From Africa with love

Finalist — Drivers of Change Business Award: African Toyshop

Five years ago when human rights consultant Greg Moran returned from a trip through Africa he gave his niece a handmade toy he had found on his travels. His sister commented that it would sell well in shops — and the seed was sown for what would become the African Toyshop.

In many African countries toymakers use basic tools, natural resources and recycled materials to create playthings. They often sell their wares cheaply to tourists and are not aware of the value of their work.

‘I have found the most incredible things,” says Moran. ‘Some of the toys are works of pure genius.” He began importing toys to sell in two shops in Johannesburg.

The business grew to cover 15 countries and represent about 200 artists. Toys on sale range from an entire range of Tintin toys created in the Democratic Republic of Congo to wooden mini-tractors and 4x4s from Kenya, wicker-doll furniture from Malawi and life scenarios from Mozambique.

‘It’s incredible to see what people can do with a pen knife and a bit of paint,” says Moran. ‘I don’t feel like I’ve ever really grown up. When the box of toys arrives, it’s like Christmas Day.”

He has witnessed the positive effects the business has had on the toy-makers. For example, Lekemu Seleman made enough money within six months of selling his toys through the shop that he was able to build his family a six-bedroom house in his rural village outside Lilongwe in Malawi.

Mozambican Samuel Baloyi made a life scenario of South Africa’s first democratic Cabinet, which was presented as a gift to Nelson Mandela.

The African Toyshop applies the principles of fair trade, which means that toy-makers are paid their asking price or more and are paid up to 50% of the cost on ordering.

They are encouraged to form cooperatives and train others in their communities, to ensure that more women are involved in the craft and to replenish natural resources used, such as trees and reed grasses.

The logistics of paying the toymakers when there is no longer a Western Union branch in South Africa takes up a lot of time and energy and most of them live in rural villages without access to banks.

So the African Toyshop is changing strategy: it will be selling goods online, where it already makes a large number of sales to foreign customers, and through other South African shops.

‘The last part of the strategy is to try to open shops overseas,” says Moran. ‘We already have someone in Madrid interested in opening.

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