Mpho Vackier, founder and creative director of TheUrbanative, had a chat with Elsa Pallett, Head of Marketing at AMAZI about her journey as a successful Black female entrepreneur. TheUrbanative creates incredible contemporary African furniture that tells African cultural stories while staying truly conscious and sustainable.
After a brief introduction of the AMAZI mission from Elsa - a social impact ecosystem by women for women that works to empower economically excluded women in South Africa - Mpho introduces her conscious creation and her story.
Mpho describes the design philosophy of TheUrbanative as storytelling, using furniture to tell the stories that deserve to be told and that are important in culture and heritage. Creating heirlooms embodied with stories. Based in Johannesburg, TheUrbanative collaborates with local craftspeople. So that the stories told are told through forgotten techniques mixed with new materials. The first range of furniture from the studio launched in late 2016 and was inspired by the graphics of the Ndebele tribe. Most recently TheUrbanative launched its fourth range, the Outdoor collection. This range is based on existing pieces, a continuation of the story that they have been telling this year - the story of home.
The topic of this talk between Mpho and Elsa stems from Conscious Consumerism and how AMAZI encourages consumers to acknowledge their buying power as investors. Elsa shares the AMAZI philosophy, every rand you spend into a brand is actually an investment into their business. Seeing yourself as an investor and not as a consumer creates a shift in the mindset of where, why and how you spend your money. Being more conscious of the decisions you make with your buying power. AMAZI encourages its community to always be conscious of where they spend their money, especially when it comes to self-investment and self-care. AMAZI offers services and products to enable conscious consumers to spend their rands and create change for economically excluded women.
Conscious creation is not a well-known topic of discussion in this frame of discourse, as many people don’t understand what it takes to be a conscious creator. Mpho and her story as a successful black female creator highlights this topic.
Mpho has a deep love for furniture, stemming from little memories of her childhood. Working as an engineer due to a bursary, she got the opportunity to go back to school and study interior design. Two years in, Mpho realised that she wanted to specialise in furniture design in a more holistic view. She started TheUrbanative initially for her son, to relay the stories of his Tswana heritage that may not have been documented like his Belgium side. Mpho used furniture to preserve certain stories from the Ndebele tribe so that her son knows it is part of where he comes from.
This began TheUrbanative purpose - to tell the stories of the moment and lend their voices to stories that may have otherwise been unheard. For example, a few pieces from the Home Collection drew inspiration from tribes in Africa that were lesser-known and needed extensive research to learn about. By doing this, TheUrbanative aims to connect with people through their storytelling. So that when a piece is purchased, you’re not only buying furniture, you’re getting access to something much deeper.
“We are not just furniture”.
TheUrbanative imbues their pieces with rich African history, integrating education with stunning design. Allowing everyone who comes in contact with the furniture to connect with the much-needed documentation of African history.
Elsa then asked Mpho about how being a conscious creator ties into her contemporary African Furniture and the challenges that come along with it. To answer this, Mpho states that the decision to be a conscious producer is not an easy decision and often comes with an extensive process. The materials that TheUrbanative chooses and the people that they collaborate with all need to feed into this decision. The brand sources all raw materials locally. Through this, a community of support is created as purchasing a piece from TheUrbanative means supporting the local suppliers and producers. Collaborations with craftspeople enable the team to learn new techniques and build relationships with other talented artists. Another aspect of conscious creation that TheUrbanative follows is recycling. All wood shavings from furniture production are sold to a local briquette-maker. Being community-driven impacts every decision with each furniture collection creation. Starting with research about where materials can be sourced closest, and who to collaborate with. Although this isn’t easy, it’s worthwhile to see the community being built by empowering each other.
Mpho describes the collaborative nature of TheUrbanative and how it lends a beautiful layered quality to each furniture piece that would not be achieved without these collaborations. Her mindset of constantly wanting to learn drives this within the brand. For example, the Homecoming Collection began already designed in-house and after being parked during the lockdown, TheUrbanative collaborated with local creatives. Giving the Homecoming Collection a deeper meaning to what it initially was. Mpho believes that more designers need to understand that collaboration doesn’t mean that someone is trying to steal your idea. It means working with people that have different skills that add more value to your work. Mpho finds that collaboration opens many doors, not staying static in one box. Creatively, it’s important to move and be dynamic, to let ideas go if you need to and to grow with other creatives.
Being a fully South African manufactured and designed brand isn’t an easy feat. Elsa talks about how this is something that AMAZI strives to be, especially with upcoming product launches. By working and collaborating with South African brands and manufacturers, AMAZI creates a community and ecosystem of its own.
Mpho describes the above as an ongoing journey that means you need to be constantly adaptive and innovative. For example, if something is needed for a collection that isn’t available locally, Mpho creates it in-house with her team. Needing a bit more learning but pays off in the end. After the Homecoming Collection, Mpho was driven to find more local producers and challenge them with things that need to be made locally. This decision to be fully SA produced affects the overall retail cost of TheUrbanative’s pieces as Mpho states that people at first glance might be taken aback at the price of local goods. Local materials are harder to come by and might take longer, adding to how pieces are priced. Mpho states that constant engineering is needed to meet reasonable prices while meeting quality and efficiency in production.
She feels that conscious consumerism is the mindset needed to understand and realise where your money is going; to each person behind its local production.
As a conscious consumer, your decision goes beyond your purchase. It means investing in something that might cost a bit more but affects a larger community. But also challenges the production industry to manufacture locally to meet demands.
Adding to this, TheUrbanative also strives to be a sustainable and eco-friendly brand. Beyond local South African production. In the beginning, this was hard for Mpho and her brand. As a small business, you have more pressing issues than being environmentally friendly. As the company grew to a factory, that’s when she started to see the impact on the local and global environment. Their decision to choose certain materials that can withstand time affects how sustainable the brand is but also needs to be sold at a reasonable price. Mpho manages this by providing options for clients, depending on what they need the piece to do. Allowing users to tailor pieces encourages them to be part of the story, while also making considered decisions regarding what materials are chosen.
TheUrbanative also constantly looks at how they can re-use their waste, continuing the lifecycle of the materials they use. An example of this is finding another manufacturer to use a certain cleaning liquid waste to make something else. Or using off-cut timber to make trays. This needs innovation and headspace, which to Mpho, isn’t always top-of-mind.
Going back to the African cultural stories that inspire Mpho’s creations, she describes how the Outdoor collection was waiting for the right time to tell its story. Reminiscing about her first experience with outdoor furniture, her Gran’s woven wire steel chairs, she fondly remembers her childhood memories through these chairs. Sitting on them and sinking back or the chair missing one leg colours her experience with furniture. This notion that everyone can remember a certain piece of furniture that embodies so much family history in them ultimately inspired the outdoor collection. Combined with the innovative and modern use of material.
The African Crowns Collection began with a love story to Mpho’s natural hair, as she grew to love her dreadlocks. Tying in with the global conversation of African natural hair, the collection was intuitively birthed from this story. The stories behind each collection are extremely valuable in retelling and reimaging the furniture TheUrbanative creates.
It’s important to show people that they are seen and heard with each of Mpho and her team’s creations. Manifesting the stories we need to hear into pieces of furniture that we can live with day-to-day.
“We see you, we see your story, we see your culture, and acknowledge and celebrate it.”
To end off the talk, as a black woman in business, Mpho shares her advice to other women of colour beginning their entrepreneurial journey. A lesson that she learnt from starting TheUrbanative is always asking for help or advice. She researched local and international mentors and learnt from how they manage their business, how and why they created and how they live their life. Today this still inspires how she manages TheUrbanative, despite never meeting these mentors.
“There’s a place for every single creative” Mpho also adds. You just need to find what makes you and your offering unique or special. It’s not about competition, it’s about collaborating and learning from other creatives. This mindset then opens up further possibilities. Mpho, as a self-prescribed overthinker and analyser, is passionate about research and learning from others as to how she can improve her creations. By running her business through a democratic lens, she’s able to tap into how everyone thinks and try new things.
“Be open to learning, be open to being corrected and coached from afar or up close, be open to asking questions.” This mindset of constantly learning, evolving and innovating means you’re not in competition. You’re just doing you.
You do you by being intentional with your Rands and supporting local brands like AMAZI and TheUrbanative.
Visit TheUrbanative website to have a look at all the collections and show your support.
Watch the live for the full and intimate talk.