I met the owners of Lusaka Collective, Rosanne Thorne and Talitha Ullrich, on a bright summer afternoon to find out more about the space that offers a platform for Zambian artisans, craft makers and designers to showcase and sell their work. The co-owners shared the vision for the business by affirming, “Lusaka Collective is a collaborative space for the promotion and development of the best of Zambian design across a genre of arts. We are, however, more design and design craft oriented. We wanted to create a one stop shopping experience.”
The story of Lusaka Collective begins with the friendship between Rosanne and Talitha who share a passion for the arts. In June of 2018 they decided to take a trip to Johannesburg where they visited Maboneng, a once forgotten industrial part of inner city Johannesburg that was transformed into a vibrant neighbourhood that offers some of the city’s best restaurants, shops, events, arts and culture and nightlife. It was there that they fell in love with the idea of taking something that has become a little less shiny and a bit broken and making it new again. Rosanne says enthusiastically, “We totally fell in love with Maboneng and felt that it would be wonderful to have something in Lusaka like it!”
Upon returning to Zambia, feeling inspired by their visit, Rosanne who was at a turning point in her life shares, “I was looking for something different. I had started up a recruitment company seven years prior and I was just feeling like I needed a change in my life. I am a silversmith as well and I make jewellery. I had made jewellery for many years but as a side hustle. I wanted to push that more but I kept coming back to the question of where I would sell it. It didn’t feel like there was a platform in Lusaka for designers and craft makers to sell their goods in a permanent space.”
Both Rosanne and Talitha were at a point in their lives where they wanted to do something different. It was midnight one night when Rosanne was tossing and turning, her mind kept going back to Maboneng and knowing Talitha’s background in fashion and her talents Rosanne messaged her and asked her to come over for tea. Thankfully Talitha was awake and open to having a chat. That night the two ladies decided to take the plunge and embark on a new journey. Rosanne resigned the next day, which forced the ladies to get to work on Lusaka Collective quickly.
Talitha comes from a design background. She studied fine arts with a major in fashion design and she worked in the fashion industry for 15 years. She has been in Zambia for just over a decade, having travelled here seeking business opportunities in the design sector. She encountered challenges and ventured into teaching design and art at some international schools.
While the concept was inspired by their visit to Maboneng there was a lot of brainstorming and research that went into developing Lusaka Collective. When they first opened, they could count up to eight designers they were hosting on their floor but within the first five months that grew to 42 designers and crafts makers under one roof. Rosanne shares, “With Talitha’s design background it is also about inspiring each other. Furthermore, we wanted to give support to the Zambian arts community, particularly the design and crafts sector. Talitha has spent time at the grassroots level with the designers, working with different ideas, colour palettes and approaches to appeal to our target market, which includes the tourist and the business traveller looking for something unique to take back with them.”
Of course, operating in this industry has its challenges and the women share, “We did a lot of research and we have areas that we have to grow in, especially finding things for our male clientele. We also are up against the shopping mall experience and firmly established retail brands. Another challenge is finding stuff that is truly Zambian because a lot of the things sold in our markets are from our neighbouring countries. Product development is a big part of the gap that exists now and we are starting to work with that.”
Rosanne notes how important empowering the designers and craft makers is. She and Talitha encourage the designers they work with to run their side businesses more like primary businesses. Some have taken the advice to heart and are even registering their businesses with PACRA [Patents and Companies Registration Agency]. Another goal with the space is to add value to the products available. Talitha shares, “We also focus on merchandising and how one can add more value to a product. It’s about the way you display it and package it and place it. The way the product looks can add a lot more value to it and that’s another part of our project with Lusaka Collective…It is also important to understand that design is something that is taught and you can learn how to understand seasons and trends.”
Lusaka Collective has plans to expand the way it supports designers and craft makers. One avenue they are looking into is the creation of video content showcasing the available products and explaining what the company does and where the products come from. Rosanne and Talitha strive to ensure 100 percent of products at the Collective are Zambian.
Lusaka Collective’s location is steeped in some rich art history. Rosanne says, “This property was built in the 1960s by Danish architects. The wife of one of these architects was also a famous potter and the space where Lusaka Collective sits was her pottery studio.” Rosanne and Talitha spent three months renovating the building and turning it into a space they love. The choice of location was no accident. Situated behind a market selling local foods, the ladies hoped to encourage their clients to have a dual experience of local art and local dishes. They hope to transform other empty spaces and turn the Longacres location they occupy into a “little Maboneng in Lusaka.”
In keeping with the spirit of being a collaborative space, Rosanne and Talitha have hosted pop-up events with restaurants like Cantina and hosted a musical outdoor theatre show in November 2019. Their vision is to transform their neighbourhood into the soul of the city and a place everyone wants to go. A place where there is something for everyone and even the price ranges are for everyone. Somewhere where travellers can find a souvenir to take home, where locals can find the brands they love under one roof. Where shoppers can discover new designs and new brands to add to their collections. Where you can experience the best of Lusaka, no matter who you are.