The Inception of Ngwenya Glass
Started in 1979 by Swedish Aid. They built the factory, imported all the machinery and equipment and employed and trained Swazi’s in the age old art of glassblowing. Two of the most talented were sent over to Sweden to be trained by some of the leading glassblowers in the world. From 1981 to its closure in 1985, the factory was run entirely by Swazi’s.
In June 1987, the factory was re-opened by Richard, Alix and Chas Prettejohn. Richard a farmer, Alix an ex-librarian and Chas a marine engineer. Further removed from glassblowing one could hardly imagine! You may ask “What prompted them to pack up everything in East London and to move to Swaziland/Eswatini to make glass animals?”!
Well, the Prettejohn’s used to collect glass elephants from Swazi Glass Craft (Ngwenya Glass) until suddenly – NO MORE! After a couple of years they decided to pop up to Swaziland/Eswatini whilst in Northern Natal and to “investigate”! The outcome – Proud owners of the only glassblowing factory in Africa. But now what?! They know nothing about this business!! Through sheer determination, hard work and common sense – and of course, invaluable assistance from Consol Glass, Talana – Ngwenya Glass now employs 70 workers, including 2 of the original blowers and 4 of the original other staff. Mr Sibusiso Mhlanga, who underwent advanced training in Sweden during the 70’s, has tutored new apprentices in the age-old art of glassblowing and has visited Sweden a couple of times in the past few years to once again work with some of the leading glassblowers in the world. Sibusiso also assisted world renowned master glassblower, Jan-Eric Ritzman at Pilchuck Glass School in Seattle, USA in July 1998.
The reason why Ngwenya Glass is so special is that only re-cycled glass is used – mainly old cool drink bottles, and that each and every piece is totally handmade and mouth blown. People from all over Swaziland/Eswatini collect bottles and are paid per kilo for clean glass. Ngwenya must be the cleanest area because any bottle that catches the children ‘ s attention finds its way into the factory!
Ngwenya Glass products are found in many homes worldwide, whilst custom-made light fittings and tableware are commissioned by the most prestigious hotels worldwide.
Ngwenya Glass is concerned with conservation and organises environmental clean-up days along the main roads in their area. We do this by encouraging the schools in their area to do these clean-ups in exchange for donations of building materials or soccer kits etc. They believe that by educating our children about environmental issues, we are going to have a chance of saving our planet.
And finally, as if willing the survival of the wildlife species that inspire their craftsmen to produce works of art, Ngwenya Glass launched the Kingdom’s most successful wildlife conservation fund to date. Known as the Ngwenya Glass Rhino and Elephant Fund, its proceeds go directly to saving these rare and endangered animals which have been saved from the brink of extinction for a second time in the recent history of Swaziland/Eswatini. A percentage of Ngwenya Glass’ sales worldwide are donated to this Fund.
Ngwenya Glass making changes …
Most people know the interesting history of Swaziland’s/Eswatini’s very special glassmaking factory, but for those who don’t, herewith a summary of where they’ve come from …
This unique story unfolded in 1979. A glassblowing factory called Swazi Glass Craft (trading as Ngwenya Glass ) was set up as a Swedish Aid Project. The Swedes imported all the machinery and equipment, built the original factory, and employed and trained Swazi’s in the age-old art of glassblowing. Two of the most talented glassblowers were sent to Sweden to the world renowned Kosta Boda glassworks where they learned from leading artisans. In 1981 the Swedes handed over the factory to Swaziland/Eswatini Small Enterprise Development Corporation.
But unfortunately, four years later the factory ceased production.
Suddenly, no more glass animals! This was a mystery to Swazi Glass elephant collectors, Chas Prettejohn, a marine engineer, and his parents, Alix and Richard, who lived in the Eastern Cape in South Africa …! Their curiosity, literally, drove them to neighbouring Swaziland/Eswatini to “investigate”. The result; the Prettejohn’s found themselves the proud new owners of the only glassblowing factory in Africa at that time … and a defunct one at that!
The Prettejohn’s took over in June 1987, spending a couple of months getting the machinery working and tracking down some of the original staff. They started production in August with four former employees, including Sibusiso Mhlanga, the master glassblower. Ngwenya Glass now employs over 60 people, including two of the original Swedish-trained blowers. Sibusiso who has visited Sweden several times in recent years to work again with some of the world’s leading glassblowers, now tutors the new apprentices.
Since its rebirth, Ngwenya Glass has been more than an inspiring success story. It is an environmentalist’s dream. The products, which include a range of tableware, drinking glasses, vases, jugs and ornamental African animals, are all handmade from 100 % recycled glass.
Most of this is from soft drink bottles, gathered from all over Swaziland/Eswatini. Not only are the people of Swaziland/Eswatini encouraged to collect the bottles, but Ngwenya Glass works with the local schools to instil in the children a sense of environmental awareness. In exchange for building materials and the sponsorship of the soccer team, the students must participate in clean-up campaigns.
As if willing the survival of the wildlife species that inspire their craftsmen to produce works of art; in 1989 Ngwenya Glass launched the Kingdom of Swaziland’s/Eswatini’s most successful wildlife conservation fund. by 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. Since the establishment of this fund, generous donations have been received from the likes of: The British Government; The European Union; W.W.F. (World Wildlife Fund of South Africa and the Netherlands); Doctor Felix Schnier; Aide Environmen; Engen, and His Royal Highness, Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands (who is an avid fan of Mkhaya and a regular visitor to the Kingdom of Swaziland/Eswatini!).
Ngwenya Glass is proof that business success and commitment to protecting the environment can, indeed, be a winning combination.