Philippa Reiss Thorne, Managing Director, Gone Rural – eSwatini

Words of Wisdom: “Know your inner power and strength. We are worthy of success.” – Philippa Reiss Thorne

Interview with Philippa Reiss Thorne, Managing Director, Gone Rural – Swaziland

Philippa Reiss Thorne, Managing Director, Gone Rural – Swaziland

Since 2007, UK native and London’s Central St. Martins School of Art & Design graduate Philippa Reiss Thorne has served as Managing Director of renowned Swaziland-based sustainable home décor company Gone Rural. Arriving in Southern Africa as a volunteer in 2001, Ms. Thorne quickly became the firm’s Creative Director, a post she held for 4 years, before elevating to her current position. Instrumental in building the venture to  include a stable of more than 760 rural women (each of whom support an average of eight dependants), Ms. Thorne’s entrepreneurial spirit, creative vision, and production/marketing experience has engendered the company’s stunning commercial growth without compromising its focus on sustainability and tradition. During her tenure she has doubled business turnover, quadrupled artisan incomes, and fostered a positive economic impact on Swaziland’s rural communities by enabling women to earn money while maintaining their customary lifestyle.

Philippa Reiss Thorne is the creative architect behind a wide range of unique handcrafted products hewn from natural and recycled materials that are sold in over 200 stores worldwide and in 2011 generated 6 million rand ($800,000 USD; 600,000 EURO) in sales.  The line has expanded from its initial focus on home accessories to include distinctive handbags and wearable art.  Distinguished by the harmonious fusion of contemporary sensibilities and time-honored techniques, the innovative products have been spotlighted in numerous design shows and publications such as Elle Décor and House & Leisure.

A recipient of the “2011 International Alliance for Women 100 Award” for her efforts in economically empowering women, Ms. Thorne also engineered the founding of Gone Rural boMake, a non-profit that supports the artisans, their dependents and communities through health and education programs.  “I am committed to uplifting individuals and communities through a philosophy of fair trade and altruism,” she says. “I believe in the synergy between profit and not-for-profit organizations to promote financial sustainability for artisans while also assisting with the basic infrastructural needs of remote communities.”

A Swaziland-based Fair Trade Organization (FTO) was named best SMME in Africa in the trade category by Africa Growth Institute, an organization that focuses on growth opportunities in Africa.

Recent awards

2011   Winner TIAW World of Difference 100 Awards; 2008 & 2009 SARCDA – product award  – Gone Rural; 2003-2009  SARCDA Stand Design Excellence for 7 consecutive years – Gone Rural

Watch a short 5 minute promotion video on Philippa Reiss Thorne interview:

Gone Rural website:

Philippa Reiss Thorne, Managing Director, Gone Rural – Swaziland

Note: The key messages in the interview have been transcribed and slightly altered for legibility and succinctness. More information is provided in the audio and video version above. Please comment on the site, we want to hear your wisdom!

Gone Rural was started by late Jenny Thorne, how did you take over there reigns of her vision and make it your vision then quadruple growth over the last four years?

Firstly when I met Jenny we definitely had an instant report and connection and understanding. I came to Gone Rural as a volunteer. Immediately all the values of Gone Rural and the objectives of the business I believed in, and felt strongly about. I also felt a strong service, a duty, because I feel I am a service person. So when Jenny passed away it came very naturally to me. It wasn’t something I need to work on; I just saw what we needed to do as an organization. I just went head first to achieve that.

You have the ability to be creative as well as ability with finance, which is great as a Managing Director. You are naturally more creative

I came to Gone Rural as a volunteer as a product developer. I think as a good designer a lot of those elements come into play because a product has to consider all elements:

  1. Design
  2. Price
  3. Profit
  4. The customer

If you come up with a really good product, everything in that business is an element of that product.

  1. The raw materials – this refers to the ethical side of what you use and how you use it.
  2. The person who has made the product – what is their story in the product? Because it is a handmade product that needs to be considered.
  3. The Customer – which means you need to take into consideration the price of the product, the place or the product – where are you selling it? The value for money for the customer, but also for the business in terms of profit.

You bring up a good point that the financial elements of the business are very much inline with the creative processes. Lots of analytical skills you need in the creative process are the same analytical skills you need in running the business.  How were you able to make the natural leap since you had never done the financial aspect of the job before?

It starts with the customer, when you design a product you should be automatically thinking about the customer.

  • As a result you think about the market,
  • The stores you are selling in, the competition.
  • If you want to grow your market, you start thinking about the export market.

It was instinctive, as it comes with survival. I think entrepreneurship is maybe is partnered is survival of a company and growth. Similar to a mother who is trying to provide, you need to learn to manage your budget, provide food etc. They are all similar skills.

In the last four years you have had significant growth, what strategies did you initiate to help bolster that growth?

  1. The main strategy we had was to look at our pricing. We had exported out of Africa before but not with sustainability. We had one off orders, and no repeat business. We had to look at why that was. It appeared that our pricing was not working for export. Typically we think in Africa that they have more money, it was not working for us. There is a lot of cost involved in exporting and they are real cost at the end of the supply chain for the distributors and retailers. Sometimes you are looking at a mark-up from four to six times your wholesale price. When our products where getting the end market it wasn’t priced correctly and we also did not have a good communications with retailers.
  • First thing we did was offer volume discounts
  • We also tried to engage with Agents and distributors over seas.

This changed our business immediately. It started open up a whole new market.

Engagement is important. How did you start engaging with your customers?

1. We were doing trade shows in South Africa – SARCDA. Five years ago it was a good show for us. We won many awards through them.

  • We met an Australian buyer that was buying from Swaziland but not from us, but once we changed our pricing they started buying from us.
  • Ever since we have been able to grow those key accounts.

2. Targeting specific customers

  • Who do we want to work with, where should we be?
  • Some organic growth. We have collect our distributors and partners

As far as communicating with your buyers, how often would you contact them?

  • In the example of one of our buyers, John Lewis, we have an agent in the UK and she would be in contact with them monthly, because she is managing the orders, stock control, the presentation of product.
  • I go over there now once a year to have a key account meeting. Last year when I went we had a very successful meeting, because previously they were buying a small range, but we were able to add to that range and got them on board on long-term to work together. Those Key Account meetings are very important to us.

The Key Account meetings sound like they also dictated what you produced, which are a great strategy. Any other initiatives that help bolster sales?

  1. Strategic planning – absolutely critical and we do it once a year. As we have grown we have brought on more and more of our staff into that process as well as the Artisans.
  2. We have a strategy for every department in the business:
    • Product development strategy
    • Marketing strategy
    • Finance strategy
    • Human Recourse strategy
    • Learning and innovation
    • On that strategy we create an action plan. People in departments are responsible for knowing their tangible targets that they can be a part of. The staff really feels an ownership over the road map.

There were strategies for each one of these areas, but the biggest thing that help bolster our sales that we actually had a plan. It is amazing once things are put down in a strategy you actually do achieve them.

When Gone Rural started, was it a business, or more a development process?

  • It was a business. It started with the objective of creating independence for the rural women and a voice for the women and giving them an income. And also utilizing the skills that they had. Previously they were not using them for income generating.
  • It was a business, and the social part was as and when. Jenny Thorne was a nurse and had a passion for women and humanity, so she provided vitamins and gave workshops. It wasn’t structured. That is why we decide to create Gone Rural boMake Foundation, to create more organized social objectives.

Gone Rural boMake is your Foundation. Gone Rural is a business, and makes money for the rural women and for you?

Yes, for the rural women, but not necessarily for us. We have made it a social enterprise. It does have shareholders, but the profit from the business is reinvested into the business as seed money to grow. We have not met all our objectives as of yet. We donate some to the foundation.

So does the business not pay you?

I have salary.

I wanted to ensure there was clarity because I also think it is important if you have a social objective there is nothing wrong with making-a-living from executing that objective.

Gone Rural is on a Malandela’s compound that this interview is actually taking place on, a matter of fact we had the pleasure of enjoying Bush Fire. I am curious how do the stores, bed & breakfast, Malandela’s Restaurant- How does that help Gone Rural meet some of its objectives?

Hugely, in fact we get a lot of our customers from people who have travelled through the Malandela’s compound. I find the strongest customers are people who have visited us.  They have seen the project, met the women and then get a real passion for what we are doing. We have a shop here which is 1/3 of our sales from tourist coming to visit us and then from that we are also picking-up an international customers.

What percentage of your business is actually in export?

  • 30 – 40% outside of Africa
  • 30% Southern Africa
  • 30% in our two Swaziland shops                       

Do you find the African market is growing?

Yes I do think it is growing, and I do think we need to invest in it more as a strategy. People are starting to believe more in African products. When I came to Gone Rural, I think people where inspiring more by Western products and styles, but now there is a much stronger movement toward African products.

In relation to exporting your products, are there any different requirements that you need to export your products on the continent compared to exporting off the continent?

It varies per country.

  • In Australia you have to have a special permit, fumigation. It doesn’t impact the product pricing much, but it does affect the smaller buyers who want to take it in their suitcase because it will get confiscated when they get to Australia. It is important to have a partner there that can get the permit and distribute the product.
  • US is different. Exporting seeds is a challenge. So it affects product development because we don’t include any seeds in our products although there are so many beautiful seeds in Swaziland.
    • In the US they don’t necessarily buy our placemats, they prefer fabric placemats that are washable.
    • Also in export you really need to take into account the specific customers. For example with ceramics you need to avoid using lead, in general is a good thing to avoid. You need to do your research to see if there are any regulations you need to abide by.
      • You may think that would be the responsibility of the buyer, it often it isn’t. Sometimes you will produce the entire order, and then you will get a letter from the buyer stating requirements.
      • I find more and more it is our responsibility to know what you can and cannot produce for the individual markets.
      • In the UK, it is very product specific. Different products are in demand in the US and than the UK.  In the UK homes tend to be smaller homes, a lot of bigger African art rarely sell in UK. Understanding the market is really important.
        • European market is quite sensitive. They are geared to more functional products rather than esthetic products.

      I think it is a real challenge for Africa to learn about the customer because it does take a lot of effort and finances to go there and learn about our customers. In the past we have asked students to go out to High St. in London and take pictures so we can learn about products. Understanding the customer is a huge importance. I see it in Swaziland with the smaller handcrafters; they will sit there with their products and say there are no customers. There are customers; there are companies to prove there are customers. What they are not looking at is – is the product right for their customers?

What has been your most successful export product and why do think that is?

That is tough. I think it is a product where we combine materials. We always work with indigenous grass, which we always work with. It is an indigenous to Swaziland and it is our signature resource. What we have started doing is partnering producer groups together, so it might be clay with grass, or ceramic with grass. Also we are using recycled fabrics with the grass.

Starting to work together is creating strength. Often in business we are afraid of competition, we are afraid to work together, we try to keep our own ideas. I think it can be a really powerful way for Africa and craft to grow by seeing partnerships as a really powerful way to market products.

Our product is always inline with our philosophy. The fact that we partner with companies and organizations are a partnership philosophy we instill with all our stakeholder relationships.

Does the company you buy the ceramic from also promote your combined product?

No, not yet. I would love them to. They are small growing business. So we are their customer and they produce for us and we distribute through sales and marketing.

How do you structure you business to produce the consistent quality?

We are working with 760 individual women that work from their homes. We have to bring together orders of 5,000 units of a very specific design and quality. It has been a process we have developed over the years that is based on trust and developing process.

  1. We go out to the group with the raw material
  2. We control the raw material. We dye it in our workshops, which control the colour consistency. Also some women do not have water so it would be very difficult for them to do the dying.
  3. When we go into the rural communities we give them a very specific design.
  4. Once they produce the product it gets checked for quality control.
  5. It is big operation. My production team goes out everyday and sometimes the leave at 6:00am and don’t get back until 6:00pm because they have to travel a distance to some of the rural communities.

We do a lot of training with the women on quality control. There is also training within the groups.

What is the objective when your employees go to the rural communities?

  1. To buy the product that they ordered last time they were in the community
  2. To place an order with each women
  3. To give out the raw materials
  4. Collect the grass

There are other beneficiaries to the market day, as many other women will come to sell fruit, buns etc. to the Gone Rural producers. We have created a bit of a micro economy.

It is also an opportunity for women to share information.

Although not the objective of my production team, there are also social programs where the producers will also have an opportunity to talk to someone about health issues, kids and school fees.

Do you know how investing in all these women is impacting the families, particularly their marriages?

We are now embarking on a benchmark survey. We have done one in 2009 and now we are comparing. In terms of education of the kids I think the impact is been huge because we pay for 340 orphaned and vulnerable children to go to school through our boMake Foundation scholarship program. It takes a lot of weight off their mothers. Based on our last survey, and in terms of the family, Gone Rural is the only source of income. A Chief told us that Gone Rural is the only income provider for his region. They have some men go to the mines, but they may only come back once a year.  The rest of the year women have to provide for themselves.

Have you heard of any challenges where women are making more money than the man and there is increased tension as a result?

I have heard stories that this has happened. A lot of men are not employed. So it is not an issue that the women are making more, it is more of issue that men are not making anything. We did start an initiative to help men. We felt that it doesn’t help the women if men are feeling disempowered then there will be tension in the family.

As a result we started a medal project, which is very small. It is grown from one to five. We would like to grow it, but there still is so much we want to do with our women.

Have you seen some of the rural women leave Gone Rural to create a business for themselves?

I haven’t seen it much. A matter of fact it is one of our objectives, as we see ourselves as a stepping-stone. Women can go from not having any income to have subsistence income and then hopefully moving on to the next level.  Some of the women have started their own businesses. For example a woman saved enough money from her Gone Rural income where she bought a solar panel where she is now making additional income charging people for charging their cell phones and charging for services.   Some have started to buy chickens or growing vegetable gardens. This is definitely one of our major objectives. There are still so many women who want to join Gone Rural. When I visited the communities last year there were over 300 women that wanted to join the groups. Because we work with the communities a lot we mention that this is the work we have and it is up to the women already working with Gone Rural to decide if they want to split the work.

The way I see it, if more women go out on their own the more women we can help. We really want to monitor this in the future.

If women do go out on their own, will they still benefit from the boMake Foundation?

Absolutely, they don’t have to leave Gone Rural, because it is part time work, they can do their other work as well. In terms of the Foundation, there are a lot of community benefits from that. If a woman passes away we still pay for her children. The water, the food security are ongoing community projects so not only do we support the women but the community.

How important do you think Foundation is to create loyalty and superior products?

I don’t think the boMake Foundation has any relation to the quality that is produced. I have been here eleven years and we only started boMake in 2007. I saw the sustainability of Gone Rural well before that as we are celebrating 20 years. What I do think it has done is accelerated opportunities for women. If you don’t have food security for the women, or you don’t have water, or if your family doesn’t have its health, it is very difficult to do anything beyond day-to-day challenges. We focus on income as we realized that it is important thing to the women. As we evolve, we look more and more at what we can do to address the primary concerns of the women.

What has been the biggest obstacle you have overcome in producing the products?

Biggest challenge is constantly innovate and keep the price inline and market interested. Against that, the women are there and want more work.

What has been the biggest obstacle you have overcome in exporting the products?

In exporting there is a time constraint. The products are handmade. We collect the grass from the mountains, we bring it back to our workshop, we dye it, send back out the rural women for nearly a month, they produce the product, we collect it. We really need our partners to understand the time it takes to produce our products.

We deal with this by communicating with customers. But sometimes women may be plowing the fields or they are sick and don’t bring the completed work. This is a real challenge. We don’t like to let down our customers.

How do you deal with shortage of orders?

We have a group who comes in once a week to the workshop who are local. They produce fast-track orders. They are cross-trained to produce most of the products. So we top on short orders.

The challenge with this is a stock issue, because the next month when the rural women come back with the product and the order is already sent we have a lot of extra stock and our working capital is sitting in that stock.

So what do you do with the extra stock?

We are fortunate because we have our retail outlets here, so we can control what we put in that stock and what promotions we can offer.

What has been the biggest obstacle you have overcome in relation to human resources?

I would like to see more creative thinkers coming out of Swaziland. I am really excited because we just got our first Swazi design intern. I would like to see more Swazi designers. There is a lot of talent with the hand skills but not in terms of the design.

I traditionally did a lot of the design, but now we have an intern designer working with our Swazi design team to build the department.

If there was an ambitious women who wanted to start a similar company to Gone Rural, such as have social element, providing quality products and sustainable enterprise somewhere else in Africa, what would be your advice for them to consider starting that process?

  1. Look at what is available locally. Look at the raw materials. Look at the skills that are available and really embrace African culture. So often we look to the West for the inspiration, and we are not respecting and seeing the beauty and power in the indigenous products. Look at cultural items.
  2. Then look at how that can be adapted for the market. Fit into the trends and how to make it aesthetically pleasing.
  3. It is about working with the communities that you want to benefit from the program. I would have liked for them to lead the program. We have a challenge at Gone Rural that we lead the program and now we want the producers to come up and lead more. It is harder change for us now. It would be better if the rural women come up with the ideas and we are just the facilitators of that process.
  4. Also make sure you have a plan and strategy to put into process.

What do you think has been the most significant impact you have made in your career so far?

Inspiring others. I think it is so much bigger than Gone Rural. Because we have done so much development work at Gone Rural, in terms of product, international markets and social foundation, I feel it has inspired the industry as a whole. I have brought in designers who have started their own companies that are doing similar products. When others see success it has inspired them. I think it has lifted up the handcraft industry as a whole. I feel very proud to see the Swaziland handcraft industry becoming world-renowned. We have big buyers coming here and all the handcraft companies work together because the buyers would not just come for one of us.  They come to see 10 or 20 high quality handcraft production companies.

Because we are small country we can see what others are doing and it has become a hive of activity.

If there were one thing that you can attribute your personal success to, what would it be?

The family in Swaziland. I have an amazing family that so inspirational. I am service to that.

What is the most challenging aspect of your career?

It is a daily challenge. It is a big one for me. When you come to Africa and your young and you are coming to help. We have been working for eleven years on strategies and achieving goals. But after achieving them there is still these challenges, there is still poverty, women are still have major hardship in their life. How can we manage to do more?

It is tough living in Africa, you are confronted daily with its realities.

Sometimes you wonder why you are here and are you contributing enough, or should you be here?

Edgeness Insight (An enhanced version of you when you push the edge of your comfort zone). What is something that you are uncomfortable doing, but you need to continue to do, in order to make you as successful as you are?

Being a leader and taking responsibility. Taking responsibility can be a hard thing as well. Knowing that the buck has to stop with you. It is easy to sit back and let the responsibility be out of your hands. I can see what should happen and I have to take the responsibility to make it happen.

If there was one thing you could do differently in pursuit of your success what would it be?

I think there are several things.  I think I could bring more knowledge on specific areas in education. Believing more in the capabilities of the staff. Investing in the staff. What I have done now is stepped out of the business. I am part-time and I really want the staff to grow into the roles. I am still here, but the team is quite capable. It has been a process. I am positive about it. We are offering the women shares in the business and had a two-day leadership session where we presented a new corporate model. They said they were afraid to take the responsibility. That is why I suggested getting people more involved sooner.

For me the biggest challenge has been letting go of responsibility.

What does success mean to you?

When you are being balanced within yourself. It is more than awards and meeting your targets. I have learnt that because you can achieve all these things and still question yourself. I think it is finding an inner balance. To be a very good leader you have to be living all those things yourself. Your body, your family life. You cannot be a good leader or teacher if you are not living those things. I believe that success will have a ripple effect on others.

How do you define leadership?

It should come form a selfless place. It is being in service to people you are leading. I feel very strong about this. It is having integrity and authenticity of what you do. Being committed to objectives of goals. Being unwavering what you do.

Leadership Lessons from Philippa Reiss Thorne

  1. Be honest, speak from your own truth
  2. Be brave. I think having to speak to 70 women who are older and wiser than me and yet I need them to follow. You need to be fearless.

Reflective Realizations

Q. What advice would you give to your 10 yr. old daughter?
Follow your heart. Express yourself. To love who she is. I can’t expect my kids to live their dreams if I am not living mine.

Q. What do you wish you were told at 10 years old?
I wish I were told to trust myself more; to follow my dreams.

What is next for you?

I am hoping to keep learning. I haven’t studied since I left university and it something I want to do. I have got to a point I need to learn more to give back.

Words of Wisdom

Know your inner power and strength. It is from the African earth. There are so much humility and love for family and culture and we don’t acknowledge that as African women. We are worthy of success. I wish we could show these women to the world.

Watch or listen to the interview to gain more insight into Philippa Reiss Thorne leadership lessons and strategic insights. Please comment on the site, we want to hear your wisdom. Share Wisdom Exchange TV with other future leader, they will appreciate it!


Watch or listen to the interview to gain more insight into Philippa Thorne leadership lessons and strategic insights. Please comment on the site; we want to hear your wisdom. Share Wisdom Exchange TV with other future leaders, they will appreciate it!

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