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Could Covid-19 Be A Lifeline For Small Clothing Manufacturers?

Updated: Nov 16, 2021

The current pandemic offers a unique opportunity for small clothing manufacturers across South Africa to break back into the industry.

The clothing manufacturing industry has been decimated by retrenchments, cheap imports and lax legislation. At the beginning of 1996, South Africa had 266 000 clothing, textile, footwear and leather (CTFL) workers. By March 2019 though, the numbers had declined to only one third, with 87 768 workers.

However, the need for an essential item like face masks has caused a mini revival for small independent clothing firms at a time when many businesses are closing. Mtofo Trading Enterprise is a small sewing business owned by Thembeka Kunene and her mother Hlengiwe Zungu in Luganda, a township in Mariannhill, KwaZulu-Natal. Located in a poor area where people are already struggling to make ends meet, the lockdown has forced families below the bread line. The five households who relied on their income from Mtofo were no different.

Hlengiwe Zungu Mosadi
Hlengiwe Zungu of Mtofo Trading Enterprise.

“April and May are usually busy months for us. Because of the lockdown, we lost more than R12 000 in orders. The revenue we would have earned from our best-selling items, church and school uniforms, has completely dried up. No one is ordering party outfits because no one is going out,” said Thembeka.

But the making of face masks enabled this small business to open its doors again; it gave them the means to pay rent, salaries and buy food. It also positioned them as the preferred outlet for face masks at a time when no one could leave the area. Soon people all over Luganda knew they could get their face masks from Mtofo.

Duduzile Ngubane also found that the making of face masks opened a new market for her. When she launched her DuConfidence Designs store in March in Cato Manor, KZN, she didn’t realise that instead of the trendy African-inspired clothing she is famous for, face masks would provide a new revenue stream and the means to pay her bills. “Now I travel from my home in Amanzimtoti to the shop a few times a week to deliver the face masks that I sew with just one other staff member,” said Duduzile.

Duduzile Ngubane Mosadi
Duduzile Ngubane DuConfidence Designs.

She understands it is a short-term solution, as does Mluleki Qwabe, the owner of The Modern Man. When the lockdown came into effect on 27 March, Mluleki was locked out of the building in which his business was situated in the Durban CBD and he could not access any of the fabric locked up in his store. He set up shop in his home and is now designing face masks in fabrics that complement his customers’ professional clothing. It’s a unique approach that has helped him maintain relationships with his clients and keep his suppliers in business as well.

Mluleki Qwabe Mosadi
Mluleki Qwabe of The Modern Man.

Ten new jobs created – and a new market

An entire business ecosystem has been propped up by the sale of face masks which is good news, especially in a country with high unemployment levels. This is important, too, because the sharp economic downturn has changed customers’ spending habits, something that Samukelisiwe Khanyile knows all too well.

Samukelisiwe owns Qhawekazi Styles Collection in Pietermaritzburg and her garments are in demand at high-profile fashion and tourism events, particularly with international buyers. The business has an online store, but sales are understandably low during lockdown.

Samukelisiwe was certain that she would have had to close her doors for good because her business was not an essential service. But when a new opportunity presented itself with the production and sale of masks, she quickly filled in the necessary paperwork and registered with the required departments. A few weeks later, she started an in-house CMT studio, created 10 new jobs and is now selling her masks to the general public and corporates. She has also found a new market sewing uniforms for medical professionals.

Samukelisiwe Khanyile Mosadi
Samukelisiwe Khanyile of Qhawekazi Styles Collection.

A profound effect on the local economy

A survey of small businesses done by SABTIA, a non-profit that promotes business incubation, estimates that thousands of SMMEs in South Africa will close because of the pandemic. However, given that one textile worker’s job supports about five people, this mini countertrend in the textile industry may have a profound effect on the local economy and human lives.

“The coronavirus outbreak seems to be providing a unique opportunity for a diversity of small CMTs across the country to break back into clothing manufacturing,” said Catherine Wijnberg, CEO of Fetola, a company that specialises in small business growth. “Could the impact of Covid-19 on international supply chains and our desperate need to regenerate the local industry with local jobs be the starting point of a positive outlook for the South African garment and textile industry?” asks Catherine.

Author: Terrena Rathanlall

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