At the KAMERS/Makers market in South Africa, sisters Mo and Michelle Mokone couldn't help but stop and watch as makers around them created gorgeous objects. It wasn't just the aesthetics that inspired them — they loved the fact that they were using sustainable materials. Soon, the sisters started researching how they could showcase their work at the market, too. Mo began making origami swans; fast-forward to today and their business, Mo's Crib, has items in stock at major retailers like Crate & Barrel.
The South African brand focuses on eco-conscious designs. And while the sisters grew up with an entrepreneurial father (focusing on sand and gravel industries) as their role model, they also dealt with poverty. In a way, their adversities prepared them for the many hats they'd wear later on. Michelle and Mo run the "whole value chain," as Mo puts it. The sisters have a warehouse and production site in Pretoria, South Africa, where they were born.
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"Maybe that's why we're able to do so many things at one time," Mo tells Hunker. "It's like we never really had it easy. And so we don't expect things to come easy or rely on anybody else to do anything for us."
The company currently has 37 full-time staff members, many of whom started working for the brand four years ago. Around 100 part-time artisans, hailing from areas like Malawi and Zimbabwe, also work on bringing Mo's Crib designs to life. They handcraft each item and prepare it for shipping. Some of the company's benefits, Michelle and Mo explain, include free lunch, free lodging, and English lessons. This is a part of the company that the sisters emphasize while discussing their vision.
"We know that this is what we want to do," says Mo."We know that we were called for this. This is something that we want to do and it's bigger than us. When we think about creating a business, we're not thinking about ourselves or getting rich. I mean, everybody wants to make money and live a comfortable life, but we're thinking about: How can we really make a difference in our community, in the families where we come from?"
The other important component of what they do comes back to sustainability. The sisters saw the potential of using recycled PVC to create decor items. They source PVC pipes from landfills and construction sites, even gathering ones that are broken. In the future, they want to cull PVC from other parts of the world, in part to offer more colorways.
An increase in eco-conscious products and processes at home continues to stay strong in the design world. TaskRabbit reports that in 2021 "requests for eco-friendly products saw a 52% increase and sealing windows for energy efficiency increased 111%." IKEA hopes that by 2030, "all plastic used in [their] products will be based on renewable or recycled material." Even major appliance companies are in the on the action; Samsung announced earlier this year that it plans to increase "the amount of recycled plastic used to manufacture its home appliances to 30% by 2024."
In addition, a focus on artisan-made items remains. Mo's Crib was designed to be transparent about materials and processes, so that the customer might connect with the brand.
"It's really important to create a traceability for the customer and to also create accountability for ourselves, to remain true to our ethics and our values, to say that we are a sustainable brand," Michelle tells Hunker.
In person, the PVC natural basket is surprisingly lightweight yet sturdy. (Disclaimer: I received a sample from the brand, but my thoughts and opinions on the product are my own and not influenced by the brand). The neutral tone would look right at home with any earthy/minimalist color palette. The pattern is subtle — darker squares of the material dot the exterior, but you almost can't tell until you step back from the piece. While it's tough to incorporate into my small apartment, I could definitely see it working for a large space or outdoors, near a pool.
"We really just let our customers be creative ... We want to make sure that every single thing that we sell is functional, particularly on the basketry side," Michelle says. "With decor, there's only so much you can do."
Their items are designed to hold towels, firewood, plants, and more. In product photos, some are displayed as centerpieces or used as trays. In a review via Crate & Barrel, a customer writes: "I have followed Mo's Crib's work for years and it is finally available in the U.S. I just got my basket and I love it. It is nice and big, extremely light and so versatile."
Michelle says that sisal, a plant fiber that the sisters also use, was integral to showcase because it's "sustainably sourced from African countries" and also "available in abundance." At the time of writing, the brand carries sisal woven art pieces.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the material "is a renewable resource par excellence and can form part of the overall solution to climate change." In addition, it's 100% biodegradable.
On an aesthetic level, the sisters are aware that the decor world has an affinity for certain looks. They don't want Mo's Crib designs to become "monotonous because [customers] are used to African prints," as Michelle explains. While they do incorporate South African elements, it's all about following their creative curiosities. They find inspiration virtually everywhere. On a recent train ride, Mo says the pair saw someone wearing an eye-catching cardigan, which prompted them to brainstorm more textile ideas.
While they're currently focused on U.S. retail options, the brand held a factory sale in Pretoria in 2021 — and all the items sold out within three days, according to the sisters.
Mo's Crib will expand its range soon, hoping to bring even more of its products to the U.S. as well as offer additional direct-to-consumer options. In this way, the duo hopes to offer even more opportunities to artisans and makers.