How Access to US markets changed the Lives of two South African Entrepreneurs

What started as a pastime desire to sell crafts at local markets, deeply rooted in the South African culture, has since blossomed to become an international business entity for two local women. It took the Mokone sisters, Morongwe “Mo” (37) and Michelle (34), three years only to turn around their home decor business into an international business venture by leveraging on the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA).

AGOA allows entrepreneurs from Africa duty-free access to the US market. Approved by the US Congress in May 2000, the legislation sought to help improve the economies of these sub-Saharan African countries, as well as to improve economic relations between the US and participating countries on the African continent. 

Africa Renewal caught up with the two Mokone sisters who are beneficiaries of AGOA to hear how the initiative has changed their lives.

Morongwe and Michelle were raised in Mabopane, Pretoria. In 2016, they started their business ‘Mo’s Crib’ that produces hand-woven baskets, place mats, trays, and other homeware accessories, and selling them in at a local market. In 2019, they decided to pursue the business full-time. Since then, their business has grown and currently has 12 full-time and 86 part-time employees.

Mo’s Crib uses African traditional designs and sustainable materials to make high-end decorative and homeware pieces inspired by nature. Their arty designs simple, yet modern and sophisticated, with many of their products having multiple purposes that prioritize functionality. 

Green products

Most importantly, the business values sustainability – emphasizing on reusing, recycling and reducing waste, as well as using local talent and material to create employment opportunities. From their locally-sourced impala palm leaves to the material of their shipping boxes – the Mokone sisters promote sustainability and a greener society. 

“Our business is deeply linked to our upbringing in South Africa, we draw inspiration from the African culture, nature, and our commitment to the local community,” Michelle told Africa Renewal.

Michelle, who is Mo’s Crib director of operations and supply chain added: “We transitioned our craft into entrepreneurship when we noticed the increased demand of our products at local markets. It was the passion for art and the desire to make a positive impact that propelled us to where we are today. We also saw an opportunity in retail as we wanted our products to be accessible, so we decided to partner with retailers to increase sales volumes and sell in bulk.”

The two sisters quit their jobs, Morongwe was an executive HR specialist while Michelle worked as an agricultural economist, to follow their dream and both credit their father, who was an entrepreneur himself, for the inspiration.

“Our father was an entrepreneur himself. Our drive to build a business of this kind with a sustainable imprint stem from our commitment to creating sustainable and ethical products. We are motivated by the opportunity to provide economic and educational opportunities to our employees whom we refer to as our team members, while at the same time promoting environmentally conscious practices. Our dedication to sustainability and empowering local communities has been the driving force behind our business,” said Michelle.

Michelle explained how they finally made a breakthrough into the international market.

“In 2019, Mo’s Crib made its debut in international markets in France and the USA. It was an opportunity for Africa to showcase its products, promoting sustainable practices and potentially opening new revenue streams for the continent. Our breakthrough demonstrates that Africa can contribute to the global market while preserving its cultural heritage and promoting environmentally friendly products,” said Michelle.

She added: “We are still doing well in the local markets, but we always wanted that international breakthrough. AGOA provided us that platform. As it is, we are no longer just selling to local markets in Pretoria, Johannesburg or in South Africa alone; we are literally reaching the US and international platforms.”

Highlighting that through local businesses like Mo’s Cribs, age-old African crafts are given new life, and in doing so, preserve their heritage, Michelle, however, is urging businesswomen to carefully identify products that resonate with the international market.

“To benefit from AGOA, one must identify products that are in demand in the US and establish sustainable distribution channels. They must also partner with knowledgeable forwarding agents to maximize AGOA benefits,” she said.

“Since 2021, we have shipped a total of eight containers to the US. We are on track to ship two more containers soon. We also regularly ship a container to fulfill our orders for our online store, which is fulfilled through our warehouse in New Jersey, US.

“Although shipping is relatively expensive, especially for a small business that is 100% self-funded, we have benefited from the AGOA through significant market access. Currently, US orders constitute 60% of our overall revenue,” she added.

This story was originally published by African Renewal.


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