Ambassadors To Artisans Series – In Conversation with Ndumiso Dlamini, Design Network Africa

Ndumiso Dlamini’s tenure began in 2016 in the retail arm of the original iteration of Design Network Africa, learning the nuances of the local product ranges on a hands-on level and engaging customers through educating them about local handcrafted, authentic homeware product. This product knowledge combined with her vocational experience in the fashion industry allows her to have an acute understanding of how handmade production works in a mechanical sense, the parameters thereof, and how to communicate these nuances to Design Network Africa clients and retailers. In addition to this, she has supplemented her skill set regarding the business of design through obtaining a Post-Graduate Diploma in Business Administration in 2023.

  1. What does being an ambassador to artisans mean to you?  

Being an ambassador to artisans in my position as Head of Design Network Africa relates to being an advocate for the African handcraft industry in a commercially viable, fair-traded and environmentally sustainable manner.  

  1. How did you initially embark on your artisan journey? (As an artisan yourself or in partnership with artisans) 

My first exposure to handcraft was through my grandfather, who was a shoemaker. I would spend hours watching him work, fascinated by the process of working the leather, hand-stitching and hammering the soles, and fascinated with his tools. My artisan journey, therefore, has been lifelong, as I have been making things all my life – specifically through making tiny clothes for my dolls, and when I was older, learning how to knit and crochet, eventually culminating in an undergraduate degree in Fashion Design and an honours dissertation in sustainable textile design. 

This background in manufacturing clothing allows me to have an acute understanding of how handmade production works in a mechanical sense, the parameters thereof, and how to communicate these nuances to Design Network Africa clients and retailers. 

  1. What area of the artisan sector are you most passionate about?  

Authentic handmade African homeware products that are grounded in a sense of local tradition, whether directly, in the case of handwoven basketry or indirectly through ceramic tableware products which have a contemporary leaning. As DNA, we have the privilege of working across a myriad of homeware product categories, including authentic African textiles, which are transformed into cushion covers; hand-thrown and hand-formed ceramics, found African objet, recycled glassware in addition to the basketry iconic to Africa from Zambia, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda, Tanzania, Eswatini and Ghana among others.  

I am also passionate about the sustainable development of the handmade craft industry, specifically in reference to preserving environmental and raw material sources such as sisal plants, vertiver grass, ilala palms, lutindzi and lukhasi grasses etc, as these are the base materials with which most basket crafts are made. Alongside this, the preservation and upholding of the tradition and skill of crafting is essential to the long-term growth of the industry.  

  1. If the sky is the limit, what would you do to make a lasting impact in the artisan community?  

It would be amazing to create an artisan business upskilling programme that focuses on educating the crafters about the economic aspects of their craft to ensure an equitable and transparent commercial engagement level across the supply chain.  

  1. What are you currently working on, and how do you hope your current projects will make a difference for your personal artisan communities and partnerships?  

Our mission at DNA is to expand the global reach of African handcraft by consistently showcasing the product to an international retail client audience through seasonal collections featuring exclusively developed homeware that is aesthetically relevant and commercially viable.  

The best way to ensure that we make a difference on the artisan side is to work in partnership in the development and quality assurance aspects of the products and, on the side of the retail client, ensure that all wholesale orders are produced and exported on time for the sales season in the client locations.  

  1. Who inspires you to stay on your artisan journey?  

The handmade craft industry is one of the few in the world that are women-centric, which is still a rarity despite the strides that we have made in contemporary society. Therefore, I am inspired by the women I work with daily, both within DNA and by the leaders and founders of the maker groups and each person that handcrafts the products we wholesale. The impact of empowering women is evidenced in how local communities that have financially empowered women thrive in terms of improvements in education level and health, creating material improvements in daily life, and this drives me forward to continue to promote the craft that forms the bedrock of this impact.  

  1. If you had your choice on anyone or any organisation, who would you like to collaborate with in the future?  

We are open to collaborating with all organisations and retailers that align with our mission to showcase handmade African craft to the world.  

  1. Any big dreams for the future…? 

I would like to travel across Africa more and experience each country’s craft traditions first-hand; specifically countries such as Zimbabwe, Ghana, Kenya, Guinea, Mali, and Morocco, and explore how the craft is evolving and also feed my curiosity about the industry.  

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