A craft co-operative in the Valley of 1000 Hills is contributing to a celebrity-backed campaign to save children in Kwa-Zulu Natal. Vivian Attwood reports
After fifteen years spent putting in long hours, and often working to punishing short deadlines to meet orders, the products are available at galleries and stores around the country – and abroad in the USA, the Reunion Islands and Paris.
Their trademark candles in tiny, hand-painted Zulu beer pots remain a signature item and the introduction of a range of puppets in the colours of the participating teams in the 2010 World Cup are still selling like hotcakes.
Now the Rootz team has turned its attention to producing gift cards with beaded detail, in support of the Keep A Child Alive Campaign run by multi-award winning singer Alicia Keys.
Carey Moran, the creator of Rootz, occupies a space a million miles from the corporate environment she initially thought she would inhabit. Private school-educated, she was a Rotary exchange student and earned a postgraduate degree in economics at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. She might have opted for a business suit and a whopping salary, but her social conscience dictated otherwise.
“I knew that I had had a privileged upbringing. Spending a year as an exchange student refined my awareness that it was time to put something back into my community and country” she said at her rustic home in Hillcrest.
“It was 1985 – a year of incredible upheaval back home – and gaining some distance from apartheid allowed me to see the real picture, as depicted in the overseas media. It influenced my political and social development enormously.”
The result was Rootz, whose mission, said Moran is to “design, produce and sell handcrafted gifts that celebrate the creative spirit of Africa and her people.”
In 1995, she started the co-op without money and one employee, the newly matriculated Thokozani Khumalo. The first item? The Zulu beer pot which became a bestseller.
“Our mission was to make a difference to the lives of the people of our area – particularly women from impoverished communities and their families, “Moran continued. “I began to draw in other women…. And later men, who had a tremendous amount of creative potential but little formal training. Today they are able to support their extended families on the proceeds of their work.”
Most of the crafters live in nearby Valley Trust, Embo and Inchanga, but there is also an affiliated group of weavers in the central Drakensberg. Today there are six permanent staffers and 24 contributors, pulled in when there are large consignments to prepare.
“We grew slowly, but on a very solid foundation,” Moran explained.
“We combine rural work with urban finishes and place a strong emphasis on quality so that we can compete in first world international markets.”
Rootz has strong representation in the USA, where their Christmas stars and other ornaments are selling furiously. Through her American contacts Moran became aware of the Keep A Child Alive Campaign, and the vital role it was playing in providing nutrition, shelter, support and education to help ensure that children on antiretroviral treatment for HIV/Aids have a good chance of developing into productive adulthood.”
“We put our heads together and came up with the idea of greeting cards with beaded motifs that echo the Africa experience,” she said. “It is so thrilling that celebrities from other countries, like Alicia Keys, are using their positions of privilege to influence developed countries to help us fight the scourge that is decimating our communities.”
“Working on a smaller scale means that we never have lay-offs when business is slow”, she explained. “We simply keep on producing our ranges for periods of high demand. This means financial stability for the team, rather than an erratic income”.
“Rootz did exceptionally well during the 2010 World Cup because we were lucky enough to have good access to high tourist footprint places. Individually, though, the crafters were really disappointed by the dearth of opportunities in KZN to sell their work to visitors. The Destination Market in Durban was a complete failure from the point of view of promoting local crafters work. We must all learn from the experience.”
The recipe for the Rootz team’s success?
“We blend indigenous knowledge with comtemporary fun ideas. The team is highly motivated and works as a single entity towards achieving combined goals.
“In the near future we aim to open a gallery in central Drakensberg and provide more work opportunities for people in that region.” she said.