It is no secret that it is a trend, and hopefully, a lasting one, to support proudly South African businesses above imported products, even if it comes at a higher cost or more effort. And good for you if you are a loyal supporter, as this is a crucial part each South African plays in building the entrepreneurial industry in SA. We celebrate proudly South African heritage through design.
SA’s creativity often blows our minds, above all the struggles that we face daily, South Africa offers such an amazing opportunity to turn small ideas into successful businesses.
With September being Heritage Month, we thought to feature three such entrepreneurial stories of proudly South African businesses deeply rooted in our soil! We will look at Mpho Vackier from TheUrbanative, Jeff Cullis and his business Urban Organics and lastly Vusani Ravele and his business Native Décor.
The (powerful) TheUrbanative
TheUrbanative is a contemporary South African furniture and product design company based in Johannesburg. The business was started in 2017 by Mpho Vackier, a process engineer turned interior and furniture designer.
Their furniture and products are differentiated by the juxtaposition of abstracted African cultural inspirations. The materials are functional and modern, guided by the philosophies of craft, collaboration and design evolution.
This is a brand that believes in our African heritage, telling stories of our history and future through design. These designs are sophisticated, authentic and world-class!
The team has done extremely well since the launch of their first collection and believes (go team!) that studio pets and generally that all dogs should be allowed everywhere! Their rewards include the following:
- 2017 Design Indaba Class of Emerging Creatives
- 2018 Department of Trade & Industry: Furniture Design Competition (1st Prize)
- 2019 Design Indaba-Most Beautiful Object SA Nominee
- 2019 100% Design SA: Designer of The Year
What makes TheUrbanative so proudly South African?
All of TheUrbanative’s products are designed and manufactured in South Africa. Their work is a constant exploration of the role of culture and heritage representations. Along with those concepts of visibility and representation of African cultures their ultimate intention is telling African stories through modern furniture and product design.
The Collection portrays just that, take a look at this collection photographed by Aart Verrips.
HOMECOMING began during the long and difficult Covid-19 lockdown in 2020 whilst we were all working from home. During that time home became so much more to all of us and in the uncertainty of a world epidemic, our homes and the people we were with became synonymous with the idea of ease, refuge and safety.
“Home is where you can begin again”, says Mpho is what inspired them. What we all truly want and need from our homes is that feeling of safety, comfort and ultimately belonging.
This collection’s forms, textures, lines and colour palette are all inspired by vernacular African architecture from Nigeria and Cameroon to Niger and Mali. Weaving the stories behind the global idea of home this collaborative collection was created with an incredible local community of makers, designers and craftspeople with the feeling of home as a base of inspiration.
Refining the Collection
Refining the collection by naming the pieces of the collection in different languages from this continent allowing us to celebrate in those languages, people and cultures and exploring more about the stories surrounding them. The Hlutha table relates to the idea of being full /fullness/full belly in Xhosa; a beautiful illustration of not only being fed but having a full heart too. The Legae Tray means home in Tswana and the Hayani Tray means home in Tshivenda is also named after languages spoken in South Africa.
Mpho explained: “When we create in communities the result of the creations become layered with not only the stories that we are trying to tell but also the stories of the people crafting the pieces with us. This, and our obvious love for the collaborators in this collection, was the driving force behind making this a collaborative collection. We want it to be unlike anything we have seen before by bringing together local creatives to create a community of belonging.
Home is not a structure or building, but rather the people, things and experiences that bring joy into our lives and meaning to our existence.”
“The Favourite One”
The brand has recently launched a new range called Ndebele with their favourite being the Thandekile TV unit. Thandekile is a girl’s name, meaning “Loved One” in Ndebele origin. The Thandekile TV unit is made from solid European ash with cutouts in stylised classical Ndebele patterns.
The Ndebele range is inspired by cultural Ndebele Art, from the lines and forms (especially inspired by the artistic works of Esther Mahlangu) and other Ndebele artists and crafters, juxtaposed against the design elements of European mid-century as well as Bauhaus design. These design qualities include form and function, streamlined aesthetics, retaining the integrity of craft materials and practicality in design over beauty for the mere sake of beauty.
Follow their story:
Instagram handle: @theurbanative | @mphovackier
Proudly Owned Native Décor
Vusani Ravele, owner and founder of Native Décor, coming from an entrepreneurial background, always had a side hustle along with his full-time work. It all started in 2015 when Vusani got a cordless drill for Christmas and literally couldn’t stop drilling holes into everything. “I allowed myself to be creative”, he explained! He also watched a lot of YouTube videos teaching himself certain skills, until it got him to buy a CNC machine (basically a very cool woodcutter).
Vusani played around with ideas and designs until he finally had his first product (which by the way is still on his product list today), the Cullinan Floor Lamp. He was ready to sell. The world of CNC cutting opened for him when he started dreaming, eating and sleeping in 3D! He sold his first product in February 2016, exactly a year after he started! While still having a full-time job, he could quickly set up a website for himself and start basic marketing.
Vusani entered the popular TV show Shark Tank South Africa and secured offers from every single Shark in the first episode, eventually settling on an offer from Gil Oved from The Creative Council. And by November 2016, Vusani resigned from his day job!
The show has truly kick-started his business and after being flooded with enquiries and orders after the success of Shark Tank, he could confidently go forward with his business.
The business started out by manufacturing corporate gifts like coasters, USBs etc. A year and a half into the business, the demand changed so we changed!
“We pivoted completely, leaving corporate gifting, and went back to the roots of the business name: Native Décor”, explained Vusani. So he started specializing in décor items.
He now owns his original CNC cutter as well as a new bigger one! The bigger machine can do what the smaller one can do in one day’s work, in about 1 to 2 hours. Vusani as the brain behind the business now fulfils a more strategic role, looking after the systems and growing the business. He still loves developing product concepts by following trends, new ideas and staying relevant.
The best part of this business is that they stayed nimble. If they need to change, they can and they can do so quickly!
His vision for the future is to expand his range to supply every area of a home. From homeware, indoor- and outdoor furniture to kids furniture and toys, kitchen accessories and many more!
What makes Native Decor products so proudly South African?
Vusani prides himself on bringing people into the business who do not necessarily have the skills required to manufacture these products. He then trains them, making them part of the expert and professional team.
The business now has 11 staff members and are able to supply into big businesses such as Yuppiechef, Superbalist, Zando, Takealot and One Day One.
Look out for his newly launched wine rack!
“The Favourite One”
From the many departments of products within Native Décor, mirrors are Vusani’s favourite! It somehow has also proved to be the most popular. He enjoys working with this technique (and apparently quite dangerous) product.
One of the most difficult mirror products that were developed by the team was the African mirror, which is basically a cut-out silhouette of the African continent. After outsourcing this difficult design at first, they eventually brought it in-house and spent hours (and meters of mirror material) perfecting this technical cut. Now their proudest work. Native Décor can really brag about their gorgeous range of mirrors available. Go have a look!
Follow their story:
Instagram handle: @nativedecor
Bring on the Waterworks with Urban Organics
Urban Organics started when Jeff Cullis who at that time had a coffee shop and every Monday morning, he always needed greens for plate up. You know, things like parsley and lettuce. He could never find these items on a Sunday evening, so he simply decided to start growing them. As his coffee shop was on the first floor of a building and he had no soil to grow them in, he grew them hydroponically. Needless to say, it went so well that when clients came in for breakfast at the coffee shop, the clients were so amazed by the hydroponic system and in awe of also wanting one, that Jeff then realized there was a commercial opportunity.
With a little factory, he started version 1 of his hydroponic system. Jeff describes it as rickety, but functional. From the first version that was not the most well-designed product, Jeff developed it over time that it soon evolved into a perfect system that was commercially acceptable. “This is when I realized that this was actually a business”, says Jeff and continued, “I bought little business premises in Bellville and started manufacturing. It was a 100m2 building and within year one, we outgrew our building.”
Around the same time, Jeff entered a few competitions and demonstrated it to a few influential people which assisted him to launch his product into the market. He ended up 47th in the TT 100 Companies Demonstrated Awards and won the Small Business of the Year competition which also ended up as the winner in the Cape Talk Sage Business of the Year competition in 2017.
This competition awarded him with R250 000 worth of Cape Talk radio spots and ended up giving the business so much exposure that they were quite publicly known. The product was moving all around the world. Jeff explains that they got orders from Zambia, Gallowship Antarctica, Botswana and more southern parts of Africa but mostly in South Africa.
The team at Urban Organics has a big goal that inspires and drives them every day – they believe (ambitious as it is) that we should have a basic system in every home ensuring a low carbon footprint, greens at their fingertips and healthy food options on demand. This will also help with lowering our carbon footprint with transportation, packaging and printing.
What makes Urban Organics so proudly South African?
Jeff wanted to build the system locally, by locals for locals. They approached Proudly South African, which requires you to have 80% of your content locally produced, and they scored an amazing 95%. Virtually everything is locally manufactured and designed except for their pumps that are locally sourced but imported.
The Urban Organics Hydroponic systems are uniquely built with a dual system. Jeff explained that although it is not proper NFT, (the normal conventional hydroponics should be NFT which stands for Nutrient Film Technique), their system is a raft and Kratky. In plain English this means, they built the system as a fail-over for load shedding and it can literally run the plant for a guaranteed 8 hours. Impressive right!
Another reason why Urban Organics is Proudly South African, is their staffing. Jeff would take in interns who had no idea on how a hydroponic system works and train them to experts and professionals in the field. Jeff has taken quite a few people under his wings over the years with training.
As a business, they have engaged extensively with the Department of Agriculture in the Western Cape who have run trials with the product in schools, community gardens, sustainable living plus affordable and poverty alleviation. The Department has run the tests and they have endorsed the product.
“The Favourite One”
The one product that is by far the most popular for domestic use, is the Magnolia. It is compact, it is wall-mounted, ergonomic, easy to use, easy to set up, cheap to run and doesn’t occupy much space. The Magnolia became popular based on its price (but can also fit on a balcony or a little area in the yard).
Urban Organics has installed hundreds of Magnolias into Atlantis (a RDP home development) where they function 100%.
The Magnolia is a staple and they could now focus on the development of better systems using unique fittings and bespoke moulds that are either light-weight, easy-to-transport or collapsible.
The team has even perfected the cradles, which are not bolted. You can also lift your tubes off for cleaning as they are not glued together. The N-caps are removable, which according to Jeff, no other system can do without leaking.
“We have ticked so many boxes with the design over the last 4 years that we have perfected it”, says Jeff proudly.
Other than the many domestic systems they have available, they also found opportunities in the commercial farming market. They have installed a couple of big systems on farms. The biggest is a farm in Simonstown for a commercial farmer with half a kilometre of pipes.
Find out More:
This article appeared in our September 2021 issue.