A pig in a french maid’s outfit, completewith polka dot stockings and black stilettos, balances a huge slice of birthdaycake on a plate. A sheep in red pyjamas drinks her coffee and reads the morningnews. A white arum lily is set in stark relief on a pink background. Thesezany, colourful images characterise Stuff from Africa’srange of greeting cards, wrapping paper, notebooks, gift tags and gift bags.
Gorgina Franks started the company in 2001,after she was retrenched from Ogilvy & Mather Cape Town. “I have a greatlove for vibrant African art and I wanted to find a commercial medium thatwould showcase local talent and make it accessible,” she says. Today, Stuff from Africa supplies qualitycontemporary stationery to Exclusive Books, Loads of Living, Cape Town’s new Wellness Warehouse and manyother high-end interior design and gift stores. “We have a variety ofindependent stores in this country and they help to foster creativity,” Frankssays.Franks started the business with the cashshe received as part of her retrenchment package and her own savings. Thingswent very slowly in the beginning.“I made hundreds of phone calls,” sherecalls. “The biggest challenge was that you can’t sell this type of productwithout a history, and you can’t develop a history without selling the product.One of my first clients loved the range, but ordered only R400’s worth of cardsbecause they had no idea whether it would sell.”
Franks puts her success down to dogged hardwork. “I did absolutely everything in the beginning and I worked night and day.I don’t believe there is any way of getting around that. It is utterlyexhausting and it has a huge impact on your relationships.”Her experience as a strategic planner wasput to good use, however, ensuring a methodical approach to the development ofthe business. She outsources most designs and artwork to a team of freelancers– artists, graphic designers, illustrators, sculptors, set designers andphotographers – that includes Tracy Paul, Lien Botha and Gemma Orkin. Thetalent she comes across is astounding, she says, and she is always interestedin new artists, although not everyone’s work is suitable. Acknowledging thatit’s hard to say no to people who submit samples, Franks says art is subjectiveand she has to make tough decisions at times.“I brief the artists and they come backwith the finished work. We then have to turn those into digital images and getthem printed. Learning about digital imaging was hard. Any production personwill tell you how difficult it is to teach yourself on the trot. It’s one thingI’ve certainly improved on over the years.”
Franks has also had to toughen up. In thefirst two years of the business, she had to deal with copyright infringement,including one particularly unscrupulous competitor who cut out pictures fromStuff from Africa wrapping paper, stuck themonto cards and sold the cards back to the stores. “The first time I saw that Icried, the second time I cried a little less, and then I got really angry.Competition is good and healthy, but there was nothing creative about whatthese people were doing.”The reputation she developed over time putpaid to the fakers, but Franks has seen several competitors come and go overthe years. Her stiffest competition comes fromoverseas. “I wish South Africans would become more committed to buying SouthAfrican goods and stop feeding the coffers of massive international companies,”she says. “That is how you keep the economy growing.”Her latest coup has seen Stuff from Africasecure a stand at Cape Town International Airport.“My customer was allowed only one card display and they chose Stuff from Africa because they love our products. It’s an addedbonus for them that we are South African.”Stuff from Africa has agents in Johannesburg and Durban,and exports to Namibia, Kenya, Nigeriaand Botswana, as well as theUK, US and Australia.Franks is planning to expand her productrange, always with a focus on stationery. “In addition to the perennialfavourites, you have to be fresh and exciting to retain market share,” sheadds.