The reason why I came back to Cape Town for this 4 month trip was to create an opportunity for poor women to earn an income. The Red Cross asked myself and 8 other Northeastern students to come up with an innovative way to generate income for their long-time volunteers and HIV+ patients in July and the plan for a sewing business within the Red Cross was developed. We asked the patients and the volunteers what they wanted and they repeatedly said that they needed income, but wanted to continue being a part of the Red Cross. The patients wanted to continue receiving Health and Care services and the volunteers did not want to give up their unpaid work with the Red Cross. So, since many of the volunteers and patients had sewing experience, the Red Cross had 10 sewing machines laying around, and the Disaster Relief wing of the Red Cross bought thousands of blankets every year to hand out to disaster victims, moving the production of these blankets in house seemed like a promising idea.
Since I arrived here a little less than 2 months ago, we have converted an old storage room into a sewing venue, had 10 hand sewing machines converted to electric machines, purchased all the small things (Needles, cotton thread, pins, thimbles, etc.) needed for sewing and stitching the blankets and have been trying to work out the economics of buying, producing, and selling blankets in a sustainable way. This last part has proven to be very difficult because Disaster Relief, the business’ main customer is only willing to spend 40 South African Rand, a little less than US$4.50, per blanket. Along with pricing issues, Disaster Relief is telling Seipati (my boss) and I that polar fleece blankets will not be up to standard, even though they are much nicer than the regenerated mixed polyester fibers blankets that are being given out now. Recipients of these blankets have complained of rashes and skin irritation and have claimed that they are ugly, uncomfortable, and lack durability. The fleece blankets that we could possibly produce would cost a few Rand more than Disaster Relief’s R40 budget but previous recipients of similar blankets reacted positively and favored the fleece to the other material, even though it may provide slightly less warmth.
Before we buy large amounts of material, I am working on a presentation for the Director of Western Cape Programs and the Director of the Western Cape Disaster Relief Programs to explain the benefit of the employment program to the volunteers, patients, and disaster victims and to discuss potential blanket material with them.
The offices here are running very inefficiently and it seems as though they are understaffed. I have tried for almost two weeks to get the finance department to pay the African Sewing Company, but the single person who has the ability to do this hasn’t yet and our machines cannot be picked up until she does. I have also tried to sit down with her to talk over how our external funding is going to be organized into separate accounts for over two weeks now but have not been able to set up a time to meet. I have asked her in person, emailed, slipped notes under her door, and even told others to tell her to email me but she has been too busy. We have 20,000 Rand of funding from the Social Enterprise Institute at Northeastern that has not been accessed yet because of this inefficiency.
Dealing with these issues has been a problem but they are signs of hope. Yesterday I was able to speak to the head of disaster relief in person and she told me that she is looking forward to my proposal and thinks that the budget for the blankets may be able to flex a little bit if the program shows promise. She also mentioned spreading the program throughout South Africa which is exciting.
I was able to show the sewing room to a few of the ladies who will make up the first twenty sewers and they loved it! They were clapping their hands and dancing and making sewing machine sounds pretending to roll out the new blankets and then the unmistakable leader of the volunteers, Depha, said to me ‘Good money… good wages” and looked up at me like she was telling her son he better be home by midnight. I explained that we are going to have to start slow but that if we work hard and can get some more support then everyone can hopefully start earning a substantial income. She smiled, hugged me and waddled away to stir her big pot of samp that she was cooking for Khayelitsha fire victims.