A 1994 Ministry of Tourism initiative promoting authentically Bahamian products inspired Colette Ferguson to start creating art and accessories out of straw, seashells, and pink sand. After perfecting her artistry over 20 years, a grant from the Access Accelerator enabled her to purchase the equipment she needed to expand her product line and introduce her unique items to the market.
She left her retail job in 2015 to pursue her artistic passion. She established Coco Reef Craft Company, where she turns items typically found on the beach into accessories for the body and home.
“I have been making crafts for 28 years, but I didn’t focus on straw products until I started my business,” she said. “My medium was initially charcoal and pencil art, but later down the road, I became interested in crafts because I wanted to get into the tourism industry, and realized the best way to do that would be by making straw products.”
The Ministry of Tourism launched its Authentic Bahamian campaign, encouraging people to create products using native resources. Ferguson said her initial interest in making souvenirs motivated her to participate in the initiative. After seeing the diverse range of products, she could create with straw, she realized she had stumbled upon her niche market.
“The encouragement I received in that program pushed me to start my business. That unit of the Ministry of Tourism still exists today and is still promoting 100 percent Bahamian made products. Their promotion of native products inspired me to take my craft-making seriously,” she said.
After sourcing her raw materials, she conducted two years of research before introducing her unique products to the market.
“I visited different family islands to learn about Bahamian straw and how it is cut and prepared. I also got the different straw braiders to give me a sample of their products. I taught myself how to make woven jewelry, and the way I cut my straw to form my shapes has not been done before.”
Ferguson learned how to treat her straw in a way that enables her to cut it in various shapes without it tearing easily and prevents it from taking on a loose sticky texture.
“After I decided [the] shapes I wanted to cut my straw into, I bought the equipment that could get the job done. After applying the treatment, I allowed the straw to go through a five-day drying process. During that time, I cut them with the machine and made them into jewelry of different shapes and sizes.”
Although she focuses mainly on straw work, Ferguson said she also enjoys creating sand art for home decor.
“I did not know that Cat Island had pink sand until I visited and saw the beaches there. In the art world, everyone uses paints and charcoals, so I decided to be different and decorate canvases with sand and seashells. I also make leather moldings and tea light holders. The response I have received has been great.”
While Ferguson had the vision to take Coco Reef Craft Company to the next level, she did not have the funds to make it a reality. It was not until a good friend told her about the Access Accelerator and their work to help small businesses that she decided to apply.
“I didn’t expect anything, and I was shocked and blown away when I got $4,992.29 grant. The classes were fabulous and left me wanting more, and I applied to get more training because you don’t have a lot of free time as an artist and entrepreneur. The virtual classes were very convenient.’
After receiving the grant, Ferguson got the idea to embroider patterns on her straw cut-outs – another design decision she said has not been executed before.
“I realized it was something new, so I made patches and tags using an embroidery machine,” she said. “None of this would be possible without Access Accelerator. Their funding enabled me to purchase a sewing and embroidery machine along with yarn and other threading materials.”
Ferguson said while she expected tourists to support her work, she was surprised by the positive response from locals. Still, she said the lack of a brick-and-mortar store has impacted her sales.
Ferguson said that finding a stable location is her most significant challenge to date; however, she still has stores interested in featuring her products.
“In 10 years, I want my business to grow into a consistent venture that my family can carry on even when I’m not around. I can see Coco Reef Crafts growing into something that takes off internationally because my products are unique, and the market is wide open. Every bit of assistance counts, and I’m grateful for the boost Access Accelerator gave me.”