically partners with them,” says Thorne.
There is a challenge of managing growth—the company wants to help as many women as it can but it needs to keep in mind the current workers. Having 760 artisans means nothing when the orders just aren’t large enough to spread. Trying to keep everyone busy, while increasing numbers, will lead to the supply of an expensive product exceeding demand. After all, this is a business and not a charity. Someone will, however, still visit the women in the rural areas, irrespective of whether there is an order for them to fill, to reassure them that they are not forgotten.
Gone Rural’s products are sold in Britain and Canada and for the last five years it has partnered with Woolworths, in South Africa, to create food and nut Christmas hampers. Two retail shops in Swaziland and some South African curio shops also carry the company’s range of homewares, which were launched in 2011.
Even against the chaotic backdrop of the farm’s preparation for the Bushfire Festival in May, the stock room was full as orders were being sorted and ladies were brought in to finish off an urgent order—a black chandelier made from grass and T-shirt offcuts.
Gone Rural is competing against international products that are made by companies with more resources and lower prices. Ensuring that they have the highest quality possible is imperative. There are three check points in quality control. Each product first needs to pass a production co-ordinator in the rural areas. It then gets checked in the workshop with a final inspection taking place before orders are packed. The women get paid less for work that isn’t up to standard.
Visiting designers and partners such as Swazi Ceramics ensures that fresh ideas are continuously generated. The company has also gone as far using recycled plastic and T-shirt offcuts from a factory in Matsapa, Swaziland.
Swaziland is one of 15 landlocked countries on the continent; it is Southern Africa’s poorest country and has the world’s highest HIV/AIDS prevalence rate. With an estimated population of 1.3 million, the unemployment rate is estimated at 40%. With more than half the population living below the poverty line, the women of Gone Rural are doing their part in meeting the basic needs of their families and have moved away from the large dependence on subsistence agriculture.
In 1996, Gone Rural founded the non-profit organization Gone Rural boMake. This is an extension of the community services Jenny Thorne carried out when she was alive. The organization receives a minimum of 20% of Gone Rural’s profits as well as the merchandizing income from the annual Bushfire Festival that was featured in last month’s issue of FORBES AFRICA.
The NGO’s focus on education awards 360 bursaries each year to the artisans’ children and assists preschool teachers in early childhood development. It has health initiatives focusing on the prevention, treatment and support of HIV/AIDS, as well as on reproductive health and chronic disease.
Three thousand people benefit from the Gone Rural boMake Mobile Wellness Clinic. The World Bank estimated that 65% of Swaziland’s rural population had access to running water in 2010. BoMake has, to date, secured the drilling and fixing of 10 boreholes and the installation of a solar water pump system for the Makhekhe community—80km north of Swaziland’s capital, Mbabane.
So what would the woman who started it all say now? It’s clear that her vision has become that of many. An amazing and inspirational woman, according to her son Jiggs Thorne: “It’s a powerful thought what Mom would say about something she started manifesting into something so great,” he says.