From salad bowls to baby combs, the East African Trading Company makes all sorts of beautiful, sustainable pieces out of Ugandan Ankole cow horn.“Because of the nature of the process no two pieces are ever the same”, says EATC owner Lesley Magnay, “which makes online shopping quite challenging sometimes, I’ll admit.”
LC: How did East African Trading Company start?
LM: I moved to Uganda at 21 and have lived and worked there since – my children were all brought up there. I used to be a sports teacher but I gave that up in 2012, and soon after was sitting in a café in Kampala and realised the beautiful bowl I was eating out of was made of horn. In Uganda, one sees the cows on the side of the road but because they’re bred for their milk and beef I’d never really thought about what happens to the horns. Yet sometimes my husband and I would lie in bed at night and smell horn burning (because horn is actually hair). So I started thinking about whether it could be put to better use. Hence East African Trading Company was born!
LC: It’s not just any old horn though is it?
LM: No this is Ankole cow horn. It feels like marble – it’s cool and smooth, and every single piece I make is totally unique. Ankole horn is very special and much higher quality than, say, buffalo horn. Most farmers in Uganda only have about three or four Ankole cattle (a.k.a. Cattle of Kings!), if they have any at all, and those the people do have are also being cross-bred a lot with breeds that don’t have the same horns so the horns themselves are starting to be less common. By buying horns and giving farmers extra income, EATC is helping to preserve the breed.
LC: What kinds of things do you make / sell?
LM: We can make all sorts by cutting and heating horn – it’s such an adaptable material. I can make jewellery, salad bowls and (leather) belts that have a horn disc. We also make tankards (Game of Thrones style) and have a whole horn and silver jewellery range that’s made here in UK alongside a British silversmith. We make sure we use everything up – so if we make a bangle with a piece of horn but have some leftover, we’ll make a coaster with the excess.
LC: How has EATC impacted the local environment in Uganda?
LM: Very positively, I hope. I’ve been able to pump enough money into our workshop in Uganda to get it out of a mediocre site in Kampala and onto a greenfield site. We’re bringing an awareness of horn to the UK too, I hope, which is important obviously. We use local workers and all the packaging is made in Uganda too.
LC: Have you faced many challenges with the business?
LM: Very few, really. I flew into Bristol airport today with 130kg of cow horn but it was fine – so long as I’ve got my paperwork sorted they let me through no problem. My biggest challenge, I suppose, has been being able to purchase the quality of horn that I want in competition from the Chinese market – they buy up the horn in Uganda and ship it out without any value added. I think that’s a shame because it makes a local industry harder to operate in. But that’s just how it goes sometimes… and actually we’re doing well regardless, and I’m excited about the future.