Feel Good Decor with Gone Rural Swaziland

Everyone likes a feel good story and Gone Rural is just that: a warm and fuzzy business venture that makes you feel good about having a fabulously well-dressed home. Introduced by her effervescent Marketing Officer and Assistant Camille, I was able to pick the brain of company Director Philippa Thorne despite missing our original Skype date. (She forgave me).

Simply put in 2013, Gone Rural is looking to “simplify and focus on its strengths,” according to Philippa. The soon to launch Song of the Weaver Collection due in March 2013 features the Biography Baskets collection. As Gone Rural’s new signature offering, the baskets form the foundation of the collection and represent the work of three generations of women: grandmother, daughter and granddaughter. “Their personalities and influences are reflected in every aspect of the structure and design. Each one is different and you can see the changing generations in the baskets,” boasts Philippa.

Besides great products, what makes Gone Rural so enviable is their fair trade stance. “Our organization is defined by the triple bottom line: people, planet, profit. We follow these principals to try to change the way businesses think, making sure we respect all people and the planet along the supply chain. But at Gone Rural we go further. We also have an Artisan Board leading the way and calling the shots.”

“Our organization is defined by the triple bottom line: people, planet, profit. We follow these principals to try to change the way businesses think, making sure we respect all people and the planet along the supply chain.”

Philippa Thorne

Yes, an Artisan Board. The all-female rural entrepreneurs who sell their wares to Gone Rural have a formal voice. The most recent Board meeting resulted in the women voting against holding equity in the firm, happy to continue with the current structure that has proven successful for over two decades.  “Our primary objective is empowerment for the artisan so this is always our top metric”, Philippa says.

Who can argue with that when all profits are re-invested towards the sustainable growth of the organization, with a minimum of 30% going towards social programs? Corporate Social Responsibility is the dividend. Even Camille is a volunteer sent by a Canadian NGO that partners with Gone Rural, called Crossroads International. Almost everything about Gone Rural is about giving back.

The Gone Rural model is unique. Not only are the products incredibly beautiful and of very high quality but the way the company is developing communities and empowering women is inspiring. Nearly 3,600 people have gained access to clean water over the past 18 months, 343 children have been educated on full scholarships annually, and mobile health care units take care of over 3,100 patients.

Gone Rural has also addressed the frequent complaint of interior designers: bad finishing by local craftsman. “We hold quality and product training workshops with the weavers, and each community group has a quality officer from that community. Her role is to assist any women who are struggling to meet the standard. We also have 3 quality check points in our process.”

With the aim of taking traditional craft and elevating it through design to show it on an international platform, Gone Rural counts Danye Decoracion and The Conran Shop on its list of retailers.

How does Gone Rural ensure that they stay relevant and appeal to their international buyers? Meet-and-Greets with the weavers. “We also bring workshops to the rural communities, so the weavers can see how the customers use and display their products. Many of our customers have traveled to Swaziland and their heart is really captured when they meet the women weavers in real life.“

Regional super giant, South Africa next door is known for its strong interior design industry but Philippa is not at all intimidated. “We have a unique signature material – ‘lutindzi’ grass – and an aesthetic which is distinctly Gone Rural. We continue to evolve and pioneer but with the same core values at heart. So we compete by staying true to ourselves and to our brand.”

Between the political challenges and HIV prevalence, the media paints Swaziland as a controversial place. One would think that might get Gone Rural staff down but Philippa has many reasons to never leave Swaziland. “Without a doubt it is the incredible people here, the sense of community and family that is shared by all. And it is also an absolutely beautiful country. These parts of the story rarely get told, yet when you cross the borders into Swaziland the energy shifts, and you feel you are in a friendly, safe environment.”

Philippa smiles unconsciously anytime someone speaks about her weavers. “The women of Swaziland are very connected to the energy of the universe and they understand that they are the power behind Gone Rural.” She calls them the “backbones of their homestead” and “independent”, with over 60% being the main income earners in the family, in addition to running the household, raising the children and tending to the fields. “Being a working mother I know how hard it is to manage everything, from children to work, husband, home life. But the Swazi women always do it with dignity, strength, spirituality and laughter.” Philippa adds, “Our women have been empowered through the partnership we have together, and take pride in this. They are incredibly strong women and they understand that the energy that they put into the products translates to the international market.”

2013 has already been a busy year. Gone Rural is in the mist of re-launching their website which Philippa promises to be “a window into Gone Rural’s world with more editorial stories and the chance to get to know the weavers, the communities, the natural materials and the story behind them all. Every time we open a new water pump in these communities as a result of our sales we want to be able to share that.”

The Platform Gallery at Habitat’s Kings Road store will also be showcasing some of Gone Rural’s offerings in West London from 8 March to 28 April 2013. The number one thing Philippa would like to tell shoppers is, “When you buy a piece of Gone Rural not only are you buying a piece of Swazi history but you are keeping it alive. With beauty and nature always in mind, we weave together elements of life, collaboration and hope, creating new patterns and new possibilities”.

Yup…there are those warm and fuzzy goose bumps again…

Learn more about Gone Rural!


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