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Out of Africa, into U.S. market

Andrea Lillo -- Home Textiles Today, October 28, 2002

Hand-embroidered pillows, telephone wire bowls and other crafts from remote villages of Africa may soon be available to the U.S. market with the help of Link Africa, a homewares export trading company based in Cape Town, South Africa and a new exhibitor at the Home Textiles Show here.

Founded in January 2001 by two buyers familiar with the African market, Link Africa specializes in sourcing, product development and order management of handmade textiles, furniture and other accessories for retailers that wish to access small to medium-size producers within the continent. Currently exporting to department and chain stores in the United Kingdom and Germany, Link Africa has identified the United States as its next new market.

"Africans are very decorative," said Vivian Thornton, director, "and they distinguish themselves by their clothing and textiles."

Each part of Africa has crafts unique to it, she said. "If you needed heavy embroidery, you would know what part of Africa to source from." There are 11 strong tribal influences on the continent, and each one has an obvious look and feel, she explained.

Some Africans use different colored muds to stain fabric, resulting in mud cloths. They also have a huge culture of recycling, and one of the most sought after items she said are bowls made out of telephone wires. Other bowls are made out of sardine cans, and handtufted rugs constructed from leather flooring are also very popular.

"There is a heightened awareness and appreciation of handcraft skills globally across the buying arena, and many buyers are looking to reintroduce product with a high level of handcraft design or workmanship," she said. "It's a reversal from where we were three or four years ago."

South Africans have not seen the technological advances of other parts of the world, she explained, and as a result a lot of original skills are still widely used, which help in keeping costs down.

One of Link Africa's 50 current suppliers, Howard House, for example, employs 50 women to embroider using a stitch from their culture. A full or queen hand embroidered duvet is about $50 wholesale, she said.

Other townships specialize in furniture, she mentioned, citing that a handmade and built leather sofa would wholesale for $800.

Thornton, a former British buyer for the African retailer Truworths, and her partner, Paula Pelston, "felt there was such a huge opportunity … and it is difficult for U.K. and American buyers to penetrate" this market. The African Growth and Opportunity Act, in effect for more than a year now, also results in a lot of duty-free products, she added.

Shipping items to the United Kingdom or the U.S. is also reasonable, at about 4 percent to 5 percent of the value of the product, she added.

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