KINDNESS is the new currency

We all have our own individual takes on how reality has changed since we became aware of Covid-19, wherever we are in the world. The first commercial flight in many weeks arrived in Windhoek a few days ago and with it, one assumes, the first overseas mail in a long while. My very out-of-date ‘New Yorker’ from earlier this year duly arrived in my post box and it reads, honestly, like a communication from another planet. Even those few short months ago, the pandemic was still a semi-abstract concept for people here in Namibia. In the city where it’s published, the writers and photographers covering the unfolding crisis for the magazine back in May were clearly aware that, to use that overworked word, they were dealing with an unprecedented catastrophe and yet, with the gift of hindsight, their words and images seem – now – to be wholly inadequate to the task of warning what might still be to come.

But over the past few weeks, as the infection rate has risen here at home and the government has responded with what seems to me to be pragmatic, consistent and effective leadership, it’s also been possible to see how – to use another cliche – the worst of times has brought out the best in people. And I’ve been truly humbled by the numbers of perfect strangers reaching out to the ‘Sew Good’ project specifically, and local producers and traders more generally, in an effort to assist in ways that uplift the most hard-hit and impoverished communities and forge connections that will endure and bolster the circular economy – whereby goods are exchanged and repurposed, rather than discarded and replaced anew – after the dark days are a receding memory.

In the ‘All Trousers’ section of this blog you will soon find the details of the businesses that have generously supplied us with donated fabric and other resources so that the craftswomen can continue to keep creating the bags and other items that help to support their families. However, I couldn’t resist including here a photo of the FIVE big boxes of large hessian coffee sacks delivered to town from the coast, for free, courtesy of Two Beards Coffee and Formula Couriers (https://www.facebook.com/twobeardscoffeeroasters/ and https://www.formulacourier.com/). Their selfless determination to see us supplied with a new type of material for upcycling so that we can add to the range of products we offer is just one example of the generosity flowing freely between Namibians right across country.

Green is in ‘Vogue’

Magazines are ‘stuck on the truck’ currently, as we say here in Namibia – a nation that is compelled to source so many of its consumer goods from South Africa and where, at the time of writing, cross-border imports have pretty much ceased to exist. The copy of British ‘Vogue’ I recently picked up off a very empty shelf at the store (my guilty-pleasure luxury in these trying times) was an issue from way back in April this year so it represented a sort of distorted lens through which to view the recent, pre-Covid past.

With a (fairly new, fairly young) Editor-in-Chief in Edward Enninful OBE, and refreshing insights into the future of the fashion industry, I wasn’t surprised to see that the publication has created a new role, that of Contributing Sustainability Editor, in order to focus on the ways in which designers and manufacturers will be meeting the challenge of waste in a world growing increasingly conscious of the costs of instant-gratification consumerism.

The ‘Sew Good’ project recently received an amazing donation of hunters’ camouflage clothing, which was the starting point for the creation of this one-off shopping bag.

This growing global awareness has repercussions for all producers – large and small, industrial and artisanal – who work with fabric, as people begin to reject the purchase of throwaway items of clothing (and other such goods) meant to be discarded after one season.

The Namibian craftswomen of ‘Sew Good’ are increasingly turning their hands to commissioned items that embrace this ethos. When we started out, we just used donated luxury furnishing fabric to make simple, upcycled patchwork shopping bags – intended to replace single-use plastic ones. Now, Amory and Julia, who head the project, are imagining and producing a much wider range of stylish items, including ones that use the tiniest scraps of pleather – cellphone covers, for example – as well as others that would not look out of place in an upmarket home-furnishing store.

Using tiny blocks of colourful scraps, we were able to produce this gorgeous throw for style maven and influencer, Ms Martina Pieper (https://www.instagram.com/styledby_martina/?utm_source=ig_embed)

This has led me to think about how we can conceptualise what we do as we progress to selling unique products online for specific customers. It’s also clear that we need to make a wider range of goods for ‘small money’ for events such as @finkensteinbushmarket so that younger customers can purchase our items and cash-strapped locals can still treat themselves to something sustainably-made and truly lovely.

“BUY it because it’s beautiful

VALUE it because it’s eco-friendly

CHERISH it because it uplifts Namibian families”

The Quiet Retail Revolution

I sometimes think that Namibia, my home for more than two decades, suffers from ‘littlest sibling’ syndrome. We look to other – bigger, richer, more ‘developed’ – countries and try to emulate them in a search for economic success, without really questioning whether we have enough in common with them to follow in their footsteps, given our limited human and natural resources, or whether it’s advisable to even attempt to do so.

Furthermore, we seem to think that anything transported to us from overseas just has to be better than the things we can make or grow at home; indeed there’s a certain cachet attached to the descriptor ‘imported’ when added to certain goods, despite the price – in environmental as well as cash terms – of bringing in so many items from elsewhere, specifically our ‘big cousin’ South Africa, that we could in theory begin to make at home.

Every year we churn out a huge cohort of IT graduates – because adopting new technologies is deemed the shortcut to the industrialised nation we aim to be – yet it remains pretty much impossible to do anything online apart from the most basic transactions; the platforms the nation contracts to use for simple tasks such as filling in a form or tracking a parcel are simply unfit for purpose. (Indeed, satisfactory Internet coverage remains just a fantasy when so many parts of the country don’t even have electricity of course.)

At the time of writing, most of the country is now returning to some kind of post-Covid normality, with a couple of welcome new developments that I am happy to see take root in terms of retail activities. The first is that people have been compelled to buy local products as the cross-border trucking industry ground to a halt and this can only be good at grassroots level for an economy that was in dire straits even before coronavirus hit. One international pharmacy chain was cynically selling small boxes of imported single-use face masks at the exact same (grossly inflated) price as the one-off emergency income grant that our poorest citizens could apply for and it was gratifying to see people eschew these for much more economical fabric ones sewn at home by groups such as ‘Sew Good’.

The community where I live – 3 housing developments situated in farmland just outside of Windhoek – initiated a marketplace in the bush one Saturday in June (literally, see the ‘Sew Good’ stall, below) where local producers could showcase their wares once the social-distancing measures were lifted somewhat. Many vendors who had made farm produce, condiments, bread or other baked goods sold out of stock entirely, emphasising the need for the type of locavore consumer mentality that’s been the norm in places like New York for a long time. ‘Sew Good’ sold many smaller items – people are essentially broke here and were not spending on bigger items generally – but also made lots of connections to potential clients that are proving fruitful subsequently.

The ‘Finkenstein Bush Market’ (https://www.facebook.com/finkensteinbushmarket/) was so successful that it is set to be a regular event that will enable community members and the wider public to socialise and shop in ways that had not been possible before, when many folks would just drive to the supermarket to re-stock their grocery shelves or hit the mall for a range of products that are not eco-friendly and do not contribute towards Namibian livelihoods.

Another, linked, effect of the Covid-19 crisis was that young Namibian entrepreneurs set about creating markets for their goods through platforms such as Instagram with, I’m told by one such craftsman, great success. People who wanted to source locally made items were suddenly inspired to link up with manufacturers whom they would probably not have been aware of even a few months ago, through the power of social media These emerging businesses have neither warehousing, offices, inventory nor overheads – apart from the price of a data bundle – and they simply take orders from customers who have seen photos of their handiwork online and offer hassle-free delivery as part of the service. Word of mouth and positive recommendations are the tools they deploy to grown their client base and their income. Good for them, and good for Namibia, of course!

Certainly, a year after ‘Sew Good’ was launched, we have some lessons to absorb from these smartphone entrepreneurs and this week saw the (tentative) launch of our own Instagram account (https://www.instagram.com/sewgoodnamibia/) where people can view and choose products that can then be delivered for free in town. As we take more orders and expand, this is going to be more effective than dealing with individuals via WhatsApp.

We have all realised a lot over the past few months in terms of the value of small-scale but personalised retail experiences. Plus the feel-good factor that arises from getting to know neighbours (in a conducive but decidedly low-tech environment in the case of the Bush Market) and supporting local businesses cannot be over-estimated. It took a crisis to get us all in touch with what really matters – spending time with real people, in real life – and I hope that the connections we have made, and will continue to foster, will prove to be long-lasting and productive ones.

There were ‘cat people’ at the inaugural Finkenstein Bush Market in June 2020 and this shopping bag design certainly grabbed their attention and made it our most ‘in demand’ new product.

Smaller is Stronger

This blog has been inactive for a while now and with good reason. Although we have been ‘quarantined’ from most of the terrible effects of the coronavirus pandemic here in Namibia to a large degree, one thing we haven’t been spared is the toxic tsunami of ignorant or mischievous commentary, some of it point-blank lethal, that’s overtaken the Internet. I’d no desire to add to this pointless accumulation of speculation and anecdata and preferred to keep schtum until I had something useful and fact-based to say. Vent over…

My belief – admittedly an unpopular one in many Namibian quarters – is that the CDC and the Government of the Republic of Namibia exhibited admirable leadership in reacting hard and fast to the threat of Covid-19. I’m very happy to acknowledge that here and express my personal thanks. It has been a really, really tough time at the household level for many disadvantaged citizens, not to mention ethical business people struggling to make ‘best worst’ decisions that will allow their operations to remain afloat. But no one has died from the virus to date – I really think that’s worth emphasising – and no one will die from the longer-term consequences of the business shutdown if we take a moment to look at how our economy needs to be diversified and localised.

The day it was announced that Namibians would have to wear face masks in public, a veritable army of home-producers swung into action, including the women of the ‘Sew Good’ project. Not to be snarky but I hope that the international pharmacy chains charging exorbitant prices for environmentally unfriendly disposable masks took a massive hit as people took up the challenge of ‘local is lekker’.

As restrictions are eased, I’m optimistic that the national sense of community engendered by the crisis will not turn out to have just been a temporary blip, but will translate into a desire to resuscitate the economy in every way we can…and certainly this should mean that, wherever possible, people support local producers rather than pivoting back to the default setting of purchasing goods (especially ones with sketchy ‘green’ credentials) manufactured abroad, with all this means in terms of reducing the environmental damage caused by long-haul transportation.

The bags produced by the ‘Sew Good’ craftswomen just get more and more stunning

Of course, ‘Sew Good’ wasn’t able to distribute and sell its products during the lockdown, and our hopes of creating a sustainable market through sales to tourists were set back somewhat. Nevertheless, the ladies have certainly not been idle and we are accumulating shopping bags and tote bags for sale once circumstances allow.

Souvenirs, self-catering, and scaling up

Before setting up a commercial endeavour, we’re told we need a business plan, a budget, a forecast – a bucketload of ‘wishful thinking’, truth be told, when you’re trying to enter the market in a recession and with a product that’s untried and untested. For the projects under the ‘Good for Namibia’ banner, this means that (if you will pardon the pun) business development is likely to be a far more organic process.

As Amory, Julia and I have discovered with the pilot enterprise, ‘Sew Good’, some of our objectives and plans have fallen away as others have emerged to take their place. Certainly, my initial idea to market items and take orders online hasn’t taken off: Namibia, it seems, isn’t ready to purchase products without seeing them. And environmentally conscious locals already have their own reusable shopping bags, often purchased overseas, so they’re not ready to buy more (albeit they report never remembering to take their existing ones out of the car when they visit the store!)

The latest stats show a small but steady growth in visitors coming to Namibia over the past decade and so these folk represent the group of consumers we are aiming to reach in 2020, while we continue to meet the needs of locals who are growing increasingly aware of ‘green living’ choices of course. We’re therefore very happy that speculative emails recently sent to a few Windhoek B&B and self-catering accommodation establishments have resulted in some interest from managers who wish to offer our patchwork bags to visitors who will be looking for locally made souvenirs and reusable bags for shopping in town or travelling around the country – especially important since the ban on single-use plastic bags in national parks came into force.

Lined tote bags made by the ‘Sew Good’ project specifically for the tourism market. Thanks to all at @RivendellGuestHouse for agreeing to stock the first consignment.

A big ‘Thanks!’ therefore to Erika at the Rivendell Guest House (http://www.rivendell-namibia.com/) who liaised with the owners and arranged to place some of our bags on consignment, the such first place to do so. We hope that as the tourism season begins we will be able to deliver regular volumes for this establishment to sell on our behalf, as well as to backpacker lodges and similar places. This is probably a more realistic way to sell the bags than renting a stall at the regular markets (which mostly cater to locals), especially as the hardworking women of the project simply don’t have time to attend to a stand over the weekend when they work all week already.