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Crafts And Camaraderie On The Coast

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Durban’s farmers markets are a magnet for consumers and small businesses alike, boosting the informal economy in the sunny South African city.

Be it the cosy market at Umhlanga or the expansive variety market at Shongweni, the coastal city of Durban in South Africa seems to be the sunny hub for farmers markets and small business owners setting up impromptu trading venues.

Within minutes of arriving at the Umhlanga Farmers Market, it’s easy to see why it attracts a steady stream of shoppers, despite the cold, penetrating drizzle on a Durban morning. There’s a good selection of fresh produce and specialty foods, the vibe is lively and cheerful even sans music or entertainment, and traders offer friendly, personalized attention. It helps that the market is centrally located and in the open air, fringed on one side by coastal dune forest. A woman trading home-baked date muffins and peach tarts chats away as she holds down a tent flap until the wind fades long enough for her to tie it down, and her customers happily banter on until she’s able to serve them. Dogs drag their owners across the clearing to greet other dogs. And everything on display looks oven-fresh and appealing.

“There’s a great variety of food we wouldn’t normally get in supermarkets – like the special cheeses or the vegan cupcakes,” says the market’s owner Alexa McWilliams.

“These are traders who are working from home and have a talent.”

She took ownership of the market several years ago and maintains its “charismatic, informal feel” because she considers it an important platform for small businesses. She explains that the market is a success because of its regular traders. “We see some traders come and go because they expect to buy a Ferrari after one morning, but it’s the regular traders who have their regular customers. Consistency is the most important thing for a market”.

Kirsten Hughes, who trades fresh farm butter and specialty cheeses, relies almost entirely on markets for her income.

“Markets appeal to me because of the freedom – there’s a lot of work with sourcing the products but it’s not a nine-to-five job,” she says, while cutting a slab of a special artisanal wash-dried cheese. “I have regular customers, and they can’t get my products easily.” Her main trade is at Shongweni, with a significant proportion of it at Umhlanga.

The latter market’s newest trader, Houda Abiet, began to trade her homemade Mediterranean foods here only a few weeks back, as a marketing exercise. “It’s very interesting to see what people like and don’t like, and they’re inquisitive because they don’t know all my products. I always tell them – just taste, you don’t have to buy.”

McWilliams herself started her marinated olive business at this market. She says: “Markets worked better because it’s a niche product [I sell] – I make it by hand and I have a passion for it.” She grew her business over the years and now has a full-time shop, Olive-A-Twist in Ballito, but does not think she would have got to that level of sales if it were not for the markets.

“The markets will give beginners with a great idea a phenomenal platform,” she says.

“You get a diversity of people from all over, so it’s also a great testing ground. I would recommend it to anyone.”

Across the city, the Westville Farmers Market enjoys a steady flow of customers on Thursday mornings. Traders set up shop at the Jimmy Bellows Sports Field, alongside a protected riverine forest, with expansive trees shading their stalls. It’s a friendly space, and traders and shoppers are casually familiar with each other.

Here, there are only seven or eight stalls selling vegetables, eggs, home-baked cakes, honey and biltong. Clint Govender, owner of the market, trades organically-grown vegetables, eggs, and homemade biryani. It’s a family business, with his wife supplying the biryani, and the vegetables sourced from his uncle’s farm.

“Customers are looking here for the quality and the freshness, especially the eggs,” Govender says. “And we’re 40% cheaper than the shops.”

The market is about 20 years old, and several stallholders and shoppers refer to its “better days”, when there were many more traders and a wider variety of products.

Govender explains that over the years, many of the old stallholders passed away or relocated, and he hasn’t had success attracting new businesses.

“The traders don’t always understand that it takes time to build their clientele. Jaco, over there, has been here two years, but it took him maybe six months to build up his client base, and now it’s worth his while to come every week.”

Jaco Buyleveld sells plants and provides a blade-sharpening service. He keeps his business small by choice, operating only at the Westville and Umhlanga markets. Westville’s customers seem to be mainly pensioners dropping by in between their grandchildren’s school rounds, and Buyleveld speculates that this is because most of the younger residents are working outside of the area. He is not optimistic about the future of the market, saying, “Unless you get a younger customer base, the market is doomed.”

A few kilometers up the hill, also on Thursday mornings, the St. Agnes Fresh Produce Market is noticeably devoid of customers. It’s well-situated at a major intersection, with its stalls looking out onto the St. Agnes church’s gardens. There’s a better variety here than at Westville, but it feels like the traders are here for reasons other than hard cash.

Although he hasn’t made a sale yet today, John Phiri says that this market is worth his time for building a longer-term client base through orders. He trades leather products that he makes – caps, belts, wallets – here and at Umhlanga market as well as at Golden Hours, Bluff, and Durban’s craft/flea markets. Phiri’s income is mainly from these markets.

Umhlanga Farmers Market. Photo by Alexa McWilliams

He says: “Since I started my business, I’m enjoying the markets – I do enjoy talking to the customers. For sales, I prefer Bluff and Golden Hours. Flea markets are best because we expect thousands of people and we sell well.”

Sidney Oerter is the only trader who reports good sales here today. He trades specialty cheeses he sources from around South Africa, with the occasional import. He started his business a few months ago, and although he supplies a few restaurants, his main customer base is at the markets – Litchi Orchard, I Heart, and the brand-new Drummond Farmers Market. He explains: “Markets are an easy way to get into sales. We want to expand the business, maybe offer monthly hampers, but the markets are our entry point.”

Georgina Erasmus, who trades honey, eggs, organic coffee, and Madagascan bags, at a number of different markets, says that she will normally trial a new market for six to eight weeks before deciding whether to come back, although she’s been coming to St. Agnes since it started a year ago despite poor trade because, “it gets me out of the house and we love the church, and we also like some of the people who come here”. Her main trade is at Shongweni and she says confidently: “If you’re not selling at Shongweni, then there’s something wrong with your product.”

The line of traffic winding along the hills west of Durban every Saturday morning is testament to the popularity of Shongweni Farmers Market. Its customer base is around 4,500 on regular weeks, swelling considerably during the holidays.

Owner Christine Standeaven believes that it’s the variety on offer that makes it worthwhile for people across the age and income range to make the trek across the city. There’s also food, crafts, entertainment, as well as areas for relaxing.

“People come here to find items that are unique, and they love supporting people who are making a living for themselves,” says Standeaven. “They might get things cheaper in the stores, but they’ll rather come to a crafter and take the time to look for a special gift.”

She explains that the market started as a space where local farmers could sell directly to the public, with a bit of breakfast food, but she incorporated crafts and expanded the food section after five years when she found that they weren’t increasing their customer base. The intake doubled at that point. Just over two years ago, the market moved to its current location, with Standeaven building undercover stalls for every trader and concrete walkways to keep feet mud-free when it rained.

As she speaks, it becomes obvious that the market is successful because of her high sensitivity to the needs of both her traders and customers.

She says: “I can walk 15 to 16 kilometers on a Saturday morning. I greet every single stallholder, I look at what people are bringing in, and I check everything.” For example, Standeaven makes sure that catering equipment is clean on arrival, food vendors are constantly washing their hands, and there is cold storage for meat products. She has a team of cleaners speedily picking up litter and cleaning up after children and dog accidents.

And on the product side, she keeps an eye on trends and fashions, so that she can make sure that there are traders who can cater for the full variety of customers.

Standeaven says that about two thirds of Shongweni’s stallholders rely only on markets for their income. “I watch what people are bringing out of the market, and I like to see them carrying bags because I know the stallholders are happy. I need to create the best platform for my stallholders to want to stay in the market, so that I have an amazing outing for the people who are coming to buy at the market. And I want it like that every week.”

The I Heart Market in central Durban is also proving to be a strong platform for small businesses. It’s an arts and crafts market at the Moses Mabhida Stadium on the first Saturday of each month.

The market itself is a success story, having begun with 12 stalls outside the St Mary’s Church Hall in Windermere in 2008, and growing rapidly to 120 or so traders at its current location.

Says owner Anna Savage: “We knew a lot of creative people who were doing really interesting work – ceramicists, fashion designers, jewelry designers – but they didn’t have anywhere to sell. So the idea was to put together a market where for a small fee you could set up a mini shop, and start to build your customer base.”

I Heart’s Anna Savage

Savage curates the market strictly: “It’s about maintaining a standard of quality of product, and also a particular type of aesthetic. We accept only locally-produced products, but we also wanted products that are exceptional – things that are dynamic and interesting, that are ahead of the trends, but also that are viable, with appeal for a larger public and in the right price range.”

The market’s customer base is about 4,500, and collective sales for all traders average R460,000 ($32,500) at each market.

For about a quarter of the traders, sales at I Heart account for over 60% of their monthly income.

Duduzile Ngubane, a resident trader, says that it was through I Heart and other markets that she was able to grow her fashion business, which started as a hobby. Although she has a full-time shop, markets still account for about 40% of her income. Her line of fashionwear, Du Confidence, is made for “women who are confident”, as she says proudly. The range is casual and formal plus-size modernwear.

She explains: “I am bold, bright, feminine, and I’m a warm woman, so the work I do is mostly in bright colors. It’s a confident woman who can wear bright colors.”

Just recently, demand has grown enough for her to be able to focus on her business full-time.

Says Savage: “I do really think that by providing this platform, the market inspired people who wanted to do something different from their day jobs. It’s providing a place for small businesses to launch, and it makes me really excited when I see people doing well.”

– Rehana Dada

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