Learn from this practical testimony

How to turn your passions into a thriving craft artist business through self-employment
craft artist
craft artist

The secret of getting ahead is getting started. – Agatha Christie

Success is getting what you want. Happiness is wanting what you get. – Dale Carnegie

Experiences of a Self-Employed informal craft artist trading in Cape Town that allowed her to a sustainable livelihood. Informal craft trading is often viewed as a peripheral economic activity undertaken by poor people as a survival strategy of last resort.

However, as rightly observed by Ms. Ntini – one of many self-employed craft traders operating at the Greenmarket Square craft market in central Cape Town – informal craft trading is a viable economic enterprise which not only creates sustainable jobs and livelihoods for individual traders but also stimulates broader national economic development.

Through her personal testimony and in order to emphasize this argument, Ms. Ntini shares her motivations for and experiences of operating a craft trading business as a sole proprietor.  

Understanding your Passion: Establish a Thriving

 business as a craft artist 

Ms Ntini has been operating her craft trading business at the Greenmarket Square craft market since 2005. She currently owns two stalls from where she sells a variety of African artworks, including painted fabrics, beaded jewellery, wood and stone carvings, metal sculptures, hand-crafted textile and clothing products. Although her enterprise is now well-established, her journey towards establishing a viable craft trading business was extremely challenging. Initially, she had to overcome traditional perceptions about the essence of craft making and turn her passion for craft making into a commercial business:

… although I was schooled in the art of making traditional Xhosa crafts and have been passionate about it from an early age, I never imagined that one day I could use these skills and turn my passion of craft making into a business because back then we were nurtured to believe that crafts were mostly made for ceremonial functions and / or for gifts to friends and family. So within my traditional society, it was rare to trade crafts on a large-scale basis as we currently do…”

Ms. Ntini’s ‘break’ with traditional perceptions on the essence of craft making occurred after she moved to Cape Town in search of economic opportunities for her family. Here, she witnessed many enterprising people operating thriving craft trading businesses which encouraged her to follow suit. However, “as a typical and poorly educated rural woman from the Eastern Cape, it was very difficult for me to secure a well-paying job and raise enough money to start a commercial craft business as I wished.”

Your circumstance must not keep you back

How to overcome your traditional barriers 

How to solve the problems of a poorly educated woman from the rural areas to survive in the city

As a result, Ms Ntini worked as a nanny by day and made crafts in her spare time which she sold at her local Khayelitsha craft market during weekends. Although at this stage she basically operated as a subsistence trader, trading at the market enabled Ms Ntini not only to supplement her income but also to forge viable relationships with other traders and NGOs working with women in craft trading. Through these engagements, she learnt how to procure and market her crafts in order to expand her business:

 

“…at the Khayelithsa craft market we mostly traded traditional Xhosa crafts so our profit margins were very small. But when we started working with NGOs, we were encouraged to include and trade in other South African tribal artworks as well as to use other markets in the city to sell our crafts…so I started renting a trading stall in the city every last weekend of the month…”  

 

With these improved trading arrangements, Ms. Ntini’s profit margins increased substantially. As a result, she quit her job as a nanny to concentrate on her business. In 2005, she “was offered an opportunity to rent this stall on a fulltime basis and I have been trading from here ever-since … my business is doing very well because, as you can see for yourself, in addition to South African crafts, I am now selling crafts from other African countries such as Zimbabwe and Mali which means I am now able to cater for a wider range of customers…”

 

Ms. Ntini is now operating her business from two stalls, one of which is manned by her husband. Her case therefore indicates the tremendous potential of harnessing traditional skills and social support in turning an activity that one is passionate about into a thriving business enterprise.

 

Motivations for Setting-up her craft artist business

Although her passion for craft making as well as her quest for self-reliance and long-term financial security critically influenced Ms. Ntini’s decision to engage in craft trading as self-employed entrepreneur, she also contends that her decision was also motivated by several but inter-linked push-pull factors. The most critical of these include:

As a rule, the success of any business venture is directly related to and influenced by one’s educational and training background. As Ms. Ntini’s rightly observes,

“…without the training in the art of making traditional Xhosa crafts which I got from old women back in the village, it is doubtful if I would ever have thought of, late alone managed to set up this business. So the knowledge that I got as a young girl nurtured my interest and passion in crafts which in turn motivated me to continue making crafts for a living…”

She further argues that the training boosted her confidence as a craft artisan as well as in the tremendous potential of crafts as a viable source of livelihood. In short, Ms. Ntini rightly contends that without proper training it is often extremely difficult to find the motivation and passion to engage in any business venture.  

According to Ms. Ntini, the quest to create secure employment for herself and, by extension, increase familial income streams and overcome poverty played a critical role in motivating her to become a self-employed craft trader. She states that:

“…when we came to Cape Town, my husband and I struggled to get well-paying and secure jobs because we are poorly educated. We therefore survived by doing menial jobs and therefore struggled to fend for our family…that is why my husband strongly supported me when I started my craft trading business. Now our situation is better as we no longer ‘beg’ for jobs or fear to be dismissed at any time and for any ‘transgression’. Equally important, our financial situation and lifestyle has improved… ”    

Inherent in Ms. Ntini’s broad assertion is the critical fact that her decision to become self-employed was strongly influenced by her failure to secure a well-paying job in the formal economy and thus by her strong desire to counter this by creating sustainable opportunities for self-employment, income generation and long-term financial security for herself.

 

Low entry requirements in terms of skills and capital requirements often acts as a critical catalyst and motivating factor for entry into the craft trading industry. According to Ms Ntini, an ability to appreciate the aesthetic value of a craft is perhaps the most critical skill that one needs to have to conduct a viable craft trading business:

“…you do not need to know how to make all these crafts for you to engage in this business. What you need is to have the skills to see the value of the craft so that you can negotiate the right price when buying and selling.”

Similarly, operating costs in the craft trading sector are also relatively low. Ms Ntini contends that the costs of procuring artworks are manageable because they buy their wares in bulky and on installments from rural-based traders or from foreigners who bring them from their home countries as result “we do not incur any accommodation costs as would have been the case if we went out there to buy them ourselves.” She further notes that, “each stall costs R500 per month and we -pay R1200, per month for storage but this is ‘nothing’ because I share these costs with my friend who also has a stall here…”

Thus the low entry barriers and operating costs provides an opportunity for and thus encourages women with poor educational skills and resources to engage in craft trading.

From the foregoing, it is therefore clear that Ms. Ntini’s decision to become self-employed as a craft trader is a product of a complex combination of factors which are all linked to her desire to turn her passion in craftwork as well as her quest empower herself through employment creation and long-term livelihood generation.

 

The main reasons why she started the craft artist business

Living her Passion. Financial sustainability. Job creation. Empowering herself.

Benefits of arts craft trading

According to Ms. Ntini, trading in crafts has many benefits for individual entrepreneurs. The attendant job security and ability to make important decisions as a self-employed sole proprietor provides entrepreneurs like Ms. Ntini with opportunities for personal growth and development. In addition, Ms. Ntini also outlines the following as the key benefits accruing from craft trading:

Understand the many benefits of being self-employed

Opportunities for self development. Improving life-style. Being able to provide better for the family. Improved educational opportunities for children.
At a personal level, craft traders create job opportunities for themselves and their extended families. But Ms. Ntini argues: we create jobs for the young men who transport our crafts to and from the ware houses; we sustain the businesses of warehouse owners and we attract tourists who bring a lot of business to the city centre…” Thus, traders help to empower many people ‘down-stream’ and therefore contribute to economic development. 
Craft trading empowers poor and often marginalized people, especially women to transform their lives and attitudes. For example, Ms. Ntini contends that many women operating at the market are comfortably providing for their families without any government assistance. As women, this boosts our confidence in our abilities as we now regard ourselves as valuable providers of our families…”
Generally, craft traders often come from poor and socially disadvantaged groups. But by participating in the craft trade, “we earned enough to enable us to improve our home and we can afford life’s basic necessities…”

Obstacles to growth of arts craft sector

Although craft trading has provided Ms. Ntini with huge opportunities and benefits, her experiences as a self-employed trader have also been clouded with huge challenges, chief among them being:

Although the start-up capital and operating costs for craft trading are low entrepreneurs still encounter severe financial challenges in their quest to expand their businesses: “… it’s difficult to expand this business because I do not have enough money to procure crafts in the quantities that I want to or to rent stalls in other lucrative markets in the city. I would also want to own a proper craft shop but I cannot afford it … so I think these two stalls are the best I can do. Like other small-scale business people, Ms. Ntini believes that banks are not willing to finance her business activities because she lacks collateral security and does not have a strong banking history. To make matter worse, “the government is also not assisting us at all.”      
Ms. Ntini also believes the growth potential of her business is also hinder by the seasonal nature of the market: “the major problem with this industry is that it is not driven by domestic customers…so we depend almost exclusively on foreign tourists to conduct our business. The problem with this is that most tourists visit Cape Town during summer and / or when there are major festivals. Because of this, our sales and prices fluctuate between seasons, making our income streams highly unpredictable.”
Informal craft trading also faces high levels of competition from formal businesses, including craft villages and shops. Unlike informal traders like Ms. Ntini, formal businesses have the capacity to attract more customers because they advertise through various media which are accessible to foreign buyers. Ms. Ntini has also observed that, “…foreign craftsmen, like Zimbabweans, who used to provide us with crafts now prefer to deal directly with big businesses because they are paid higher prices for their crafts…this means the stock we eventually get is either too expensive or sub-standard.” Needless to say, this erodes the profitability of informal traders’ businesses

Learn about Ms Ntini's obstacles

Practical tips how she overcome the obstacles

Conclusion

The craft trading sector has tremendous potential to promote self-employment and, by extension, socio-economic development among the often marginalized poor majority in South Africa. This is so because the industry can be built from the traditional skills gained when growing up and has low entry barriers. However, to successfully engage in this business, Ms. Ntini advises that one has to be highly committed and have high levels of passion for the crafts.”  

You can develop your own business by becoming self-employed if you are willing to dream, believe and achieve and reach for your goals.