This startup is creating a formal market for local artisans

The Grassroute is helping craftspeople sell their products online


Nabila Bana and Safiyyah Patel (both aged 24) launched startup, The Grassroute, after being inspired by the commitment of the crafters they encountered in the city of Durban.

The self-funded online platform was launched early this month to provide these artisans operating within the informal market with access to a market to sell their products. 

The startup is a social enterprise, the core focus of which is to enable customers to purchase products made by artisans, who then in turn, are paid per product sold.

The platform has even in some cases provided a platform for collaboration between various artisans. 

Bana and Patel, both economics students at UCT and UKZN respectively, share the story behind their social startup.

Nabila Bana and Safiyyah Patel.

The Grassroute focuses on capturing the stories behind the products using inputs sourced locally. Last year, we ran a seasonal pop-up store specialising in novelty gifts. After a successful run, we realised the online market in South Africa is growing rapidly. At the end of our pop-up store we gave a donation to a local charity from the profits. Instead of giving a once-off handout, we wanted to incorporate a sustainable developmental aspect into our business.

We kept coming across talented artisans who practiced and sold their crafts on the side of the road or on the fringes of craft markets. They all had incredible skills and no platform to sell their products beyond the foot traffic passing them on a daily basis. We were inspired by how committed these artisans were to their craft despite struggling to make ends meet. The idea of collaborating with such artisans to capture their individual stories and to create unique and functional products and provide access to a market was thus born.

"We were inspired by how committed these artisans were to their craft despite struggling to make ends meet"

Starting a business is difficult. Especially at this early stage, you have to be involved in every aspect of your venture from product development, customer service to courier and finances – it often requires you to work tirelessly at things you may not be naturally good at/is out of your skill set.

Ubuntu dolls.

Challenges in this business model often arise with working with artisans. Often they are difficult to contact or not used to producing such large quantities of their art. Sourcing quality materials and developing a product around someone’s skill is also hard work. The Grassroute has also helped six Gogos, or grandmothers, from the Valley of a Thousand Hills sell their Ubuntu dolls. 

Our vision for the next two years is to create a sustainable social entrepreneurship venture, that will give artisans the opportunities they deserve. We hope to create products with meaning and inspire socially conscious shopping, so that through featuring them on an online platform, they are able to access and be accessed long after their products have been sold on our store.

"Planning ahead is so important because there are speed bumps around every corner"

The greatest achievement for us would be to better their lives [artisans], expand their crafts and get them noticed by the rest of the country. That sounds like a lot to achieve in two years but we believe that with drive and commitment, it could be possible.

If you're passionate about something, follow it. It's going to be difficult and things aren't going to work out as efficiently in the beginning as you'd hoped, but ask advice along the way and work hard and in the end, it will all pay off.

Planning ahead is so important because there are speed bumps around every corner. You think a product will be ready today and you'll be able to package it tomorrow and get it ready by the end of the week and then something gets delayed and it is absolutely beyond your control.

Things take time. Processes take work and streamlining is something you constantly have to be doing. We're learning to take it one day at a time and to try to avoid the speed bumps.

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