Since making their first sale in 2016, innovative sisters from Pretoria Mo Mokone and Michelle Mokone are now giving back to the community and saving that planet with their designs.
Here we speak to the creative duo about their homeware brand Mo’s Crib, their growing career and the women who inspire them.
Can you start us off with a short introduction to Mo and Michelle Mokone?
Mo: We are sisters both born in South Africa, in the capital city Pretoria. South Africa is a country that carries massive collective trauma, and one guiding ideal that we live by as a nation is “Ubuntu”, a word that encourages compassion and the spirit of connectivity. Our values as leaders are very much influenced by Ubuntu - we see our employees, our customers, and the environment in which we operate as an interconnected unit that drives the overall success of our vision, so it's important to ensure that we're treating everyone with the utmost respect.
What inspired you to start Mo’s crib?
Mo: I fell in love with the art of crochet as a little girl in the 90s - I used to take plastic bags and weave them into rugs as my creative outlet. We have always been entrepreneurial and both started several businesses while growing up. It wasn't until 2016 that I started to think about my artistic hobby as a potential business - thanks to the encouragement of my sister who has always been a cheerleader for my artistic side. Michelle had let me know about a holiday market where I saw Origami artwork being sold, which made me think about bringing my own craft to the market. The first product we sold at the market was a beautiful Origami paper swan - we sold out within the first few days of the market and realized we were on to something. We continued the side hustle while working at our corporate jobs, introducing new products under the name Mo's Crib. In 2019 we finally decided to quit our corporate jobs and focus on our business full time.
How did you come up with the idea for your PVC collection?
Michelle: Growing up in Africa, we have always felt a strong connection to the natural world and are painfully aware of the risks facing our environment today - both locally and globally. When we were looking for unique recycled materials to use in our manufacturing process, we learned that PVC is the third most produced plastic in the world, but under 1% of it is recycled. With every basket we sell, we're making an impact on the growing issue of irreversible plastic pollution in Africa.
Cleaning up our landfills isn't glamorous work, but we're turning trash into treasure with every design and raising awareness about the importance of eco-friendly manufacturing. The planet is sending us warning signals and it’s up to us to respond. It doesn't matter what industry you're in - we all need to use our talents to be a part of the solution so that we can create a sustainable path towards the future.
How do you describe your collections and design style?
Mo: Our designs are largely inspired by African design, culture, and nature. Art in South Africa is influenced by natural materials, colours, and traditional crafts like weaving. Our designs definitely reflect that - they're diverse and eclectic, with many uses of natural and recycled materials. We have a consistent aesthetic, but every basket is different!
What has been the most defining moment of your career thus far?
Mo & Michelle: We believe that every single moment has been defining in its own way. Our very first sale back in 2016 let us know that we had products that our customers resonated with even at the very early stages of our career. We then branched out to supply retail stores which was a very pivotal and defining moment as that allowed us to expand nationwide in South Africa. Now that we are a global homeware brand and supplying to retail stores such as Crate & Barrel, we understand that our vision is much bigger than we could have anticipated and this is one huge milestone that has allowed us not only to share our offerings locally but also on an international platform.
What does women’s month mean to you?
Michelle: Women’s month means celebrating women from all walks of life for a multitude of reasons. We are a black-owned, female-founded business with a mostly (90%) female staff of South African women and our brand is about so much more than the products we create. Through Mo's Crib, we are able to create employment opportunities and skills training lessons that lift individuals up so that they can then build opportunities for themselves. The artisans who hand-make all of our products are compensated with fair wages, housing, hot meals, and transportation. They also have access to an on-site health clinic for basic medical needs with weekly classes on sexual health, mental health, and hygiene. At Mo’s Crib, we truly celebrate and support women each and every day.
Who are the women in your life who have inspired you and taught you important lessons and values?
Mo: We are inspired by one another. Being in business together has really allowed us the opportunity to get to understand each other’s strengths and be able to capitalize on that. Coming from a very poor background and running a business that is 100% self-funded has not always been easy, and the fact that we show up regardless of the many setbacks we face has really allowed us to appreciate each other on a much deeper level than just a sisterly relationship. Our values have really helped us define our business strategy and have positioned us to lead in a way that is rooted in compassion for all of our employees, our customers and the environment.
How do you define success?
Mo: Success to us is happiness and the ability to live out your desires and passions. For us, happiness is the ability to provide sustainable jobs in our very small community and to design and manufacture quality products that bring life to living spaces. We also find joy in bringing satisfaction to our customers at no cost to the environment.
What are the challenges you face as a woman in your industry?
Michelle: As the company is 100% self-funded, with no investment, financing the business has been a challenge. This was a difficult challenge to overcome especially because the company grew rapidly over the past year - faster than our cash flow. Of course, this growth was also a welcome opportunity for us as it pushed us to find more ways to sustain the momentum by seeking new opportunities and markets.
Another big challenge we face as female entrepreneurs is operating in a male-dominated sector. We handpick and collect all of our PVC water pipes from landfills and construction sites, which are not places where you see a lot of women. As women in these environments, we are often not taken seriously, which makes it tough to build business relationships.
Do you have any advice for women looking at entering the decor and homeware industry?
Mo: Be unique, have a product that tells a story and be willing to go beyond the standard practices as it pertains to design and art in the home space.