I traveled to South Africa in spring 2008 on a Fair Trade buying trip. The first thing I noticed outside of Johannesburg International airport was a towering 2010 FIFA World Cup countdown clock. Over two years to go before kickoff, and the digital countdown was already in motion.

Two years later, the World Cup is in full swing, and I’m left wondering how the event is impacting African artisans working within the Fair Trade system. Are they benefiting from the influx of tourism dollars, are artisans in surrounding countries being affected, and has the increased demand for local crafts impacted the Fair Trade model in South Africa?

You don’t need to be a soccer (er, football) fan to grasp just how massive the World Cup event is and how much money is riding on it; the last World Cup Final viewership was 715 million and 3.4 million tickets were sold, according to Fast Company magazine.

South African artisans will most likely experience a sudden increase in sales resulting from the World Cup, but by how much? I asked around during my 2008 trip to get a sense of what others thought. Local artisans had mixed predictions about World Cup related craft sales; some had high expectations, others believed that there was too much hype and false hopes associated with the worldwide event. So who was right?

Basket Makers in Kwa Zulu Natal, South Africa

According to Cael Chappell it’s too early to tell. He’s the owner of Baskets of Africa, a U.S. based Fair Trade business that imports baskets from South Africa and Swaziland. His sense is that the artisans he works with have high expectations for the World cup. Chappell shared this about his artisan partners:

They were busy 3-4 months ago beefing up production to get products into South African stores. It’s too early to tell how products are selling, especially compared to the inevitable contenders–mass produced stuff.

It seems the World Cup is like Christmas. People who make gift products ramp up production long before the actual event, and it takes a while to determine how sales went. In the U.S. we get the complete picture of how the holiday shopping season fared in January, and so it will go for the World Cup. Once the event ends and the smoke clears we’ll have a clearer picture.

During my 2008 buying trip in Kwa Zulu Natal

Some artisan groups I met with back in 2008 were in the process of planning their World Cup production strategies, and one group had already started producing. Fair Trade products take longer to make than mass-produced factory-made products, so artisans need more lead time to complete orders, and banging out high volumes last-minute is not usually an option. So you can see how vitally important it is to accurately project how much product to make.

Whether the amount of inventory Fair Trade artisans in Africa ended up producing will be enough (or too much) to meet World Cup demand, we’ll have to wait a bit longer to find out.

Once the World Cup ends, South African artisans who over-projected should look to Fair Trade importers like Cael Chappell. He claims he has had trouble getting baskets from his South African trading partners lately, due to their temporary focus on local retailers, so if South African artisans end up with too much inventory after the World Cup he is ready and willing to take it! Chappell explained this about Baskets of Africa artisan partners:

They’re working very hard to get orders out to local shops in South Africa, and struggling to fill export orders as a result. It’s been more difficult for me to get things lately. There’s a lot of local demand; the feeling I’ve been getting from suppliers is that they’re not filling other orders in order to accommodate the local demand.

Fair Trade basket made in Swaziland

And so it seems, another Fair Trade segment affected by the World Cup are Fair Traders who import products from Southern Africa. With those artisans placing so much emphasis on selling products locally (which is a good thing!), international African importers who rely on shipments from this region have had to exercise patience.

I asked Cael whether he felt the World Cup was having any negative impact on his Fair Trade relationships. He responded:

There’s no negative impact because I need more production anyway; so far none of my partners have been able to fulfill (my) orders so if they have a sudden lull after the world cup, I’ll buy them!

Fair Trade RAINBOW bracelet

If one South African Fair Trade artisan group is any indication, selling off inventory will not be a problem during the World Cup. RAINBOW COLLECTION proudly states on their website “We have sold all 100,000 Orange Bracelets!” Is selling out 100,000 Fair Trade bracelets an isolated occurrence or harbinger of how Fair Trade sales are going? We shall see.

Tintsaba artisans smiling while they work

Fair Trade artisans in surrounding countries such as Zimbabwe and Swaziland have seen tourism drop dramatically due to the World Cup. Tintsaba Crafts is a rural development project in Northern Swaziland that works with women’s groups producing and selling quality crafts. I visited Tinstaba in 2008, and founder Sheila Freemantle wrote to me this week:

Swaziland accommodation is empty and we have had the worst weeks in history for retail tourism. We have seen about 1 out of the normal 100 (tourists) we get at this time of year. This has caused cash flow challenges in all the local Fair Trade companies. From the beginning I was skeptical about the World Cup potential for tourist sales in Swaziland.

Fortunately for Tinstaba, they seem prepared for this decrease in shoppers, plus there is a silver lining to this dark cloud; besides securing some big export orders that have carried their cash flow through the crisis, their hope lies in, of all things, airport sales. Sheila explained:

Where business will boom is the airport shops and we are grateful to have products in there and we trust that post World Cup, reorders will be fantastic from the big airport shops that run 24 hours.

Gone Rural Retail Display in Swaziland

Hopefully the other Fair Trade retail businesses I visited in Swaziland including Swazi Candles and Gone Rural have similar strategies to get them through the temporary lull in tourist shoppers.

Whether Fair Trade craft sales during the World Cup surpass everyone’s expectations or not, the bigger question is whether this surge will have a lasting effect. My fear two years ago was that the sudden influx of orders might give South African artisans a false sense of hope. The danger lies in increasing future sales projections beyond what is realistic, simply based on special circumstances (like the once-in-a-lifetime World Cup). Unrealistic projections can lead to over-hiring and purchasing more supplies than necessary, two costly mistakes.

If it takes some time to determine how Fair Trade crafts sold during the World Cup, it will take even longer to determine whether there are any long-term effects. The forecast according to Sheila Freemantle:

At best, South Africans have welcomed tourists with open arms and great friendliness and this (will) spread the word that South Africa is a safe destination, a beautiful place (with) great people and high quality crafts. This will be the true benefit of the World Cup. So we hope that the publicity the World Cup has given us will benefit us in the long run.