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The Birth of Terrapin Trading

Our story began in 2007…

Back in 2003, David was backpacking in Southern Africa when he took on some volunteering work in Zimbabwe. He was touched by the kindness and humility of the local people he met, but was saddened by the extreme poverty of the area.

He took the chance to buy 100 Tonga baskets from the women of Siachilaba with the idea to sell back home in Scotland. He intended to send the proceeds back to the community to aid in their village funds.

Some of the women had walked 8 hours to meet up on the date arranged through the village chief in hope of selling their baskets. On return home, he sold the baskets quickly in Ndebele Cafe in Edinburgh, and all the proceeds from this were sent back to fund the village school. Although it wasn’t much, it was enough to pay the school’s electricity bill for a year.

This was a seed sown in our minds that trade might be able to help the developing world in a much more positive way than fundraising: by supporting and enabling local people to earn a living through selling their wares to an international market.

Fast forward to 2007 and disillusioned with the rat race and the monotony of city life and in search of something more meaningful, we decided to pack it all in, sell our possessions and buy a one-way ticket to Asia.

We stepped off the plane in New Delhi, nervous and excited about our new adventure. Exotic worlds, cultures, music and nature were waiting to be explored.

As we wandered through endless markets, souks and street-stalls we were mesmerised by the diverse and beautiful products on display, often flavoured with tribal craftsmanship and traditions. The richness of colour and textures, the detail and fine workmanship was evident in the unique local crafts and clothing. It was a far cry from the dismal factory churned products we have back home.

But we were saddened at the poverty that exists in much of the developing world, and the lack of opportunity for these small businesses to flourish by reaching a wider market.

We saw the possibility of giving back something to the local communities we were visiting, believing there would be interest in these beautiful crafts and clothing back in Scotland.

And so was born the idea that became Terrapin Trading. As we continued our travels, we began engaging with women’s initiatives, family workshops, small shop owners and local craftspeople to look at the possibility of importing a selection of their beautiful crafts. And as ideas evolved, we increasingly began working with the artisans to develop our own unique products, with a modern style but using time-tested, skilled techniques.

As We Grew…

That first year, 2007, was a steep learning curve. We were inexperienced buyers with very little money to invest. We had to learn quickly local customs and etiquette; overcome the obvious language barriers with local people who were a bit unsure of us; we had to make quick decisions under pressure, and we were nervous to take risks.  We had to learn on the hoof of the whole process of wholesale, and importing products. And of course, what we take for granted now with the advances of social media just didn’t exist back then. There was no Facebook or WhatsApp, smartphones or photo-sharing. There was no WIFI, and the Internet was at a basic level often only possible via dial up modems from Nokia 3310’s. Emails were generally redundant and so our initial orders were placed by crackly phone calls, airmail letter or fax, which was fraught with problems and was painfully slow.

Nor had we accounted for all the hidden costs; the baksheesh, packaging materials, transportation costs, import tax, customs charges, damaged goods – all the extra expenses were slowly mounting up. We became familiar with the process of queuing for hours to have the contents of our boxes firstly inspected, then sent off along the street in 40-degree heat, to have them wrapped in cloth by a disgruntled street tailor, then to shuttle along the chaotic roads in search of the elusive wax sealer, with whom we had to argue the correct number of wax stamps (often we got this wrong, and we were turned away to correct our mistake). Often, it would take 8 or more hours in blistering heat to successfully post one small consignment of sample products.

Over the years we continued to travel, exploring new corners of the Earth and in search of more beautiful gems. We met with indigenous tribes, women’s groups, traditional weavers, leather-workers, musical instrument makers and many other craftspeople and over time we developed lasting business relationships with them. We place emphasis on fair trade, mutual respect and sustainability, and by cutting out the middlemen we have been able to find a competitive niche in the UK craft market. The process of re-ordering became much easier with the advancement in communication via social media and smartphone, and it allowed us to keep in touch with our suppliers much more readily.

On our return back home we would work long hours from our tiny attic space, emerging at the end of the day with sore backs from the cripplingly low ceiling and worried the weight of our stock would bring the roof down, until finally we decided it was time to rent our first warehouse space. This was a turning point for us as it opened up the potential to increase our range of products and create a proper business where we could recruit some invaluable people to help us.

The Present Day…

With a staff of 4, we have built our wee business up and moved to a larger premises with an office space, packing station and warehouse. Our staff have been invaluable to our growth, having embraced our chaos, been pivotal to our survival and are always coming up with new ideas and angles. Expanding the channels we sell our goods through has been made possible by the emergence and integration of sophisticated ecommerce systems, working alongside an international team of tech people. The extra exposure this has had for our wee online store has enabled us to find our niche in the international market and we are proud to sell to over 40 countries worldwide. With the co-operative business relationships we have forged with our suppliers, we are continuing with the design and production of new innovative handmade items. 

we continue to travel overseas to find new craftpeople and meet up with old ones, we work with artisans from over 15 countries in the developing world, where we are committed to supporting and embracing the skills of local craftsmen and women. We currently trade with small businesses in Morocco, Guatemala, Mexico, Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru, Uganda, South Africa, Thailand, Indonesia, India, Nepal, Greece, Portugal and Vietnam, where we adhere to the principles of fair and ethical trade.  By personally travelling to each country and where possible using local materials and traditional skills, we have established sustainable, collaborative relationships with our artisans. We import ourselves, again cutting out the middleman and so allowing us to offer handmade goods of a high standard, at a much more reasonable price than that offered from boutique stores.

We hope you love our wee gems as much as we loved searching for them. We have still much to improve and learn but that’s all part of life’s colourful journey and adventure.

We are members of the Scottish Fair Trade Forum.Scottish Fasir Trade Forum

“Still round the corner, there may wait, a new road or a secret gate.”
Terrapin Trading Logo
J.R.R Tolkien