Africa Travel Week
Ngwenya Glass

This glassblowing studio brings ancient African traditions to eager tourists

…and won the Global Responsible Tourism Award for doing good!

We sat down with Chas Prettejohn, Managing Director of Ngwenya Glass in Eswatini, to learn more about how this unique operation uplifts rural communities by sharing traditional glassblowing with visitors (and sourcing over 90% of materials locally). Ngwenya Glass empowers Swazi artisans by providing wages far above the national average and was recently crowned the winner in the “Local Sourcing, Craft and Food” category at the 2023 Global Responsible Tourism Awards.

Q: How did you go from ‘business’ to ‘responsible business’?

A: We bought Ngwenya Glass in 1987 when it was in liquidation. The company started in 1979 as a Swedish aid programme to teach glassblowing. Our predecessors were already recycling glass by melting down used bottles to make products. We continued that recycling process as we rebuilt the business.

As we grew, we realised we could make positive environmental changes that saved money, too. We switched from plastic/bubble wrap to recycled newspaper for packaging. We started collecting rainwater from our roof to reduce water costs. Glass making is extremely energy-hungry, so we started collecting used cooking oil from fast food restaurants to burn cleaner in our furnaces. We have coined a term called ‘carbon handprint’ – what we do to mitigate our carbon footprint. It made us realise we can do much more for the environment than reducing carbon emissions.

Q: What are some of your projects?

A: Most people think being sustainable means your product will be more expensive. We’re living proof that it is possible to be sustainable and profitable. For us, it’s all in our DNA, and we’re forever looking for new ways to improve things. Our biggest use of energy is in fuel we use for our furnace. We  also use a lot of electricity in our annealing (cooling) ovens. To mitigate all the electricity we use, we have put 682 solar panels on our roof, giving us about 50% of the required power. 

Q: What has surprised you about the impact you’ve had?

A: Through our environmental efforts, we’ve become one of the biggest tourist attractions in Eswatini, welcoming around 70,000 visitors a year. When we first started this business, there was no international tourism in this part of the world. We’ve spent a lot of time working with the tourism industry to create reasons for tourists to visit us and stay longer in the area. The more bums in beds, the better for everyone. We built a craft centre for other Eswatini fair trade companies to showcase their products to the international community coming through our doors.

Q: You received recognition for your Glass Rhino and Elephant Fund initiative. How did that come about?

A: In the late 1980s, there was a massive threat to rhinos from poaching. So, we created a fund where we contribute a percentage of our global sales every year. In the early days, the money went towards building lookout towers and other protective measures in rhino habitats. The fund gave credibility to rhino conservation efforts in Eswatini more broadly by showing that private businesses could get involved and make an impact. The fund also allowed Big Game Parks to use it as a vehicle for other people to donate. It has expanded massively thanks to outside contributions that might never have happened otherwise. We’re proud to have played a seed role there.

Q: Has winning the Global Responsible Tourism Award from WTM Africa opened more doors for you?

A: It has provided us with additional credibility, which is appreciated by the luxury lodges we work with that are focused on sustainability. It has helped elevate our profile in the industry overall by highlighting our shared commitment to responsible tourism. 

Q: What other projects are you hoping to promote through the award?

We hope the award brings attention to some of our other environmental projects like “Black Bag Friday,” which we launched as an alternative movement to Black Friday shopping sales. Every Friday, our team organises a community-wide cleanup effort, collecting up to a ton of litter per week. We’re also creating an educational video with schoolchildren that can be shared across schools to inspire kids to teach their parents about proper waste disposal. The result? They grow up to be ambassadors for a zero-littering future.

Enter the WTM Africa Responsible Tourism Awards 2024 here.

Africa Travel Week

Africa Travel Week (ATW) focuses on inbound and outbound markets for general leisure tourism, luxury travel, LGBTQ+ travel and the MICE/business travel sector as well as travel technology. Shows include: ILTM Africa, WTM Africa, EQUAL Africa, ibtm AFRICA, Travel Forward, Sports & Events Tourism Exchange and African Tourism Investment Summit.