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How access to US market changed the fortunes of two South African sisters

How access to US market changed the fortunes of two South African sisters
Published date:
Monday, 01 July 2024

Two entrepreneurs take traditional African designs and sustainable materials and turn them into international success

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.

Mo's Crib uses African traditional designs and sustainable materials to make high-end decorative and homeware pieces inspired by nature. 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.

AGOA renewal

According to South Africa's minister of Trade, Industry and Competition, Ebrahim Patel, the US recently reached a preliminary 10-year agreement with African countries to extend their preferential trade access by another decade, pending approval by Congress.

"We reached a broad agreement on the need to extend AGOA for another 10 years," Mr. Patel told a business forum in Johannesburg recently, adding that they were able to engage with policymakers from more than 30 sub-Saharan African countries and the US to enable African countries to continue exporting goods to the American market duty-free.

South Africa hosted the 20th AGOA Forum in Johannesburg from in November 2023 where Mr. Patel said South Africa was seeking to renew its AGOA membership which he said has been instrumental in improving the livelihoods of many entrepreneurs in the country.

The forum brought together over 5,000 participants comprising African ministers of trade, senior government officials, the US government delegation led by US Trade Representative (USTR) Ambassador Katherine Tai, US Congressional staffers, the private sector, the civil society, exhibitors in the 'Made in Africa' exhibition, procurers and investors.

"AGOA has helped South Africa and other sub-Saharan countries progressively. It has played a pivotal role in job creation in South Africa and the entire region," he added.

At the same time, South Africa's ministry of Small Business Development spokesperson, Cornelius Monama, said AGOA presents a great opportunity to promote emerging entrepreneurs and Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (SMMEs).

Trade under AGOA accounted for approximately 21% of South Africa's total exports to the US in 2022. South African exports to the US under AGOA increased in value from US$2.0 billion in 2021 to US$3.0 billion in 2022," he said.

Meanwhile, for Morongwe and Michelle, they are working on creating more opportunities and make a meaningful impact in their society. In addition to safeguarding the natural environment, the Mokone sisters are also committed to empowering the people in their community.

"We would like to grow our footprint beyond the USA. We want to enter new markets such as Europe and the United Arab Emirates. We plan to create 20 new jobs within the next two to three years," concludes Michelle.

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