Call it grass roots entrepreneurship, if you will.
Husband and wife team Don and Tanya Bailey, backed by the team at their company, Expand a Sign, various community organisations and members of their business network have spent about a year creating Uzwelo Bags.
Presented as “unique, stylish and functional bags that uplift South Africa” at their recent launch at the Glenwood eatery, Spoonfuls, they include everything from backpacks and pencil bags to laptop bags, toiletry bags, surf board covers, suitcase protectors and even pot plant covers.
It seems an almost endless variety of bags can be made from the hard wearing and weather proof fabrics that Expand a Sign prints on to when it creates its extensive range of high tech signage, teardrop, pop-up and folding banners, roll-ups, gazebos, tents, and inflatables.
The start-up range is colourful and each product boasts unique, once-off prints.
In a nutshell, Expand a Sign supplies the fabric, cuts out the bags and packages them into 10’s for distribution to various community sewing groups. Once completed, the bags are bought back from the sewers.
Expand a Sign partners with community groups and supplies both the machines and training via their seamstress extraordinaire, Rajes Pillay, who not only provides the how-to, but also designs the different bags.
Tanya Bailey, who will head up Uzwelo Bags, says that apart from engaging with non-profits and communities, exploring skills development programs and encountering local heroes of positive change, they also had to prototype bag designs that were fashionable, practical and desirable. In short, they needed products that would sell.
They turned back to the basics of life in South Africa, starting with the fact that many children go to school without school bags. Their backpacks came with ponchos made from waterproof backing material.
Then they looked to the many boring black laptop bags that make their way through airport scanners and decided to come up with bright and unique versions with a lot more personality. People need to eat and shop, so shopping bags were created followed by more innovative bags still – surf board covers with input from Ocean Child and suitcase protectors with the help of premier luggage company, Samsonite.
For now, the Uzwelo bags are made by a team of three from Bhungezi/Philangethemba Trust (Molweni-Valley of 1000 hills), three ladies at the LIV Village and two from iThembalethu (Cato Manor). But there are plans to grow the sewing team.
Each of these women is now producing bags and earning a living that puts food on the table, funds education and provides dignity and upliftment for their communities. The crux of the project is to teach entrepreneurship to improve quality of life.
Don Bailey spoke out about the dangers of complaining but doing nothing about the country’s woes at the launch. He says he was inspired to act by an anti-poaching unit that went into to battle knowing the dangers of being shot at, because they believed they could make a difference.
He flies for the Bateleurs, an NPO comprising volunteer pilots that back up conservation and community activists. A portion of the proceeds from Uzwelo’s sales will be donated to this organisation.
He also realised that it was possible to improve the environmental performance of his company. Waste fabric was being sent to landfills when it could be used to make something useful.
Wife Tanya added: “This is wholly South African waste so we can say that we are proudly South African.” This is in contrast to many of the shopping bags made out of recycled materials that are sold to major retailers. Most are made from imported waste materials”.
Most importantly, though, the Baileys are concerned that so many youngsters who leave school and scrape up enough to go out to seek jobs are “consumed by the cities”. A better way is to take job opportunities to communities was through projects like Uzwelo, said Don.
“There is a need to draw people back rather than send them out,” said Tanya.
It is still early days and the plan is for each sewer to earn R100 a day – although the ideal would be to make this R200 to R300.
They’ve started out with a strong business model – but the real stress is still to come, said Don.
“We have given people hope. The challenge is to keep it alive.”