Driven by her passion for designing, nurturing and helping women grow, Nicola Robertson works with rural women to develop their hand-crafted jewellery so that they are paid fairly and consistently for their skills. Her close relationship with them resulted in her launching Zulu Mien in 2018.
The company provides jewellery, which combines intricate beadwork with sterling silver. The beadwork is produced by hand without the use of a loom, and each high-quality bead is individually sewn into a pattern. Robertson, who is from Durban but is now based in Roodeplaat in Tshwane, told Vutivi News that the precious metal was sourced from a refinery.
“Each piece of jewellery is branded, and the customer can be assured that they have acquired a genuine Zulu Mien piece manufactured to strict quality standards and adhering to ethical practises,” she said. Robertson said that Zulu Mien was a social enterprise aimed at marginalised women.
“I chose to produce jewellery because the items are small and low weight, and are, therefore, easier to transport from rural to urban locations,” she said. “I could have worked with women weavers who make basketry and other products, but the transportation of those bigger items is far more difficult when transporting from remote locations.
“A value that is very high for me is the fact that marginalised women, especially black women and women of colour, need to be paid fairly for their labour. I am essentially trying to ensure that sustainable rural livelihood strategies can be preserved, and women are paid for their skill,” she said.
Robertson initially studied Graphic Design, but after two years she decided it was time to follow her passion. “I did training programmes in KZN, working and living with rural women artisans,” she said. Her training focused on product development. She then completed a Master of Arts degree at Wits University and a Social Entrepreneurship Programme at the GIBS business school.
“I’ve also participated in multiple business incubators with the South African Creative Industries Incubator, the British Council Developing Inclusive Creative Economy programme and the Johannesburg Chamber of Commerce and Industry SME Export Incubator,” Robertson said. She told Vutivi News that her business was initially largely funded by her family.
“My grandmother passed away in 2014 and left me some funds. She was always proud of the fact that I worked with rural women developing their products and so I decided to use those funds as the start-up capital for the business.
“My grandfather has also helped by providing some capital,” the businesswoman said. Zulu Mien caters for the South African and international market. “We have a wholesaler in Atlanta in the United States of America that has started purchasing our products wholesale to sell on to their market in the US,” she said.
“We are looking for more wholesalers in Europe and Asia, as Asian women are very drawn to the brand and the product.” Robertson believes that South Africans do not value handmade craft. “The international audience places a very high value on handmade artisanal craft and has a much deeper appreciation for our product, our process and our mission,” she said.
In 2020, the company won the Innibos National Craft Award for Best Corporate Gifts.
It has also been selected as part of the Design Indaba Emerging Creatives Class of 2021.