Open Eye: Trade and Ethics Can Mix ; A Visit to Africa Inspires a Research Scientist to Start a Business

Article excerpt

Some people's lives follow a clear, logical trajectory, but Sue Coomber's is more of a tapestry - chemistry degree to a career in warehousing and quality assurance to a biophysics PhD with the Open University. She even features in an OU television programme, The Three Degrees (see Open View, page 6). So there is a weird kind of logic to the way that her first trip to South Africa sent her off in another new direction as the co-founder and managing director of an ethical trading company importing African craftwork.

The KZN4Trading Company (the initials stand for KwaZuluNatal) was born on a visit to longstanding friend Dr Nicola Rodda and husband Paul at their home in the Valley of a Thousand Hills, around 20 kilometres from Durban, in February this year. Dr Coomber was struck by the extremes of the country - its beauty "like someone has taken a spoon to a flat landscape", and its poverty. She recalls: "I was passing a hillside and at the bottom of the hill was a clump of sticks with a blanket on it - it was someone's home. At the top was a mansion."

She was also struck by the quality of the craftwork produced by the local people, and so came the idea of using the Roddas' local knowledge to source high-quality goods which Dr Coomber could find outlets for in Britain.

Their idea is to help local people by providing badly needed employment and a fair price for their goods, and to plough some of the profits from the goods back into aid and educational projects in South Africa.

"One problem is that the people there don't know the value of their own goods," Dr Coomber says. "Some people live on pounds 50 a month. And there is no health provision, no free education, they have to pay for it all."

The goods themselves range from the decorative - beadwork necklaces in traditional patterns incorporating hidden messages - to children's puzzles, printing blocks, carvings and the novel Bath Bean, familiar to expatriate South Africans.

KZN4Trading Company is not a charity and Dr Coomber is also attracted by the prospect of building up a business which fits round her life and aspirations. Currently an OU science tutor and mother of James, five, and John, two-and-a-half, she hopes, when the children are older, to return to academic research in her field, a highly-theoretical aspect of biochemistry.

"At the moment I work on the business until lunchtime and in the afternoon deal with things to do with the children. …