Updated: Nov 16, 2021
During South Africa’s Covid-19 lockdown, we’ve seen the worst in people, but also wonderful acts of kindness. Anesca Smith, founder of African Design Collective, and Abass ma-Azu of A&TG Ekasi, are two of the good guys shining their light by making and donating masks to underprivileged people.
“I felt very inspired and was grappling with what I can do as a South African for my country even though I live in the Netherlands. I don’t believe that it should only be up to government to defeat the pandemic. We all have a responsibility,” Anesca says, referring to President Ramaphosa’s pre-lockdown Covid-19 speech.
When Abass, one of her suppliers for her online shop, mentioned that he has been making and donating cloth masks in Gugulethu township, Anesca saw this as a way to make a contribution and asked to get involved. The Ghanian Abass and his South African business partner, Thuleka Gillian Duze’s brand A&TG Ekasi creates bags and accessories, and they used leftover fabric to make the masks.
“We use our craft to open the borders… working together to make Africa a better place. One of our biggest dreams is to have a workshop where we can teach people our skills,” he says. They won a Distell business award in 2016 and their business has since taken off and has been included in the SA Fashion Week Buyer’s brochure. It was at SA Fashion Week where Abass and Anesca met.
They both started to raise funds (here and here), and also used their own funds for the initiative. So far, Abass and Anesca have donated about 1 350 and 800 masks respectively. Abass’ target is 10 000. “Most people can’t even afford the food at this stage; they’re not even thinking about masks,” Abass explains in his need to support his community.
Anesca says that many fundraising platforms aren’t built for a crisis. “Payout can sometimes take up to 45 days, so in the meantime you often have to use your private funds to bridge that time gap.”
“The most challenging part for me was moving things during a lockdown. The administration of that was very draining, but it got easier. It took a whole network of many people to pick it up and distribute the masks. We would do them in batches and it was usually moved via people in essential services. We owe a great debt to these people and, of course, to everyone who donated.”
“I raised funds in the Netherlands through WhyDonate on social media. It turned out to be quite slow, so I resorted to asking people directly in my network here in Holland. In the beginning this was daunting – asking people for money – and I had to really undergo a mindset change.”
While Abass distributed the masks in the urban townships of Gugulethu and Langa, Anesca focused on her rural hometown, Saron. She prioritised the elderly, disabled and community health workers. She also helped feeding schemes in Tafelsig and Eastridge and a Cape Town children’s home for refugee and migrant children from all over Africa.
Taking Africa to the world
Anesca’s journey has been an interesting one. She worked as a news journalist and later political journalist in South Africa since 1996, including a two-year stint as a foreign correspondent in London.
“I felt quite lost when I returned from London and newspapers were going through some huge changes at the time, so I decided to study business in the Netherlands. I arrived here in February 2013 with 400 Euros, but managed to quickly find a job as a communication officer and that saved me financially.”
Anesca married her Dutch husband two years later and says that she would have certainly returned to South Africa were it not for him. Tragedy befell in 2016: she lost her baby. This heartbreak was the catalyst to start her business, African Design Collective.
“When your child dies no one in this world can help you. You’re just way, way out and you never really return to yourself. Also, you can’t stay in your head because you will go crazy, so I wanted to do something with my hands to distract me and I took up sewing.”
This soon turned into a business and she started buying items from South African makers and creatives, for selling in Europe and further afield.
“Aside from my online business, I also sell in two shops in Leiden and Nijmegen and I'm looking to add more in other countries. It is a way of showcasing African talents. In 2019, I also started to lay the foundation for starting a business in South Africa under the same name, selling mostly womenswear. Covid-19 delayed those plans, but I will be registering the business soon. There, aside from making some items myself, I will commission work from women in South Africa.”
This income will be a financial helpline to many South African households in the post Covid-19 pandemic landscape, and we look forward to the first SA branch of African Design Collective.