The beginning of Zulu Mien

My name is Nikki Robertson and I’m the founder of Zulu Mien. Years ago I was invited to train as a product developer in rural Kwa-Zulu Natal and to work alongside rural women artisans. I loved my work in these communities and enjoyed watching the women we worked with grow from strength to strength. Our job was to develop and refine these handmade products and connect the artisans with wholesalers and retailers who could market and sell their beautifully made wares.

However, there was an ongoing problem. When funding for product development and market access programs depleted, the support for artisans would cease. Suddenly the women, who are both socially and geographically removed from the market for their wares, were left with no orders for their products and a loss of important income. My frustration with this problem led me to University and I explored the problem in a research report on the South African craft sector.

One of my conclusions was a potential social enterprise to support rural women artisans. My hope was that a sustainable social enterprise could bridge the gap between the women artisans and the market for their craft, and offer ongoing support and consistent orders for products. My research led me to the Gordon Institute of Business Science. At GIBS I explored a potential social enterprise whilst participating in their Social Entrepreneurship Program (SEP). I discovered successful models in India such as Industree Foundation. This was the beginning of Zulu Mien.

Zulu Mien follows the market intermediary model of social enterprise that provides services to its target population or “clients”, small producers, to help them access markets. 

The market intermediary model is usually embedded: the social program is the business, its mission centers on strengthening markets and facilitating clients’ financial security by helping them develop and sell their products. The social enterprise achieves financial self-sufficiency through the sale of its client-made products. Income is used to pay the business’ operating expenses and to cover program costs of rendering product development and marketing.

 As a social enterprise market intermediary model Zulu Mien does the following:

  • We ensure that the women artisans determine their labour cost and are paid accordingly.
  • We work closely with the women to form a trusting relationship and provide training in product design, quality control, costing and pricing, production management and scheduling.
  • We also work with the women to develop our ranges and they provide the technical input and expertise required to product develop new samples.
  • All samples produced are paid for upfront and the women are not expected to carry to burden of these costs.
  • The women also deliver completed products and their transport costs are covered to remove the burden of high cost of transport between rural and urban regions.

After doing the groundwork for Zulu Mien at GIBS, I started to actively work on the enterprise in 2014. This was when I first met the Rhubhani craft group in Vaalbank, Mpumalanga. The group was established by and headed by master beader Elsie Bahlezi Mahlangu. Together with this extremely talented group of women we developed our first range of jewelry.

I also had to find a jeweler to assist to develop the range and so I reached out to the University of Johannesburg and discovered a young and incredibly creative jeweler by the name of Khanya Mthethwa.

Khanya helped to conceptualize our first range and to work out the ways in which we could combine beadwork with the fine art of jewelry design in sterling silver. To date we use the tried and tested methods she developed while trying to push ourselves to do more.