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Bargaining on toys
Mail & Guardian
September 02, 2005

An exciting new project shows that fair trade can succeed between developing countries, writes Monako Dibetle

When human rights advocate Greg Moran opened the African Toyshop earlier this year, his aim was clear: to use the principles of fair trade to help African crafters make a decent living through their skills. Six months on and he is satisfied that the project is bearing the kinds of fruits he had in mind.

Moran first devised the idea for the project on a trip to Malawi, where he encountered craftsmen creating exquisite toys under a tree at the side of the road. Driven by hunger and desperation, these artists would often sell their wares to tourists at a fraction of their real value. He entered into an agreement with Malawian crafter Lekemu Seleman, ordered a batch of toys to sell in Johannesburg and paid him a deposit of 50%, with the balance to follow on delivery.

The toyshop, situated in Johannesburg’s trendy 44 Stanley Avenue, now sources toys from countries as diverse as Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Zambia and Mozambique.

It is firmly rooted in the principles of fair trade, which include paying suppliers a fair price; giving suppliers 50% when an order is placed, and 50% on delivery; encouraging crafters to form co-operatives in order to spread wealth within the community; and creating products in a manner that ensures environmental sustainability, such as planting new trees.

The toys, many of which are more like works of art, reflect not just the culture but also the natural environment in which they are produced, depending on the availability of raw materials.

Malawian toys are made mostly of wood or wicker, a reed-like material that grows in Lake Malawi, and portray high-tech subjects such as the international road freight trucks that pass through their villages, or the sophisticated backhoes and graders used to build roads.

Products from the DRC show the influence of Belgian colonialism, with Tintin-like characters piloting shark-submarines and seaplanes made out of recycled tin cans.

Mozambican crafters create a delightful tableau of ordinary life, from fish markets to adult education classes and river crossings. The level of detail is exceptional, with each element individually crafted, down to tiny pieces of fruit and miniature woven baskets. Moran says African toys are distinguished from mass-produced toys by their close attention to detail, a non-formulaic approach, "an element of humour and honesty and the intelligent use of resources".

While the fair trade movement has traditionally been used to help producers in developing countries receive a fair share of the revenue from the sale of their products in developed countries, this project proves the value of mutually beneficial relationships between producers and consumers in different parts of Africa.

For Moran, these benefits are no more clearly illustrated than in the impact the partnership has had on the life of Seleman. On a recent visit to Malawi, Moran was thrilled to find that Seleman has used his earnings from the toyshop orders to build a larger brick house for himself and his family.

"I left Malawi with a profound sense of accomplishment," said Moran. Through applying principles of fair trade, the shop – tiny as it is – has allowed a man to build a proper house for his family." Seleman now has so much work that he has had to hire an assistant. "As their enterprise grows, the need for additional help increases.

They cannot cope on a ‘one man’ basis anymore, Moran explains.

The ethos behind the African Toyshop is one of encouraging consumers to see themselves as rooted in the continent, and to appreciate its ingenuity and many positive aspects, instead of the negativity, tragedy and drama with which Africa is often portrayed. At the back of the shop is a huge wooden map, which allows children to locate the country in which each toy was produced. The toys all have tags, which include information on where they are from and some facts about the country of origin.

The African toyshop has entered into a partnership with publishing company Macmillan to carry a range of books, which will encourage children to learn and understand more about the continent.

Moran also has plans to expose African toy makers to a broader public and to ensure they are able to make a living and, hopefully, prosper.

"I want us to open up an outlet in London and Paris, not just to expose these toys and their producers to a European market, but also for Africans living in those countries."

Additional reporting by Nicola Lazenby

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