Can You Hear Me Now?

Cell phones for South African artisans

The Eastern Cape of South Africa is known for its stunning landscapes, amazing waves, abundant sea life, and, most importantly, for its relaxed bucolic atmosphere and vibrant handcraft tradition. But a trip there in 2007 to study the needs of the region and its artisans uncovered a hidden opportunity, and inspired Kate Chisholm and her team from the African Craft Trust to begin what has become a revolutionary program for working with the most rural of craft-people in Southern Africa.

The “routine” assessment, uncovered a hidden opportunity. For while most of the artisans the program sought to work with were illiterate in both native and Western languages, all of them were found to be using mobile technology to participate in the modern world in extraordinary ways.

Even though much of the Western world is just now starting to use cell phones for their finances, the team working around Port Saint John’s found even the most rural producers—the oldest Tatas (grandfathers) and the most weathered Gogos (grandmothers) were using their cell phones for mobile banking and text messaging. In communities with no other modern conveniences—no running water, no regular electrical service, traditional mud brick houses, and certainly no access to computers, to the internet or even to land-based phone lines—modern banking was the norm.

With this information in hand, Kate and her team approached funding organizations to start a pilot program on the best ways to use this opportunity to reach crafters and craft organizations. With help from The Ford Foundation they began a two-year pilot program. During this time, they refined the needs and abilities of their constituents and learned that many of them were using mobile technology much more extensively than previously thought. Phonetic vernacular text messaging was prevalent among all. As well as multigenerational use of the platform—grandchildren, children, grandparents alike were using and sharing information obtained from their simple mobile devices—smart phones are just now starting to hit the secondary market in South Africa so all of this interaction is primarily on late model text capable cellular phones.

The Trust developed a plan for using this capacity to empower and educate small businesses in the craft sector. First, they are partnering with SangoNet for technology support as they develop a series of Small Business Applications under the banner of “CellCraft!”—these include basic business programs for Costing and Pricing, Customer Databases, and Expenses and Sales. As the program progresses the second wave of programming includes a networking—social media style—platform for crafters and craft organizations to connect with one another. In the final push of the pilot the program will work to formalize business banking with a system similar to the M-PESA program found in Eastern Africa.

The impact these programs can bring to the region is multifold. It will increase access to tools previously unavailable and it will allow artisans to approach business in a new more effective way. It will open new markets and create a synergy in the field among artisans previously unable to reach one another effectively and increase the capacity to share information and knowledge.

The program can be expanded to include other micro enterprise ventures found commonly in rural communities—such as tailoring and home agriculture. It will also offer opportunities for online sales and full participation in the formal market sector.

Put simply, Kate says, “Crafters are often left out of the development process as they are part of the informal market. This program will help to bring them into the formal market structure while giving them access to information specifically developed and directed to helping them succeed.”

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