Playing catch-up

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It can very often feel as if my adopted country fell off the map when the rest of the world started using the Internet for basic transactions, research, entertainment and social communications. Many bills still arrive by mail in a post office box (or did before the pandemic) and – with huge swathes of the country still un-electrified – using wi-fi at home was historically a privilege reserved for the wealthier residents of bigger towns.

Add to that the fact that local competitors to Amazon have never been able to make inroads when packages cannot be guaranteed to arrive safely at a post office, nor is it possible to deliver to an unoccupied house given that tall palisades, electric fences, remote-access gates and large dogs tend to guard even modest homes and whole suburbs can be devoid of street signs – well, a physical trip to the shops or open market remains how most of us still get all our goods.

Coronavirus changed all that. We only experienced one full-scale national lockdown but with international supermarket chains sourcing nearly all of their products from overseas and cross-border transportation completely halted, suddenly the whole country was looking for new ways to access even staple products. And identifying and buying locally manufactured or home-grown goods suddenly became a necessity, not a novel experiment.

A veritable deluge of Namibian online shopping sites offering a ‘local-is-lekker’ consumer experience emerged, as it seemed, overnight. But good intentions didn’t get them very far when minimal thought or expertise went into their design and most fell away just as quickly as they had sprung up.

‘Sew Good’ now utilises an online marketplace platform called ‘Padstal’, set up (full disclosure) by my daughter, daughter-in-law, and a friend. They put many, many hours of work into conceptualising the platform and ‘test driving’ it before full roll out. Therefore many of the glitches that sabotaged their less-professional competitors were ironed out before Padstal started to accept uploaded products from vendors and open for business.

A padstal was originally a roadside farm stand selling all manner of local produce and handicrafts and indeed there used to be similar shops in the malls when I first came here in 1998. The new, 21st-century iteration allows consumers at home to place orders online and have them delivered in Windhoek and the surrounding areas – a real boon when we were all sheltering in place. It also, of course, provides the sort of free exposure and retail support that micro-scale enterprises like ‘Sew Good’ would not be able to finance on their own.

Marketing ‘Sew Good’ products with an online shopping platform gives customers a much better opportunity to view and compare products than we can achieve by posting them on Facebook and Instagram.

It does very much seem as if shoppers are still getting used to the idea… and it will take a while before we urbanites all abandon our habit of the weekly shop in crowded and expensive stores. But for ‘Sew Good’ – and other home-based industries we have been able to introduce to the concept – online shopping has allowed us to reach a much bigger pool of potential clients, who will be able to place automated orders once the economy picks up and people are once again looking to browse and buy non-essential items such as those made by our craftswomen.

Green Shoots in Tough Times

The rain has blessed Namibia as it hasn’t done in a decade. The dams are full, the antelope families are fat, the trees are full of birds’ nests. There are even lakes in the desert….but although we are all just plain relieved to be free of the drought conditions that have prevailed for far too many years, the absence of the visitors that would bring a much-needed boost to the economy is a sobering reminder that the rest of the world is still stuck in the terrible suspended animation of Covid, 12 months old now.

Our statistics with regard to the medical impacts of the pandemic show that we have been the lucky ones so far, relatively speaking. But the economy was already in extremis before 2020 and the figures for businesses shuttered and people retrenched as coronavirus delivered the coup de grĂ¢ce are far less salutary.

Many consumers, here and worldwide, pivoted towards purchasing locally sourced products last year – by force of circumstance as borders closed to imports, yet also by choice. But the ‘Good for Namibia’ initiative that was already established – the ‘Sew Good’ project – as well as others that were ready to launch have been victims of the diminishing purchasing power of the nation as every household found itself affected, in one way or another, by the need to scrimp and save for the long haul. The income from the sewing work is still enough to make a difference for the craftswomen, and we have even taken on another producer recently, but our sales have inevitably plateaued.

I continue to admire and celebrate the young Namibians (and a few not-so-young!) who are flexing their entrepreneurial muscles and adapting their business models to the straitened times. As well as those that are moving towards, and embracing, the concept of sustainable use of our precious resources. You only have to spend half an hour on Instagram to see that their hustle is being rewarded.

The creative women of ‘Sew Good’ continue to explore new ideas while waiting for our old markets to revivify. I am still hopeful that at some point too, when hotels begin filling up again, I can launch a long-incubating recycled soap enterprise. Namibia is officially ‘open’ (if you can just jump through a million hoops!) and we look forwards to the time in the not-to-distant future when we can share the bounteous year that nature has gifted us with our international tourist friends, too.

Lightweight safari scarves, each one unique, made by Julia Gomachas of ‘Sew Good’ from upcycled luxury embroidered and sheer fabrics