A project running out of a warehouse in Thornton is fighting unemployment by breathing new life into broken appliances and last season’s fashion.
Tracey Gilmore teamed up with chartered accountant Tracey Chambers and started The Clothing Bank in 2010 to help single mothers. Before that, Ms Gilmore ran Dress to Impress, an NGO that helped women ace job interviews.
The Clothing Bank now supports about 800 women at its branches around the country and takes in 400 new women a year.
“We run a two-year enterprise development programme. We have built relationships with big South African retailers that donate their excess stock, customer returns, end of season and bulk rejections, to the organisation,” said Ms Gilmore.
In the past seven years, said Ms Gilmore, The Clothing Bank had helped more than 2 000 women who, collectively, had made more than R83 million in profits.
After the women have been taught about business, personal finance and computers and had personal coaching and business mentoring, they buy clothing from the organisation at a reduced rate and then sell it in their communities.
The Clothing Bank now has branches in Johannesburg, Paarl, Durban and East London, and in 2015, it started a new initiative: The Appliance Bank, which helps men, mostly fathers, earn a living by repairing and then selling small household appliances that retailers donate to the programme.
There are 60 men in the programme with branches in Johannesburg, Durban and Cape Town. Collectively they have bought R600 000 worth of goods since September last year, earning more than R1.8 million in profit.
“Often there is something very small wrong with the appliances, and men either fix the appliance here or take it home to be fixed and following that, they sell it,” said Ms Gilmore.
While men have gravitated towards the appliances and women to the clothes, Ms Gilmore said those roles were not set in stone and that there was nothing stopping a woman joining The Appliance Bank or a man joining The Clothing Bank.
“It just has not worked out that way. There is nothing stopping them from doing so,” she said.
The Clothing Bank and The Appliance Bank are a safety net for a growing number of South Africans who find themselves without work in a country reeling from one financial crisis to the next while bleeding billions of rands from corruption.
Janine Myburgh, president of the Cape Chamber of Commerce, said ruinous decision-making by government and low growth had aggravated unemployment.
The poor exchange rate had driven up production costs for many businesses meaning there was less money for employees.
Other problems were poor retail performance in some sectors, a workforce that was largely unskilled and unprepared to adapt to rapidly changing technologies, a lack of investor confidence and the country’s restrictive labour laws and impending junk status rating.
“The drought, which affects the functioning of many businesses and has already forced closure of water-intensive organisations, is another contributing factor,” she said.
Vuyiswa Cengani, 33, of Nyanga, has been with The Clothing Bank programme for 14 months and said it had taught her to stand on her own two feet.
“I am a single parent, and now I am able to financially help my children. I now know how to sell goods according to market-related prices, and I have also learnt how to save the profits I make,” she said.
Lwando Kongo, 24, of Gugulethu, joined the programme after his neighbour told him about it.
“I have been here for three months, and I love fixing appliances or anything that is broken. It gives me a sense of purpose.”
Mr Kongo uses social media to sell the appliances he fixes.
“I have fixed blenders, hair straighteners and hair-dryers. I buy a product for R50 and sell it for R150, depending on the reliability of the brand. I love working here because it is fun, and we talk and laugh a lot.”
Paul Vanto, 40, of Manenberg, joined The Appliance Bank five months ago after his wife told him about it.
“I have electrical experience. I studied electrical engineering at the Western Province Technical College, but I didn’t finish the course due to a lack of finances.”
He said his earnings had helped him pay his twins’ school fees and put food on the table.
Ms Gilmore said the project was more than about putting money in people’s pockets: it
was about restoring their self-esteem.
“A lack of self-belief is one of the reasons why we don’t have enough entrepreneurs in this country.”