It was a dark and stormy night...oops, wrong story.
Some of you may already know me, I've been peddling African crafts out of the trunk of my car and at gift shows for more than 25 years.
I was born in New Zealand and like a lot of Kiwis just out of school, I had to see what was out there. It was the early 80s, I was 18 and had a full head of hair when I started traveling. I don't remember having a childhood fascination with Africa, there was no grand plan to be the king of African crafts, I was an open book. My first trip was a stopover in South Africa on my way to Europe and for 18 months I work my way around Ireland, England and France. I returned down under and spent a year in Melbourne, Australia with the job that would have set me up for life...not quite. I still had itchy feet. I set off again, this time to the USA to meet up with friends. I didn't know it at the time but this is where I would settle down. I met Lisa (later to become my wife) and slowly made a home in Kentucky.
Traveling was in my blood, I would save enough money to see me through 4 to 6 weeks of traveling through Africa staying in youth hostels and living on the cheap. Right from the start, the craft markets caught my eye with their antiques and handmade goods for sale. It was not long before some of these items made it back to the US with the idea of being sold to help pay for my trips...easier said than done!
My initial purchases and attempts to sell them didn't pan out so well. I exhibited at a couple of trade shows and show rooms with dismal results! I had a no marketing experience but it didn't take long for me to work out that finding sellable products boils down to one thing...trial and error, and to date, still does.
Despite the setbacks I had a couple of things going for me.
- A good work ethic (still do)
- And, I had the support of my wife Lisa, and her parents. Yes, sappy but true.
I needed to try something new and with nothing to lose but the price of an airline ticket a decision was made..."Go West Young Man"
Lisa made me the trip with me to French West Africa. We flew into Abidjan, Ivory Coast and took buses and bush taxis up into Mali. With my high school French I was the de facto leader (I can really butcher that language). Three things came out of the trip which are still with me today, earrings, bangles, and friendship. Lisa forced me to buy a few Fulani earrings of which I've sold thousands of pairs (I didn't like them at first). The woven Mali bangles which I've sold in the tens of thousands and Peace Corps Baba, my friend now for 25 years.
I've been back to Mali probably 30+ times since then and Baba supplies me with a good portion of my merchandise including my now best-selling flip flop bangles. From Mali I branched out to much West Africa including Niger, Burkina Faso, Senegal, Ivory Coast, Mauritania, Ghana, Togo and Cameroon.
After each buying trip, I would load up my van and hit the road, all the major cities. I would fly to the West Coast and rent a car. There was no google back then, I got my leads from periodicals, Yellow Pages and research at the library, slowly I built up a customer list. This was my modus operandi for many years while my daughter Elizabeth was growing up.
In the 90's I started exhibiting at the California gift show and then a couple years later at the New York gift show (NYNOW). The "Global Handmade" section at the NYNOW is a perfect fit for my product. For me it's the best show in the country, bringing in serious buyers from around the world.
I still travel twice a year to find new products, this takes me to new countries and back to old haunts from my backpacking days. Around 2008 I returned to South Africa and met Peter, a wire artist. He makes the colorful telephone wire rings for me. In 2012 I made my first trip to Madagascar and tracked down Bart from a tip I have received in Cape Town, South Africa. Bart makes the miniature model cars recycled from discarded tin cans (a best seller of mine).
Africa is not without its challenges, political unrest has made several countries I source from unsafe and it's only due to the friendship and mutual trust with my suppliers that I still receive a steady supply of merchandise.
I never set out to change the world or find a cure for cancer, this is my way to make a living. I have the freedom to work on my own terms without the restraints of a 9-to-5 job. I love the process of finding a product, bringing it to the market and the satisfaction if it happens to be successful.
Just as important are my friends that supply my merchandise. Peace Corp Baba had no formal education, he taught himself the basics to read and write. When we met he was working from a 5' x 10' market stall, he now sells to shops across Europe, North America and Australia. He has a daughter attending college in Canada and a son who wants to be a doctor and is about to start college in India.
In the five years I've worked with Bart he has built a house in begun a side business of raising hogs to sell.
Peter's wire rings are still a big seller for me and he's added model bicycles and planes also made from telephone wire. He splits his time between looking after his mother in Limpopo and his house in Johannesburg.
I've been dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century. It's 2017 and I'm only now publishing a website. Last year I had to trade in my flip phone for an iPhone. It finally got too much having to collect photos and messages off of Lisa's phone.
I've no plans to quit, I still enjoy the lifestyle and Lisa now has the opportunity to travel more often with me. Lisa brings brings a different set of eyes...Remember the Fulani earrings.
So for whatever it is worth and for those who are interested "my story" I've tried to give you a little more insight as to what is behind the products I sell.