As often happens in small towns, one major manufacturer employs a lot of people, and when this business relocates or closes, many are left desperate.
The women who lead Senzakahle Co-Op in Mooi River, Zodwa Khoza and Sylvia Ntuli, had been employed at Mooi River Textiles since 1981 and 1974 respectively. Both women excelled at, and loved their jobs, happily crossing the bridge over the Mooi River every day until the factory closed in 2007. Zodwa’s father was employed as a cotton spinner for Mooi River textiles, so the textile business was literally part of her family. It was a shock when it came to an end.
Senzakahle, which means ‘we do a good job’, was formed in 2008 after the women attended a gathering hosted by the then KZN Premier Zweli Mkhize. “I stood up at the meeting and suggested that he come and make a big factory in Mooi River,” remembers Zodwa, “he encouraged us – saying that yes, we had worked for many years, had lots of experience and we should call the people who would work with us.” A group of 30 women gathered and met with the local municipality telling them on their plans. They were advised to form a cooperative. “We really believed that the government would be making us a big factory,” laughs Sylvia, “we were really surprised that they expected us to do it for ourselves. We thought that forming a co-op meant we would get machines and materials to start.”
Despite this misunderstanding, the enterprising pair just got going. “We looked for somewhere to work and were lucky when the lady who runs the bakery suggested we use a small space next door. We borrowed two domestic sewing machines, pushed them in wheel barrows and started.” To begin with they bought the ‘end pieces’ and fabric offcuts to make scatter cushions, putting up flyers across the township to advertise their services. Zodwa is an expert ‘cutter’, able to make the most of the scraps of fabric. “A small piece means something to me,” she smiles, “I like to match perfectly and not have any waste.”
Being used to strong industrial machinery, adapting to small sewing machines was a challenge, but they persevered and as soon as they had saved enough cushion money, bought one machine. A local businessman bought them an overlocker. “We were so happy! It felt like we had everything,” they recall. After a while, the municipality got funding for another six machines and for the past few years, support from N3TC has meant they have filled their tiny factory with a large cutting table, industrial machines and plenty of cloth.
Marketing their products is a challenge. Particularly when cheaply made Chinese goods are freely available at a fraction of the price. “We met with a group of Chinese people once to discuss this issue with them,” recounts Sylvia, “they told us our problem was that we made things that last too long. If something only lasts one year, customers will come and buy again, but our sheets and curtains are good quality and will last for more than 10 years.”
Despite this, they are determined not to compromise on quality and are thinking of new ways to sell their products, which now include warm gowns for cold Midlands winters, t-shirts and leggings. They plan to set up a gazebo on a busy corner in Market Street in central Mooi River soon. Here they will cheerily greet familiar faces and make new friends, and hopefully convince passers-by of the value of buying better quality goods.
These strong women are exceptional role models to the grandchildren they live with, and the community at large, epitomising the resilience of women across the world.
Contact Sylvia Ntuli 063 079 0252 or email firstname.lastname@example.org