Agency Development and Support
 

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Blue Crane turns to tourism

There are quite a few things on the boil at the Boschberg Tourism Hub in pretty Somerset East. Several mountain bike trails have been laid out; there are arts and crafts on sale; and small manufacturers are making needed products.

October 23, 2013

bchub insideThe Boschberg Tourism Hub lies just below the scenic Boschberg MountainsThe white walls and Bondi blue roof of the Boschberg Tourism Hub in Somerset East, in Eastern Cape, shimmer in the early morning sun, with the imposing Boschberg Mountains forming a tranquil backdrop.

A buzz of voices emanates from the buildings, evidence that some activity is going on despite the laid-back atmosphere. At the entrance, workers in blue overalls are busy laying out paving stones leading to the five Cape Dutch style buildings that make up the hub.

“The idea of a tourism hub is to centralise tourism in the Blue Crane Route Municipality. The hub is composed of different components, which include a mountain bike shop; retail and workshops; a wedding venue; and a restaurant,” says Chris Wilken, the tourism manager at the Blue Crane Development Agency (BCDA).

Initially, the BCDA had planned to develop a country estate that would have comprised a residential development and an 18-hole golf course. Unfortunately, there was difficulty in securing funds to go ahead with development and a decision was taken to “start small”. And the idea of a tourism hub was hatched.

“We then decided to concentrate on activities as destination-based because we are not too far from Port Elizabeth and East London, and we need to attract visitors over weekends to our area. So we identified mountain biking as key in the activity portfolio.”

The agency approached mountain biking experts in Cape Town who helped it build mountain bike single tracks in the surrounding mountains. Seven different routes, both technical and non-technical, cover 35 kilometres.

Mountain biking

bchub inside1Nicky Luthando Dilima runs the mountain bike repair shopNicky Luthando Dilima runs the mountain bike repair shop and manages mountain biking activities at the hub. He says he saw potential in tapping into nature by developing biking trails in the surrounding mountains but it wasn’t easy to start the business.

The help from the agency has been tremendous, but for the project to “fly off the ground”, outside help had to be sought. Dilima approached the national Department of Sport and Recreation to source mountain bikes. That was two years ago, he says, and he is still waiting for a response.

The costs of setting up and running the mountain biking shop are high, and too much for Dilima. A mountain bike costs R3 000 and the initial 10 he managed to get with assistance from the agency are falling apart. “Besides the shortage of bikes, my new challenge is that I am using old tools to repair the bikes,” he says.

Another of his bigger challenges is meeting demand. He set up a mountain bike club, hosting local schoolchildren who have taken an interest in the sport, he explains, but was flabbergasted on the first day when more than 50 children pitched up at the hub – and this has been the case ever since.

To manage the demand, Dilima has divided the young riders into age groups, with each group coming in on a different day. “But still with only 10 bikes I can’t cope,” he says.

The solution is more bikes: “a lot of bikes but 10 will do at the moment. Riding helmets as well because by law one cannot ride a bike without one.”

Arts and crafts

bchub inside2Arts and craft shop manager Catherine Billet shows off some of the products on saleThe arts and craft sector is big in Somerset East, with people making “good quality stuff”, according to Wilken. However, the problem is that they don’t have markets for their artefacts. To try to redress this, the BCDA has opened a shop where art and craft manufacturers can display their products. Those on show are diverse: cushions, beadwork, paperwork, pot plants, body wash products, shawls, blankets, paintings, and leather products like handbags – all handmade. It includes a bookshop, also targeting a diverse readership.

Shop manager Catherine Billet says there are 27 artists and crafters from Somerset East and surrounds who send their artefacts to be displayed at the shop, most of them women. “Artists don’t pay to have their products displayed at the shop. We deduct 10% only when an item is sold, which goes towards paying rent for the shop.”

Business has been going “well” since it opened in May this year. “We have got sales basically every day. Mostly our customers are local people who pop in to buy and a few tourists,” says Billet. In addition, some of the products are taken to trade shows around the Eastern Cape where they are showcased. The hub also comprises workshops where some of the art and craft products are manufactured. There is a geyser blanket and African clothing manufacturer; a handcrafted products workshop; and a ceramic art workshop.

Ntombodidi Dilima is the owner of Ezodidi Manufacturing and Multipurpose Company, an establishment that makes beadwork, head scarves, leather bags, geyser blankets and traditional Xhosa outfits. Dilima employs two people, a sewer and a handyman.

Ezodidi supplies geyser blankets to a company in Port Elizabeth, a deal that sustains the business at the moment. “I make indoor and outdoor geyser blankets. Each blanket goes for R250,” she says. Clients for the beadwork, leather bags and traditional Xhosa outfits are mostly locals from around Somerset East. Dilima says she also makes church uniforms on order.

Like most small businesses, Dilima faces challenges. She operates with only one sewing machine and sometimes cannot cope with demand. “If I can get assistance to buy more machines then my business will expand and I can employ more people,” she says.

Household products

bchub inside3 Members of the Lavelilanga Women’s Craft centre busy at workLavelilanga Women’s Craft is located just a stone’s throw from Dilima Manufacturing. The company employs seven women excluding managing member Crystal Reid and specialises in hand-crafted household products. Reid says the company focuses mostly on recyclable things such as bottles and cardboard. Its product range includes photo frames, vases, baskets, lamp shades, bowls, placemats and handbags.

Lavelilanga, which means “a new dawn” in Xhosa, was started in 2010 as a handbag manufacturing business by two local women, according to Reid. “The two ladies approached me to help them sew and sell the bags because I was already in the sewing business. When I looked at the bags they made I saw potential in the product.”

Because they were making handbags out of expensive material such as leather, Reid suggested they diversify their products and start making bowls and other household items out of papier-mâché. And the company hasn’t looked back. “We have made loads and loads of these bowls. We said: ‘Let’s go and show the public what we are doing,’ and that is where we started,” she says.

The company has exhibited its products at the 2011 and 2012 Somerset East Biltong Festival and at the Withond Festival in Graaff-Reinet. The response from the public has been amazing, Reid says. “We started to make bigger vases and ottoman chairs.” The bigger plan is to acquire bigger premises and expand the market but this will require capital. “We need finance to buy material and also to give the ladies an incentive. We also need business training.”

The BCDA is planning to establish a tourism satellite office at the hub where visitors will be able to get all the information they need concerning tourist attractions in Somerset East, according to Wilken. “We have had several international tourists but we still have to drive a marketing programme,” he says.

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