What began as a conversation with women in the townships around Cape Town has become a unique social enterprise in the fashion industry. In 1987 Nicole-Marie Iresch, an Algerian-born executive with Air France, traveled from Paris to Cape Town on holiday.
While exploring the city she was approached by a group of women who asked her for employment. They had basic sewing skills but could not find the work they needed to support their families. Nicole-Marie felt an instant bond with the women and visited them in their homes in the township of Khayelitsha. More than twenty years later, she still remembers clearly:
“When I was first invited to the township of Khayelitsha, during the final years of apartheid, I entered another world and got to know people that changed my life completely. Penetrating beyond the mass of shacks, I got to know the homes, the lives and the dreams of the women I met. I discovered a beauty, a style, and a spirit I have never encountered before. Ever since my first visit to Khayelitsha, I nursed a desire to express and translate the irrepressible urge to create beauty that I discovered there: to shine a light on the originality and style of the township women and their homes, to take the colors, textures and vibe and show them to the rest of the world.”
It was during that first encounter that Nicole-Marie recognized the energy and potential of township women, and felt compelled to offer them meaningful opportunities that would convey their spirit and creativity to the outside world. She acted as an advisor to the women and supported them in establishing their own sewing cooperative. The women gave Nicole-Marie’s life real purpose. In 1997 she permanently relocated to South Africa and founded Township®, an organization providing women with the training and business skills required to create independent sewing cooperatives. The company established officially in South Africa in 1998 is the marketing arm for womens cooperatives established in the township of Khayelitsha and has the support of the French/South African NGO, Afrique du Sud, Bidonvilles.
One of the co-operatives is called Singalakha means “we can build the future”.
We are a group of eight black women who come from different backgrounds but want to grow and develop our skills in sewing and handwork. Our mission is to stand and do for ourselves, as one day the former president Mr Thabo Mbeki said “Vukuzenzele”(wake-up and do it yourself). We want to provide employment within ourselves within a democratically controlled enterprise. To provide our members with access to the necessary resources and machinery to engage in sewing projects. To ensure that the range, standard and quality of the products remains high.
As we know: women are the backbone of the country.
In order to generate sufficient income, the women began to produce reusable bags from non-GM cotton. With the support of major clients like Pick ’n Pay and the hard work of the women, Township ® secured large contracts and was able to facilitate the founding of an additional 6 cooperatives. All 7 of the cooperatives were registered as independent businesses with a commitment to fair trade principles and Township® itself was certified by the World Fair Trade Association. They are now members of COFTA – the Cooperation for Fair Trade in Africa – a network of Fair Trade producer organisations in Africa which a focus to eliminate poverty through Fair Trade. Their Fair Trade Commitment aims to build trade relations on sustainability and transparent business standards as well as a providing a Fair remuneration for the women.
Their self-governed co-operative are located in underdeveloped urban areas near Cape Town, in Manenberg on the Cape flats, Khayelitsha in the South East and Westlake with workshops near or in the living areas of their members, so that the women can work close to their families and not spend too much time and a substantial portion of their income on transport. They talk about the importance of these co-operatives that:
“The co-operatives are at the heart of all that we do at Township. We watch the members begin as trainees and blossom into professional businesswomen, running their own show, making their own decisions and enjoying their success.”
Masizakhe, founded in 2009, is an independent fair trade cooperative made up of 5 women in the small township of Westlake just outside of Cape Town. These 5 women took the opportunity to further their knowledge by deciding to respond to a community call for training 3 years ago. These 5 women completed a comprehensive technical and skills training through Township and now produce fair trade shopping and conference bags for Township clients, one such client being the South African Reserve Bank.
The average age of the women in the co-ops is 38 mostly married with an average of 2 children – altogether they support 120 children. The work with Townships helps them to have a safe and secure work environment and convenient location to work particularly with people in a group. It gives a sense of self-worth and self-management as they are owning their own business, with responsibilities, independence and flexibility.
Lives have generally improved and they can afford more now than before to support their family, make significant contributions to the household expenses and pay for children’s or grandchildren’s education.The next step: to motivate members to actively seek out new clients and additional work so that they are becoming less dependent on the Township network.
In 2010, the Township® boutique opened its doors in Cape Town, launching a line of South African fashion and accessories that celebrate local beauty. The line is designed by Nicole-Marie and produced exclusively by the cooperative members. Township ® exists to show women all over the world that with a little courage, it is possible to stand up and succeed. Township® is positioned to become the number one African accessories brand and leading model of a social enterprise.
This innovative business model is part of their aspiration to, through all their retail points, to reach more customers who are willing to shift to Fair Trade products is what they aspire to achieve.
Shop 10 – square level – New Cape Quarter
27 Somerset Road
Green Point, Cape Town 8001
8 Kloof Street, Studio 602
Cape Town 8001
+27 021 422 4828