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Alexander Daniel: Weaving a Different Story

The Kraal Gallery is changing the face of craft by marketing internationally and letting artistry rein.

Tracy Lee Nicol

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South Africa has a rich heritage of handcrafts. And with a booming tourism sector there’s plenty of opportunity for hand crafters to create an income. Trouble is, the informal industry is vulnerable to exploitation and inconsistent trade, leaving very little room to break the cycle of poverty.

This is where Genadendal Hand Weavers and its associated Kraal Gallery, founded and run by Alexander Daniel, is changing lives.

By elevating craft to art, the project is empowering women with decent incomes to support their families, develop skills, and showcase talent to international markets. We ask Daniel how he’s making it work.

Alexander-Daniel_-Weaving-business

What prompted you to start The Kraal Gallery?

South Africa has enormous talent, resources, beautiful people and landscape, but the extreme economic divisions bother me.

How can we live compassionately when our fellow man is reduced to nothing but cardboard and statistics? When my mother passed away in 1998 my father and I wanted to start a programme that empowered women to honour her memory. My team and I identified Genadendal as the ideal area to help because of its history of empowerment when slavery ended, and we saw the need for more help.

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What is The Kraal Gallery’s model?

Too many NGOs run out of funds because they rely on handouts. So while we don’t have a business model in the sense of creating profit, we’ve achieved a model that is self-sustaining while delivering real impact.

We generate good income through our stores, which act as a safety net to cover rent and wages, and they’re important for controlling our brand message, quality and interaction.

But our real breakthrough has been securing a deal that will deliver 400m2 of hand woven rugs per month to the US starting toward the end of the year. This is a fantastic win because it will be consistent income for the organisation.

How do your weavers benefit from being part of The Kraal Gallery?

Firstly, we pay them a strong and fair wage. The brand is centred on empowerment, and we believe customers would pay say 10% more for a product that’s made with integrity than something that’s cheaper but with a dark history.

When a product is sold for R350, R200 goes to the weaver to compensate their time and talent. The more skilled they are, the higher the percentage.

This division of sale ensures our ‘weaverbirds’ get the majority of the revenue for their time and means each piece is a creation rather than something just part of her day to get paid.

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Your online shop is in US dollars. Why dollars and why market internationally?

We chose USD because when we set up the site we wanted to use PayPal which at the time was only for US and UK accounts. But dollars are also an international currency which opens up more purchase opportunities all year around.

Luckily we have a partner in the US that was willing to assist and helped build a US following. We’ve started working on our SEO too and it’s working – people from all over the world are finding us, making enquiries and purchasing.

How are you shifting perceptions about craft and what influence does it have on your customers?

We encourage our weavers to believe in themselves and make a point of improving their self-confidence. While we strive for quality and comment where needed, criticism is not constructive.

Each weaver is also told she is an ‘interior decorator’ and ‘artist’ and truly wonderful, which improves the quality and creativity of her work. Prescribing things can stifle creativity, so carte blanche is given to a weaver who wants it. What this means for customers is that works they purchase are high quality, truly unique, characterful, and tell a story. That’s where the shift between art and craft happens.

Tracy-Lee Nicol is an experienced business writer and magazine editor. She was awarded a Masters degree with distinction from Rhodes university in 2010, and in the time since has honed her business acumen and writing skills profiling some of South Africa's most successful entrepreneurs, CEOs, franchisees and franchisors.Find her on Google+.

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