At What We Cherish, we adore the brands and products we support as they reflect our unwavering pursuit of a happier, more sustainable future for all. Together, we can weave new stories through focused curation of what luxury looks and feels like from an African perspective, enabling African design to take up its rightful space in the global creative economy.
One such brand is Tsandza Weaving: unique ethical weaving, based in Eswatini, a small, landlocked country in Southern Africa formerly and still commonly known in English as Swaziland. We spoke to Kerry James, Managing Director.
WWC: How did Tsandza Weaving start?
KJ: Tsandza was initially founded in 1979. It was called Rosecraft Weaving then. It was established to provide skills, training, and income to women in the rural community. In 2013, I was approached to purchase the business. I was astounded by the beauty of the products being woven. I was eager for more of the world to experience them as well. The other motivating reason to take on the business was its social impact in Eswatini as well as the minimal impact our production processes have on the environment due to our use of natural fibres, biodegradable dyes, and off-grid production methods. In 2016, we relocated to a newly-built 800m² weaving studio on our own property. At the same time, we took the opportunity to change our name to one that we felt more fully reflected our brand. Tsandza, which means ‘love’ in siSwati, was chosen by our artisans.
WWC: What was the original vision of Tsandza Weaving and is it still the same? How has the vision grown as Tsandza Weaving as a company has grown?
KJ: The original vision was simply to be a contributor to the local community. Since taking on ownership in 2016, our key driver is to be a global brand recognised for our ethical production, craftsmanship, and quality product — along with being a vehicle to disrupt the poverty cycle and empower rural women in Eswatini.
WWC: What impact do you want to make on the women and people of Swaziland? (In other words, how do you give back to the community?)
KJ: The unemployment rate in Eswatini is around 21% and 66% of the female population over the age of fifteen is illiterate. Tsandza aims to provide an opportunity for these marginalised women through training, equipping them with skills in which to generate income through their work with us. Women are the main caregivers in the family here. We know that in working with women, more of their families and communities are taken care of. Earning an income also builds the self-esteem of the women and allows them the confidence and status to have a voice. Beyond this, we facilitate wellness workshops and clinics and provide interest-free loans for school fees.
WWC: What makes Tsandza Weaving’s processes unique?
KJ: Just as all weaving methods produce certain aesthetics, Tsandza has its own unique weave “signature”. You can always tell a Tsandza product. Our design direction is unique in that it combines both bamboo and mohair fibres.
WWC: What makes Tsandza Weaving’s processes sustainable?
KJ: Tsandza’s entire production process is off-grid. We use wood-burning pots to dye our fibre, manual floor standing looms and spinning wheels, and even the sewing of seams and tassels are all done by hand. Our dyes are biodegradable and do not cause harm to the environment. Our weaving studio is built combining natural materials such as rammed earth walls. It has been designed to provide a great deal of natural light which minimises the need for lights and the use of electricity.
WWC: What has brought you the most joy since starting/working with Tsandza Weaving?
KJ: Seeing the stunning products our artisans are able to produce within a very simple work environment. Watching the artisans develop from trainees through to junior, and eventually senior and master artisans, and hearing the response and feedback from delighted customers has brought me the most joy.
WWC: Can you please tell us more about the Eswatini Artisan Collection in response to COVID-19 and the economic crisis?
KJ: I, Kerry, established the Eswatini Artisan Collaboration as a means to support Tsandza and other locally-based textile businesses nearby in our region with a revenue income in the absence of our core product sales which ceased when international tourism into Eswatini stopped. The reach of this collaboration extended to receiving funding to produce and donate masks to over 6000 community members when it became mandatory to wear face masks.
WWC: What is your next dream — or what are your hopes — for Tsandza Weaving?
KJ: With covid preventing tourists to visit Africa, we want to take Africa to them. We are working to build partnerships with regional and international online retailers — such as What We Cherish — to provide consumers with access to Tsandza products. Our dream is that every woman strives to own a “Tsandza”! We are excited by the opportunity this gives us to broaden our reach much further than it was in our previous brick and mortar model. Beyond this, we are committed to developing a more inclusive leadership team in Tsandza, one that has a greater representation of Swazi women who are the face of Tsandza and the reason for its existence. We want to demonstrate that it is possible to have a truly diverse culture as opposed to an either/or. To this end, we have recently partnered with a local female entrepreneur who has taken on the role of brand ambassador for Tsandza.
WWC: Who are 3-5 creatives/artists/
entrepreneurs from Eswatini who inspire you most?
KJ: Tsandza’s artisans! I am continually in awe of how they are able to weave and produce such beautiful products, particularly in light of their low literacy skills and work experience. Another is Claudia Roques, CEO of Black Mamba Chilli for her entrepreneurial skills. Claudia is an extremely driven and accomplished businesswoman who has been able to grow her business to be a known brand. Throughout the region — and now internationally. As well as partnering with local growers through a permaculture partner, she has been able to demonstrate the extent of Black Mamba Chilli’s economic growth opportunity and has recently secured an investing partner to launch the brand on a global platform. Yebo Gallery, owned and run by husband and wife artists Aleta and Peter Armstrong, provides a channel for local artists to hold exhibitions and sell their art both locally and overseas. Through Yebo, I have developed an awareness and appreciation of just how much talent there is in this little kingdom that is Eswatini.
WWC: Lomah Eco Village is an eco-conscious lifestyle centre that aims to create a balance between social, commercial and environmental impact. Can you tell us more about it?
KJ: The key premise of Lomah Eco Village is to promote and encourage a balance in the way that we live — one that is kinder to our environment. We consider over-consumerism to be a key reason for the environmental destruction we are experiencing in our world today. We aim to demonstrate that it is possible to build beautiful, unique homes from natural resources. We want Lomah to be a place where people can come to, relax, and be reminded of how much pleasure we can experience from the simple things in life.
WWC: If someone was visiting Eswatini or your area, what are the top things that they should do or see?
KJ: Swaziland is very rich in its artisan skills with many skilled producers, from Ngwenya Glass, Tintsaba, Swazi Candles, Quazi Design, Baobab Batik. To name just a few! The country is also home to several game reserves and is one of the world’s top destinations for rhino conservation. Prior to the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, Tsandza collaborated with All Out Africa and Baobab Batik. We created a nine-day travel itinerary that provides a chance to try weaving and batik. The best way to experiencess Swaziland’s nature and culture.
WWC: What are your favourite products from Tsandza Weaving?
KJ: Currently, my favourite product is our ponchos in both our Colourful Africa Contemporary and Wilderness Mbuluzi collections. Either just as an accessory, or for some added warmth, I love the wow they add to any outfit.