This month we want to introduce you to one of our newest members of the Discovered family: Merel Disselkoen and the artians of Townshipsmile. Merel recently traveled to South Africa to see how the artisans of Townshipsmile are doing. We asked her what drives her to run the artisan business Townshipsmile.
Can you tell a bit more about Townshipsmile?
My aim is to build a personal and business oriented bridge between Europe and Africa. I try this by connecting people from these two parts in the world. Townshipsmile crafts and sells trendy artisan jewelry from Africa.
What does 'Townshipsmile' mean?
We let the people in the African townships smile again; it is as simple as that. From 2004 up to 2005 I was a manager in an African township. During that period I took many pictures, like this one of some kids in their school uniforms, smileling. It really makes me smile every time a she this picture: those kids smiling in their fullest joy!
Why did you start Townshipsmile?
It's the job of my life: it is a combination of my passion for Africa, using my qualities and talent in a right way and following my dream. Most importantly, several months after we started with Townshipsmile we found out that the artisans we work with in Africa feel the same way! Their qualities and talents are seen, valued and their dreams are coming true: this makes the circle complete.
Now my dream is to scout other talented people who make beautiful things. I want to connect that talented musician to a well known Sing and Songwriter, so they can make music togheter. I want to connect a young person who practices Volleyball, to a coach with the right mindset who can help this person to develop this talent.
What do you usually do when you visit the artisans in South Africa?
What I do really depends of who I visit and which place I go to. The artisans I work with live in different areas. When I go to Johannesburg and its surroundings, I usually meet my agent Christine. She is from South Africa and she is my contact person for 3 of the artisan groups I work with. Christine gives me regular updates about the ladies when I'm home and joins me when I visit the ladies in South Africa.
I love seeing the artisans and I always want to know how they are, and how their families and kids are. Oh, and I never forget to bring the Dutch stroopwafels, they absolutely love it! When I'm there, I check the quality of the handmade jewelry that the artisans make. Besides that Christine and I like to walk around in the dusty streets of the townships, discussing ideas for new products.
In addition I try to discover other artisan groups and meet new artisans during my trip in South Africa, either with or without Christine. I visit the local market to see what is new. During the rest of the day I love to hire a car to visit my best friend Simonie from Namibia, who lives in South Africa.
How often do you go to South Africa? Do you always travel by yourself?
Twice a year I go to South Africa and most of the time I travel by myself. I know the people and the culture and I love to travel on my own. Although last year my husband and three children came with me. Toghter we traveled through South Africa, Botswana and Namibia for one month. This year my mother in law will also join me.
When I go to Johannesburg and surroundings I need to visit the township where my passion for South Africa began: Elandsdoorn. I worked there 10 years agoa, and it thus feels like coming home every time I return!
So, you are working with artisans in South Africa?
I work together with 3 small artisan businesses from Cape Town and 2 groups of ladies living in townships around Johannesburg. I mail or call them every month to see how the artisans are doing. In Johannesburg I work together with a woman who checks the quality of the handmade jewelry and pays the salaries of the artisans from Townshipsmile. At the moment I only work with people from South Africa, but I would love to expand to other countries. In addition, I contact all of my suppliers on a regular basis. They can give me input about new orders, designs, trends and colors.
What impact does Townshipsmile have on the local artisans?
I want to make one thing clear: the artisans and women I work with are strong and talented women. They are not miserable at all. They have a great talent and they want to express themselves through handmade goods such as artisan jewelry or unique messenger bags. The money they earn is not the only important thing for the artisans. MOst important is the proud and dignity they get, knowing that their handmade goods are a success in Europe.
You probably have some difficulties, right?
I can't push hard and friendly enough to deliver the handmade jewelry sooner then they can make it. I have plenty of stock but sometimes the goods sell so quick that I run out of stock. It takes at least one or two months before the new stock is delivered in the Netherlands.
What's the best part of your job?
The best part is, bringing talents and needs of people from South Africa and people from Europe together. Selling their handmade goods gives the artisans from the townships a better future and it gives me the opportunity to travel frequently to 'back stage South Africa'.