I worked for a marketing firm, and, on the weekends, I was writing a newspaper column and blogging on the arts. My main source of income was my website, erickyai.com.
Around 2007, I was approached by EATgifts, a South African online marketplace for gifts and decorations that also hosts an open-mic art gallery on its website. A few weeks after I got to know the owner, he told me that they were in need of extra revenue. He told me he had a brilliant idea. He said, “I know you know many of the artisans, so we would like to find a way to connect them with art collectors, so that they can make more money from their work.”
Back then, our main source of income was from advertising. I found that exciting, but it soon became tiring. I just wanted more fun and fresh ideas. I started reading up on EATgifts, and that convinced me to launch my own business with my husband, Simen van Ee, four years ago.
We started walking around galleries all over South Africa and talking to artisans about what they were working on. People often don’t take the time to listen to their opinions, but here, they did. It was a really fun challenge. And it paid off. After our first year in business, we had money coming in, plus we had great websites and social media tools.
Then, about a year later, we started taking our service to other countries and what started as an in-home training course at home transformed into EATgifts travel workshops. We would travel to these communities and we would teach locals how to teach tourists a gift idea they had heard about, but didn’t know how to do. Once we visited South Sudan, we came back with three new markets.
By the time we left South Sudan in November 2016, we had just about 10 workshops. I think it was the fact that we had no retail space for our visitors to come and shop — it was just all above ground on our website. One of the artists who taught at our workshop in South Sudan said to me, “As soon as you opened your doors to the public, my sales grew by more than 50 percent!”
We didn’t stop there. Now we have over 500 professional sellers on our website, including soap makers, carvings, handbags, beads, artwork, glass pieces, jewelry and even mugs and cupcakes. We had our first booth at Frieze Art Fair in New York. And our flagship shop in Oxford in 2017 was featured in a BBC documentary. You get the idea.
These days, we work harder, harder, harder — as well as at an accelerated pace. We all work 60 to 70 hours a week, including weekends. But we enjoy every minute of it.
I come from a very traditional family. My father is a lawyer, my uncle is a blacksmith, and my uncles have their own handicraft stores. Although we grew up in Johannesburg, it was important for us to experience this culture, which is not so different from ours. I love to teach people about the local culture — and I also love to hear from them about their own unique heritage.
We’ve learned so much from the people we have met. So many artists have had a huge impact on me. We recently launched a book called Crafts from South Africa, and the main moneymaker was the Valfrétta silk-scarf project. We collected 20,000 scarves from communities around the country, and sold them at a fair in Paris.
I think people are becoming more aware of their connections to the environment and they realize how deeply we need to care for our relationship with Mother Earth. People also know that the products in their homes are actually made in their countries. As long as the products are handmade and they are naturally organic, they are good for our health.
For me, having a different line of work has been a positive experience. We hope to inspire a future generation, to inspire them to step out of their comfort zones and make a little extra money and maybe open a workshop in their own communities. I hope to be an inspiration to a lot of young South Africans who have the passion and drive. My message to them is to follow their dreams and dreams big.
Lukhana Nys-Brown was named one of the South African Times’ Top 50 Most Influential People of 2017. Her website is erickyai.com.