Out of Afrika

Company: ActinicCustomer: Out of AfrikaSubmitted by: DexterityDate: November 2000Setting up a small business can be complex and daunting. Add in the confusing new world of the internet and ecommerce and it’s not surprising that many new entrepreneurs begin to wonder if they’ll ever make sense of it all.

For Alison Zwaard, however, the internet is clearly the way forward and her company’s business plan involved setting up an ecommerce web site at an early stage.Alison spent much of her childhood in South Africa before backpacking round the world and eventually settling in England. “There’s been a huge explosion of contemporary arts and crafts talent in South Africa in the past six or seven years”, she says, “and whenever I went back to visit my family friends kept asking me to bring back the wonderful designs which were being produced.”Recognising a good business opportunity Alison set up Out of Afrika (www.outofafrika.co.

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uk) in October 1999 once her elder son, Alexander, had started school. The stables behind the house became a showroom for South African designs, 90% of which are unique to the company. Out of Afrika makes a point of buying at fair prices and in encouraging traditional craft skills in rural communities.Moving quickly on to the internet to complement the mail-order side was a priority but Alison was unfamiliar with computers. “I was completely computer illiterate”, she says, “although a friend, Richard Home, knew about web design and prepared our site for us. We also checked out and compared several different ecommerce solutions to find what we needed.

We very impressed with what we saw at an Actinic seminar and particularly by the fact that all the explanations and detail were in plain English. The modest price was also attractive in keeping costs down.”Alison now runs Out of Afrika with one assistant, the closeness to home of the offices and showroom making it easy to balance business and motherhood. Actinic Catalog is paired with a WorldPay solution to handle on-line payments and Alison finds everything extremely easy and straightforward. Internet sales quickly moved to around 15% of the total turnover during the first few weeks and the site paid for itself within six months.

A year on esales are running at 30% against the mail order side.”I was certainly a technophobe before”, she adds, “but Catalog is very, very simple to understand and to use. Richard raves about how easy it is to maintain the site.”With its range of stylish and unusual tableware, bowls, lamps and much more, Out of Afrika is starting to make a name for itself in the gifts and homeware market. Alison’s marketing skills are evident in the use of stunning packaging and gift-tag designs, incorporating the company’s ceramic gecko.

She has also put a lot of effort into promoting the site in the media and this has paid off. “Due to the amount of PR and marketing over the last nine months our order rate has increased by around 300% and we now get an average of 10,000 hits a week to the site,” says Alison.Apart from the explosion of creative talent, South Africa has seen a substantial rise in AIDS. Now around 30% of babies born to HIV-positive mothers become infected with the disease and many very quickly become orphaned.”This is a major problem”, says Alison, “and because we’ve seen it at first hand we wanted to help.

Rather than work through a charity we directly sponsor a particular orphanage, St Philomena’s, with 5% of our sales. Nothing whatever of that goes on salaries or expenses. We find out what’s needed – books, clothing or milk, perhaps – and my sister in Natal buys it and delivers it to the Home. Our family is fortunate and it’s a way of giving something back.”With its unique range of exotic designs, its social conscience and its skilful marketing, Out of Afrika is showing how a small company can significantly increase sales and create a global customer base, even on a tight budget.

However, Alison would be the first to say that a major factor in her company’s growth has been the flexibility and ease of use which Actinic Catalog brings to ecommerce. “We’re happy with our current site host”, she adds, “but with Catalog we could change tomorrow if we had to and I’d still be fully in control of what’s happening with the business.”Alison has now gone on to open her first bricks and mortar shop in Sheffield that sells the full range of goods plus one-offs. She has also launched a wholesale business with a B2B web site at www.amarilo.com that sells to gift shops, corporate gift suppliers and other retail outlets.