Sheila Freemantle, Founder & Managing Director of Tintsaba

Words of Wisdom: “Know your strengths & develop those strengths. Focus on the positive and let the negative wash by.” – Sheila Freemantle, Tintsaba

Interview with Sheila Freemantle, Founder & Managing Director Tintsaba

Sheila Freemantle, Founder & Managing Director Tintsaba

Tintsaba is the longest running handcraft company employing the talents of rural women in Swaziland. Tintsaba was created in 1985 by Sheila Freemantle with the purpose of improving the lives of rural women in Swaziland. The small business that started with 12 women, and to date has worked with and trained more than 890 women.  Today it sells its products in more than 17 countries. Tintsaba creates the highest quality hand woven sisal products. Sheila is commitment to the earth and the holistic wellbeing of rural women in Swaziland.

In 2006, Sheila won Entrepreneur of the Year Award in Swaziland, Silver and Gold at SARCDA Trade shows, and Best Accessories 2009 in the African Fashion Index. Tintsaba won the “for Her” Be Fair Award (the prestigious and international Fair Trade prize rewarding an organization of producers that mainly consists of women) in October 2011.

Watch a short promotional video of Sheila Freemantle’s interview (approx 5 minutes):

Sheila Freemantle, Founder & Managing Director of Tintsaba

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. We welcome comments on the Wisdom Exchange TV website.

What does Tintsaba mean?

It means mountains. Everywhere you look in Pigges Peak, where we are located, you see mountains.

What was the catalyst for starting Tintsaba?

My education is in development and African languages and I wanted to make a difference, particularly with rural women in Africa; they don’t have it that easy in Africa.

I also have a passion for quality and I appreciate the texture and finest of traditional craft and use that as a motivator to create a products of excellence and uniqueness.

Did you always intend to get into craft business?

I thought I wanted to make some changes through development to make women strong, but why would they listen to me? I thought if I could help them put money on the table then I would have their ear.

How do you keep your employees engaged?

It is about love

  • I have dedicated my own life to doing good in universe
  • I believe putting love into our products creates an excellence
  • Putting love into our work, means the staff enjoy themselves
  • Putting love into themselves, they are happy to be here

The more we can put love and joy into everything we do, into all the trainings, to have a holistic approach where we care about the health, the brain development, provide a mobile clinic i.e. Organic garden. It becomes a pride to become part of Tintsaba.

What specifically do you implement to ensure engagement?

We do skills training with each rural group.

  • Three or five different programs
  • We also do motivational training i.e. Brain gym
    • We start any meeting or buying day, any group leaders meeting (each Artisan group has a leader) we start with brain gym. We include prayer and god
    • During the process we start laying the foundation of working with love.
    • We have motivational trainings with all our group leaders. We would send one of the leaders to new group.
    • There is a lot of structure involved in Tintsaba – first the structure then the love – then all together.

Explain what Brain Gym is?

What we do is implement a very small portion of what brain gym can do.

  • What we do is called the ‘pace,’ the goal is to balance the right and left side of the brain. Most of the women we work with – approximately 50% are semi-literate; 25% are totally illiterate. Which means they are extremely right brained; which is a gift in terms of creativity. But to get focused to listen, for brain development and our literacy development project they need both sides of their brain.
  • It is also important for me and the full-time staff to develop our creative side as we are often doing left brain activities.

It also gives us a point of stillness, calmness. If there are outside problems it gives us time to clear that energy so we can focus on work.

You also mention the use of motivational speakers, what do they do tell help your team want to excel?

  • To be specific the program that we use will get one of our leaders to go into a group and start her training by hugging each woman. They refer to it as ‘send us the teacher who loves us.” Through that process we get them to feel part of the family. That they are being appreciated as individuals.
  • I think this is one of Tintsaba’s strengths is that we recognize each women as an individual and we will want to build them economically, mentally, psychologically at every opportunity.
  • Those who show promise they start at a different level and then grow into roles

What are some of the steps to get a new employee to grow in your organization?

  1. We may chose someone who was a group leader in the Rural community
  2. For example, we just hired someone who recently received a prize for being the most organized group leader, so we offered her an opportunity to become a full-time employee. She already understand the Tintsaba structure, she knows how to ‘pace,’ she has been a part of the Group Leaders meetings. So she understands the environmental background we want the women to respect.
  • We want women to respect the earth
  • To be grateful. We believe that gratitude is the beginning of development.
  • Show teachers gratitude, they should teach each other gratitude and we have a philosophy where we say: “well done myself.”
  • We build each person and positively spreads quite rapidly, just as negativity does. The more we push positivity the more we change the balance between the positivity and negativity in each person, the more they are happy inside.

Implementing training programs and the positive outlook of your employees, how do you think that impacts the end product you produce?

  • Some customers in show we do in Santa Fe have said, that they came into our booth to feel the love that comes off the baskets. The weaver said, “do you know we can not make a basket if we are in a bad mood?”

You export to 17 countries, which is county is your best buyer?

1. USA – they appreciate the baskets the most. I think there is a link to the American Indians. Americans seem to appreciate high quality handcraft. They are buying jewelry more now too.
2. Europe has traditionally bought the jewelry. They appreciating the design and uniqueness. We often use Europe to inspire us with the current trends.
3. We have exported to Japan and Australia
4. Now more and more we are exporting to more of Africa countries, which is a very exciting growth opportunity.

What are some things you need to consider to export within Africa?

  • I think Swaziland is becoming known for the quality and its design. I think we are becoming known for creating something different from the rest of Africa.
  • It is not easy to export to the rest of Africa. The price of the freight to export from here to Tanzania more then sending it to Europe.
  • I would challenge the leaders of Africa to facilitate an easier freight and cross boarder taxes and duties. It can be a nightmare.
  • Despite that that Africans customers are so impressed in Swaziland craft. We have increased from 6% to 20% export within Africa.
  • Exporting in US they tend to go more classical styles rather then the tourist tribal work we create.

Where do you get your customers?

  1. We have worked quite hard on our webpage.
  2. We have got a lot of customers by being a member with the World Fair Trade Organization.
  • We won an award with them last year, which has acquired a lot more Fair Trade customers.
  1. We attend two Trade Fairs in Johannesburg per annum.
  2. We attend the New York gift show with a distributor.
  3. We attend Santa Fe for the last four years.
  • It is an investment to export. I think to go to a trade show you need to go at least three times before someone builds confidence in you.
  • We pay for all marketing initiatives. It is a social enterprise and the primary goal is that women in rural areas make the money not the shareholders.

How do pay your Artisans?

We pay per piece.

  • What we do is grade quality.
  • We buy everything that the women make. Although may not appear to be a sensible business decision it does drive the women to get to the next level of quality.
  • We have a trainee grade, novice grade, and standard weaver grade, than the master weaver grade.
    • In the jewelry, only the best produce the jewelry.
    • So a woman if she tries hard with training she can grow economically.
    • This is a fairly pioneering approach in this part of the world.
  • There are some challenges with this approach because we buy everything and sometimes we have more than we need. Which does create a problem with cash flow.
  • We provide them with sisal to produce baskets, and jewelry. They have no cost. We pay for transport to go to them, raw materials, and marketing information.

Tell us about the award system you have in place and how it impacts your business?

We implement a “Master Weaver” competition. Out of 300 baskets weaved, 20 to 30 qualify to be the finest of their technique. As the baskets come in once a week, I will go through them to ensure the staff is being fair on the grading. I am also looking for baskets that are a step-up, either by pattern or colour combination. Or using a new pattern. We build up the stock until the first of May every year when we call in outside judges and they come and we spend a day and go through each basket on a point system.

  • The top 10 go to the shop and we give customers, friends and staff an opportunity to vote. Quite often this swings the vote. The “popularity” vote swung this year’s vote.
  • What is interesting about the entire combination they get a money prize and they share in the profit that we make from that basket if we sell it in Santa Fe.
  • It is becoming career, appose to a craft.
  • When I started in the handcraft business it was for grandmothers or handicap. Now these women have a career.
  • These ‘Master Weavers’ now have a status in their community. They start to be mentors for the budding master weavers, or new comers.
  • The ‘Group Leaders’ have created a rule where they meet under the tree where they instill the Tintsaba core values.
    • They do a little brain gym
    • They talk about the raw material control
    • They assist each other in a community in a driven way
    • They improve each other’s quality.

Do you think people are striving to become a Master Weaver?

  • Yes I think so
  • Every year we give awards for new Master Weavers who joined the club
  • These are women who have asked for help to get new patterns and new ideas so they can be a part of the computation.
  • I think it has become a status symbol.

Was there a catalyst to starting this holistic approach to business?

Part of it was wanting to make a difference and dedicating my life to the universe and just listening day by day to what needed to be done.

But also from a business point of view we started with two shops. Originally retail was a big part of our business. One of the shops had an in-house theft problem. Ten- to twenty- percent of production was going to theft. I spoke to my spiritual mentor, who is an industrial psychologist, who we still work with; he said anything could be fixed with training.

  • He spoke to each staff member independently and gave me an understanding of each personality.
  • That is when we started goal setting, positive thinking, brain gym
  • Those who could not buy into the core values left.
  • I saw one person entire body language completely change

As a result of implement these strategies how did it affect your business

  • We have had employees for 18 years. We have a lot of staff that are very dedicated and committed.
  • We have very minimal stock shortages.

What would be the biggest obstacle you have had in order to produce products?

1. Peaks and dips of orders are a challenge.

  • Keeping 900 women employed on a constant level.
  • Even at certain times of year it is quite, we continue to buy product in belief that the orders will come.
    • The last two years have been much better where they’re constant orders.
    • In Swaziland in winter people don’t work in the fields and that is when they have more time to make baskets, but that is also when baskets are at a lower demand.
    • The balance between productive and orders always a challenge.

2. Our products are so hand made and time consuming to respond to massive orders is a challenge.

  • To make a basket it can take 40 to 50 hours.
  • To make something as small as a coin can take an hour.

3. The HIV/AIDs crisis is a challenge.

  • When we loose someone there is a person involved and a relationship
  • But also there is years of training invested in that person.

4. Tintsaba strength is training. We will take someone blossom and build to managers. This is also a weakness because we are not employing someone with experience and high qualifications. Which means it can be a challenge to get orders out. There is a learning curve.

What is the biggest challenge with the export market?

  1. It is sensitive to the world economy.
  • Although some of the European and US markets are starting to buy again.
  1. Also the Rand to US dollar exchange rate can have an impact.
  2. We produce two new ranges per annum, lots cost involved. We employ outside designers
  3. Some challenges of buyer not replying to email. How often do you email before becoming a pest?
  4. Having a decent Internet.
  • It can take some time to communicate.

How do you know what the break-even point is – quantity vs. demand?

  • It is a gamble, because we often don’t know what will sell
  • It comes down to a lot of faith and prayer.
  • We need cash flow to stockpile and we need to get right colour of the order demand.
  • We get colour advice from designers; communicate with our biggest customers on design and colour feedback.

What is the most significant impact you have made in your career?

Instilling a passion for excellence in my team.

And having he perseverance to go through the difficult times.

What would attribute the one thing you would attribute success to, what would it be?

Planning, being organized and thinking ahead.

Keeping quality is everything we do. I believe the quality is also a link to your higher self.

What is the most challenging aspect of your career?

The cash flow and maintain the bulk of work that women depend on.

  • Many of those women don’t have any other income and many of their husbands don’t have any other income so they rely on us.
  • That is the biggest responsibility at Tintsaba.

Have you ever had a project or initiative that did not work? What would you differently next time.

We have learnt to ask Rural Women what they want, rather then thinking what they need.

  • We did an organic gardening program, bought water tanks, gave trees etc.
  • At the end of the week tanks were stolen and the garden fizzled away.

Do you feel you are conducting your purpose and why?

Because I came from South Africa and grew up with that legacy of Apartheid, although I was not involved in it, we wanted to correct that. We wanted to live in a country where colour and race was not issue. We thought we could make a difference here. I thought people were willing to organize themselves here to make life to better.

Do you have advice about finding your purpose?

We try to work with each person to find out what her strengths are and be open about her weaknesses. We create a culture of not hiding mistakes or communicating our mistakes. We all need to develop communication skills. Africa finds communication important. Fair trade instills this philosophy of having the groups come to a conclusion. Ubuntu– collective coming to a decision rather then feeling it is being imposed on them.

You have a lot of gifts, which gifts do you have that have made your organization the success it is?

Attention to detail. Ability to plan and organize. To think ahead. Sometimes we have to think months ahead on how to launch a new product. Also to be present in every situation. I don’t always get it right all the time.

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?

Because Tintsaba is a people sort of team, sometimes people don’t share the team values. A person can be quite a problem. It is has being difficult to either fire someone or gently suggest they move on.

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

I think Tintsaba could have been bigger then it is after all these years. If we started with a more strategic approach from the beginning we could be a lot more successful. We only started an export strategy 10 years ago, before that we depended 90% on tourism.

What does success mean to you?

All Tintsaba women have enough work.

How would you define success?

When I first came here I associated success with education. I learnt very quickly the most successful of our women could be illiterate. It was such a big learning for me.

The strength of the personality, the honesty and calmness are more important than having an educational background.

Leadership Lessons Learned.

  1. Have disciple and structure in your business. Help create the boundaries
  2. Persevere – knowing if you do something from the heart it will work out. If doing it for a higher ideal, the end will be successful.

What is next for you?

I want to appoint an Operations Manager so I can spend more time on people and product development. If I could do that I can have more of a balance in my life.

What is one thing you would like to do that you haven’t done yet?

Take six months off work to learn to speak Hindi in India.

Reflective Realizations

Q. What advice would you give to your 10 yr. old daughter?

To do what your heart tells you to do.

Q. What do you wish you were told at that age?

To do what your heart tells you to do, instead of listening to others people opinions and criticism.

Words of Wisdom

Be yourself. Know your strengths and develop those strengths. Be grateful for this wonderful continent we are on. Focus on the positive and let the negative wash by.


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    1 Response to "Sheila Freemantle"

    • Tashanda Inc.

      We watched this video just over a month ago and came away feeling so inspired as a team. Love is a business concept we do not think about but it is something well worth incorporating in our day to day interactions and our creativity. Our prayers are with her family and all the hundreds of women she has supported over the years.

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