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Making Beads in Africa: WORK OF OUR HANDS Woman's project

Five Rand Squatter's Camp Okahandja Namibia. 
Home of fairly traded, OKAWA Ceramic beads. ( small treasure)

There are a few extra challenges in Africa, when it comes to to ceramic bead making. Mostly however, it's the same challenges all ceramic artists face. I'll describe our process, and if you are new to bead making, maybe it will help. If you are an old hand at it, maybe you can give me a few suggestions.

 greenware beads
First of course we must obtain our materials. For this we have to order from South Africa. It costs us at least 50% on top of our cost of materials to pay shipping and taxes to import.  I'm glad we are not any further north than we are already.

We use earthenware clay. Some beads are carved, and some left smooth for painting. At first the ladies had trouble getting the bead sizes consistent. Then I thought of having them use measuring spoons.  It worked great. We make beads from 1/4 teaspoon of clay, up to 3 teaspoons of clay. I have also made molds of my sculpted pendant beads, so the ladies can easily reproduce them by press molding.


 I chose to use underglaze for painting our beads, because I love detail, and felt it would be easier to achieve with underglaze. I also thought it would make us different from Kazuri beads  (made in Kenya).

We  paint on  greenware rather than bisque. There are a couple of reasons. 1. I just like the feel of painting on the greenware. 2. it allows us to do some sgraffito  3. We have a chance to catch and fix mistakes after the bisque firing, and before glazing.

We have recently opened our new community center in Five Rand Camp called ENONGELO center.
( place of learning.)
where we have a wonderful ceramic studio.

Before : my back yard work shop

When I started the ceramic bead making a couple of years ago, we had a small studio in the squatter's camp for the ladies to work in. However, it was taken away from us in an African coup! So for quite awhile the ladies had to work under a shade roof at my house. We are all very grateful for our new studio !

under glazed greenware

bisque firing

After the underglaze, we bisque fire in my small kiln ( 3 cubic feet). The beads can touch, but strong colors rub off on their neighbors, so we have to keep like colors together. Which brings us to one of our challenges here. Electricity. We operate under 220 volt, yet houses are only allowed to have 45 amps. coming in. ( Yes, for the whole house.) So I can operate the small kiln in my garage, but only if nothing else is running at the same time. If I try to cook and operate the kiln, I have to reset the breaker every couple of min.  We also have  unscheduled power outages every few months, but only every few months is  a good record for Africa .

Painting in the new studio

After bisque firing, we use brush-on transparent glaze.  I have had more frustration over glaze, than any other aspect of bead making. Transparent glaze is so picky ! Too much and it goes milky, too little and it looks dry. Grrrrr!

Then there is the "How to put them in the Kiln" issue. I see on the web that most of you use your square shelf supports as holders for the kiln wire. For some reason our kiln supports here are round :(.  Also, we don't have those nifty specialty bead-holder things you have in the USA.  I first tried sticking wires out of a kiln brick........disaster ! Finally I hit on the plan of  cutting kiln bricks into 6 logs each. We stack these 5 high with the wires going between the logs.

To get enough power for our big kiln, we fire in our shipping container shop. Since it's a business, we can have 60 amps coming in.


Some finished beads

Most of our beads are made up into jewelry. We sell at the Namibian Craft Center in the capital city Windhoek, and we sell a bit at our container shop in our own town of Okahandja.

I would say one of our project's biggest challenges is marketing. There are many reasons.  Only the tourists really buy from us, and our season for tourists is short.  I'm an artist and no good at marketing, plus I'm already too busy keeping the project running.

 In April this year I was in Colorado visiting daughters and grandchildren. We had a booth at the Rocky Mountain Bead Society's bead bazaar in Denver.  I was quite please with the reception, sales and compliments we got.

However, for the most part, I just don't know how to sell beads in the USA when I'm in Africa 10 months of the year. How do those " Kazuri" bead people do it?


  1. Wonderful post. Thank you for all the details about how you all make beads and the challenges you face. You have been so inventive in overcoming them. The beads are wonderful. I found it so interesting that you like to use the underglaze on greenware and then fire. I don't know if you can get Mayco clear brushing glaze where you are, but it is almost foolproof at any cone.
    About marketing, I think you should try to get into some of the bigger shows here. How I don't know but perhaps some of our members who do these shows and others could give you a few tips on this.

  2. I have been doing shows for 6 years and from what I have been told Kazuri has changed hands, also the folks who sell them have to purchase wholesale very large quantities of beads and then they control an area of the US for sales.

    Your enterprise looks promising and lots of hard work, best of luck. My son and family went to Nambibia to film the white rhinos and cheetah preserve. THe images were amazing. They they raised money for clean water in a village. Thanks for sharing. Joan Tucker, Off Center

  3. Another tip: Guy and Ja-Me at Wild Things sell many imported beads; he is from Zimbabwe currently lives in California. Joan T

  4. Val, I agree with Mary above, this is a wonderful post. And for you to continue to make things better with all the challenges that continue to arise is admirable. Those ladies are blessed that you are in their lives and their smiles show that. And their work is beautiful!

    I think you need a rep in the US that could introduce and promote the beads, and eventually sell to individuals for resale or designers, but promotion is the most important thing to get the word out there.

    Mayco iure has good glazes, I still have my first gallon I bought in 1998 of clear glaze, still good and works great. It's been through very hot summers here in California and I have no problems with it.

    Are there things that you are lacking in your studio that I could send you some supplies/tools in a package? email me please yolandasclay@yahoo.com

  5. If anyone knows of an agent, please let me know

  6. What a wonderful post! Thank you for sharing.

    I cannot be an agent because I spend most of my time running my store. However, I would LOVE to buy some beads for my bead store, and I will promote them with my customers through our newsletters. It is part of our store's mission to represent artisan beads, especially made by women, and especially made by women who are struggling. We have raised funds for women who escaped the Rwanda genocide in 1995 by hosting a trunk show of paper beads that the women made (RWIA.org); we purchase and promote lampwork beads from a low-income group of women in Mexico; we have purchased beads that provide cleft palate surgeries around the world (Smile Train Beads); and so forth. When these opportunities cross our path, we try our best to bring these beads into our store. At one time our store (Gahanna Bead Studio) was the Ohio rep for Kazuri, but as Joan said, a change of hands made it difficult for us to continue due to high volume requirements. We still carry Kazuri in the store.

    If you would like to email me with additional details, I would be delighted to exchange ideas with you. My email is helen@gahannabeadstudio.com.

    I wish you continued forward momentum and success!!!

    Helen O'Donnell
    owner/Gahanna Bead Studio
    and Embroidered Soul

  7. I love seeing a group of people working around clay together…
    And cutting the kiln brick seems to have worked out perfectly for firing all those beads.
    With the clear glaze I use for my decal pieces - I run into that same issue. I now try to keep the clear glaze a bit more thinned out with water so I can brush on two coats. I always overlap one coat, so two is my normal. Three just gets too thick and clouds up.
    Congrats on the new clay building too - that is fantastic!

    I'm curious if some of the people that sell Kazuri and the like would be interested in selling your beads as well. Your beads would stand out for sure!
    Maybe look around on the internet and see who the reps are and contact them. I would think that using the Beads-of-Clay group name (member and blog contributor to it) would help establish your seriousness and professionalism to these sellers that are probably familiar with this group and its members through associated bead shows.
    Thanks for another wonderful post!

  8. The beads are beautiful and the challenges that you all are overcoming and have overcome are tremendous.

  9. Hi Val. Thanks for sharing more about what you are doing there. I would love to know more about your "employees." Maybe a pic of all of them with there names, so we can get to know them as well. Making your beads/pendants more personal for the buyers is a big help with sales.
    Contact me and i will talk with you about so ideas I have for you. :-)

  10. Thank you all so much for your comments, suggestions, support!Marla I have some profiles on the ladies in my blog, but scattered around. I'll get some links together. Marsha, I don't see any info on reps. when I see sites selling Kazuri.?

  11. I personally think you would be better off separating your project from Kazuri's. I think building your own brand here in the states would be best. I'll e-mail you Val!

  12. Looks really gorgeous. I'm in western cape in south Africa. Would you be interested in supplying small quantity to us. I could consider wholesaling the beads in western cape.
    warm regards
    Anne Merwitz


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