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MzansiStore: this Etsy for Africa aims to empower local crafters

A few months ago, MzansiStore successfully raised funds on local crowdfunding site Thundafund in order to support one of South Africa’s designers. More than R20 000 was raised to be used for supplies such as a T-shirt printer and screens. The designer now sells her products using an online storefront via MzansiStore to a global audience.

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This example fits in neatly with MzansiStore’s overall focus of providing local entrepreneurs in the craft industry with the tools and skills to help grow their businesses. “We bridge the gap between technology and creativity,” founder Deidré Luzmore says.

Luzmore explains that the online store empowers designers, crafters and artisans to build sustainable businesses by making online selling easy. “We do not charge anything to set up supplier’s stores so that there is no barrier to entry. We ask 20% commission on sales,” she says.

Currently, MzansiStore boasts a supplier database of 160 strong South African crafters and the like, of which 90% are women-owned and 40% BEE.

Luzmore says that she’d like MzansiStore to have an even larger pool of suppliers from across South Africa including some of its most remote regions. She notes, “We want to be able to provide our customers with local, handmade products from every corner of South Africa. We also want to penetrate the international market even deeper.”

The venture launched in September 2012 after having found some inspiration abroad. Luzmore has a MSc in Responsible Tourism Management from Leeds Metropolitan University in the UK. She took a sabbatical for three months in Kenya with the Masaai, where she saw the economic impact of the local markets on the community. Soon after, she moved back to South Africa with the vision of creating market access for small scale producers.

Centred on, but not limited to, fashion, MzansiStore was born out of this need for small scale producers of quality handcrafted products to expand their brand to areas beyond their local street, local community or local crafters market. It’s like what Etsy is for the West.

One of the attractive features MzansiStore holds dear is the fact that all the products are proudly handmade in South Africa.

There are a couple of ecommerce stores that have a similar vision of supporting locally handcrafted goods. These include Africandy, Utique, and Design Kist.

A study done by South Africa’s Western Cape Government notes there are more than 6 000 crafters in the country. Some of the greatest barriers to entry they face are the lack of market exposure, market information, trends, business skills and the fear of being exploited. MzansiStore is trying to change this. “We bridge the gap between technology and creativity,” says Luzmore.

Supported by the World Capital of Design Cape Town 2014, the online marketplace has a strong commitment to building and inspiring communities — the recent crowdfunding campaign mentioned above is indicative of that. The company also hosts training workshops focused on skills development which aim to help educate people on how to create a successful and sustainable online business.

A good percentage of its products are tourism focused and have a strong mzansi flavour which appeals to European tourists. ‘Mzansi’ is a common word locally which means South Africa in both isiXhosa and Zulu. It gels nicely with the idea of supporting a diverse community in South Africa and beyond.

To date, Luzmore says that MzansiStore has faced challenges in raising funds as well as marketing. Luzmore is currently the sole owner of MzansiStore and has been self-funding the venture until MzansiStore joined Microsoft’s Bizspark programme, which contributed R25 000.

Luzmore says that in order for the store’s products to further penetrate the international market, costs have to be kept down. “We need to find a way to decrease the cost of shipping to our international market,” she says. This is the main reason why MzansiStore has adopted an omni-channel approach which has seen it partner with hotels, like the Colosseum Luxury Hotel, to provide their international clientèle with quality, handmade, South African products.

Considering MzansiStore’s vision of increasing its pool of suppliers, the company has a lot to potential. According to some estimates, the South African craft industry contributes about R2-billion or 0.14% to the country’s GDP annually, of which R150-million is in export sales. While this number is relatively small compared to the greater retail industry, the number is increasing with an average annual growth of 10%.

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