Eswatini, which used to be known as Swaziland, was in the news recently with a ceremonial handwashing marking the completion of a project to install hot water handwashing units outside all 92 health clinics across the country. Solar-powered tanks have made it possible to bring hot water to remote places that could never have imagined it, serving 10,000 people each day.
The German company that installed the system noted that while people in the west take hot water for granted, it is a luxury in Eswatini, which is a poor country with high levels of HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis. And that’s true – most of us could not imagine being a nurse for 25 years without having hot water available.
This story caught my attention for several reasons. Firstly, because it is such a practical project that meets real needs in a sustainable way that suits the country’s conditions – it doesn’t need electricity, it has no moving parts, and it is not expected to need maintenance for 20 years. To my mind, this is a really useful international development project, and it would be interesting to know how it came to be.
Secondly, I was thinking about another practical project in Eswatini I first read about some years ago that has always seemed to me emblematic of what happens when projects grow from the grassroots rather than being imposed from outside. Such projects actually meet a range of projects – in this case, building a community economy, cleaning up the landscape, protecting the wildlife, reducing and preventing pollution, and creating jobs. It doesn’t fit neatly into one category.
The local artisans at Ngwenya Glass make beautiful glassware, by hand, from recycled glass that is collected from all over the countryside. They are part of an amazing enterprise that contributes to the local economy, encourages recycling, respects the environment, and helps preserve the country’s wildlife. (“Ngwenya” meaning “crocodile” in Swazi, referring to a nearby mountain that resembles the giant reptile.)
Back in 1979, Swedish Aid set up a glassblowing factory, Swazi Glass Craft (trading as Ngwenya Glass). They imported all the machinery and equipment, built the original factory, and employed and trained local people in the art of glassblowing.
While glassblowing might not have seemed like an obvious skill to import, it actually made good sense, notes one lovely story about the project’s history. Jobs were needed – the local iron ore mine, one of the oldest in the world, was shuttering, leaving people out of work. A natural silica deposit near the factory’s site, and the area’s temperate climate made it an ideal location. And the Swedes, world-renowned for their glassblowing, had a trade they could teach that could potentially sustain the local economy.
From the beginning, there was huge interest from the local community. More than 600 people arrived for interviews, although the factory was only looking for six who would be trained in the glassblowing art. Two of them were sent to Sweden’s world-renowned Kosta Boda glassworks, where they learned from leading artisans.
In 1981, the factory was handed over to the Swaziland/Eswatini Small Enterprise Development Corporation. But the country’s infrastructure was not strong and the politics of the time meant Sweden couldn’t help further because the factory marketed to neighbouring South Africa. In 1985, the factory ceased production.
But ironically, those sales in South Africa would lead to the factory’s rebirth. Alix and Richard Prettejohn had been collecting its small glass elephants in East London, where they farmed, but one day, they were told the company was in liquidation. When Richard and his son Charles, a marine engineer, went to visit, they found a derelict factory, although most of the equipment was still there. Although they knew nothing about making glass, the Prettejohns were intrigued. In January 1987, they purchased Ngwenya Glass and moved to Swaziland in June.
“We knew nothing about glass,” Alix Prettejohn told a South African magazine as they celebrated Ngwenya’s 30th birthday in 2017. “We moved from East London to Swaziland and were faced with a derelict factory, with wattle growing through the cement. There were cobwebs and dead rats. We had no idea where to start.”
Sibusiso Mhlanga, one of the original glassblowers, was a good guide, and he agreed to train other Swazis in glassblowing. He has been with the factory since 1987, and has visited Sweden several times in recent years to work again with some of the world’s leading glassblowers. He was one of the four former employees on staff when the factory resumed production in August 1987, and is one of the two original Swedish-trained glassblowers who are among the 70 people now employed at Ngwenya Glass.
Learning was a two-way street. The glassblowers knew their trade; the Prettejohns knew business. They learned from each other.
Once they realized that the staff had never seen many of the animals they were portraying in glass, they made a day trip to Kruger National Park. “This little exercise was amazing and really helped for them to get their proportions right,” Prettejohn said. “It is all very well to see a giraffe in a picture, but only when you see it close up, do you realise how long its legs are for instance.”
In 2017, on its 30th birthday, six world-renowned glass blowers – from Italy, the Netherlands, the UK and Australia – were invited to work with the local team.
“Thanks to Sibusiso, here we are, 30 years later,” Alix said. “And today we have one of the top glass-blowers visiting us. From Venice! It goes to show that if you put your mind to it you really can do anything you want.” That visitor, Davide Salvadore from Murano, Italy, whose family has been blowing glass since the 1650s, made a kudu, an animal he’s never seen in the flesh, from a design by local glass-blower Bhekithemba Tshapile.
As many stories have noted over the years, Ngwenya Glass is an environmentalist’s dream.
From the beginning, it used 100% recycled glass, long before this became popular. The factory pays local people to collect glass bottles and engages school children in the project, teaching them about caring for their environment and, in exchange, funding sports and educational programs in the local schools.
Over time, they’ve expanded their sustainability efforts far beyond recycling glass. “We use old cooking oil from KFC and other fast food outlets to fire our furnaces,” says Prettejohn. “We collect rainwater for use in our toilets and production. All our packaging material is recycled newspaper. We have installed 550 solar panels on our roof that produce 92 kilowatt hours of power for us in the factory on a good sunny day. We gave up using plastic straws in our coffee shop, way before all the hype that is surrounding this now. We are fair trade registered and are one of the founding companies of the Swaziland Fair Trade movement.”
They’ve also grown their charitable works and conservation efforts. Ngwenya Glass has partnered with Big Game Parks to protect endangered wildlife; built a block of toilets in town where there was previously only a pit latrine; donated food to a local orphanage and blankets to the elderly; planted more than 100 indigenous trees; funded a counselor to support abused women and children and those living with HIV and AIDS; and annually, donate the proceeds from a mountain biking event to a rehabilitation facility for the disabled and a foundation that helps people who have been bitten by snakes.
“We do all of this ‘under the radar,’” says Prettejohn. “We do not need any accolades, it is just something we feel is required of us. I think being farmers and growing up on a farm, the environment is a huge part of us and looking after it for the future generations runs in our blood.”
Feeling a special connection to the wildlife species that inspire their craftsmen to produce works of art, Ngwenya Glass launched the Kingdom of Swaziland’s/Eswatini’s most successful wildlife conservation fund in 1989, donating a percentage of profits from its worldwide sales. Known as the Ngwenya Rhino & Elephant Fund , its proceeds go directly to Mkhaya Game Reserve, a refuge for endangered species in the Swaziland/Eswatini lowveld.
As Ngwenya Glass says, it is proof that “business success and commitment to protecting the environment can, indeed, be a winning combination.”
Ngwenya Glass Is Changing the World, One Tumbler at a Time. Food52, Jul. 29, 2018
Ngwenya Glass website.
Handwashing and hot tea: Eswatini celebrates roll out of solar-heated water. The Guardian, Apr. 16, 2021