Carla Venter
4 minute read
1 Mar 2014
11:00 am

Helping sisters do it

Carla Venter

The former corporate giant pauses and blinks to stop her eyes from welling up.

SISTERS IN ARMS. Jackie Mpotulo, an entrepreneur and 49-year-old single mother of four with CEO and co-founder Tracey Chambers at the launch of The Clothing Bank in Johannesburg on Friday. Pictures: Christine Vermooten.

“I used to be able to speak in front of thousands of people. Now, when I get up to speak about this initiative, I want to burst into tears,” Tracey Chambers says.

The former head of financial management at Woolworths is now empowering hundreds of unemployed mothers.

Tracey co-founded The Clothing Bank (TCB) with Tracey Gilmore in Cape Town in 2010. TCB partners with major clothing retailers, which donate surplus clothing to the organisation. Unemployed mothers then buy clothing at a very low price, repair it and sell it in their local communities. Chambers said she came by the idea from her 67-year-old domestic worker Beauty Cekiso.

“Three or four times a year I would clean out my cupboards and give the clothes to her. She would then sell it at home. She sometimes made more than R3 000 – and that got me thinking,” Tracey says.

TCB also provide these mothers with training, skills and support to help then develop into self-employed businesswomen. Over the course of two years, women do over 500 hours of training ranging from how to compile a budget, to how to resolve conflict. When the women graduate they have the opportunity to start their own micro-business.

“This would be a nail salon, bakery, a pre-school. What ever they’re passionate about, we help them develop the concept. They need to put R5 000 cash down and pay it back over time. We give the rest of the capital needed,” Tracey explains.

RACK 'EM UP. Tracey Chambers, the CEO and co-founder of The Clothing Bank, hard at work.

RACK ‘EM UP. Tracey Chambers, the CEO and co-founder of The Clothing Bank, hard at work.

She says when they started the concept in Cape Town “magic happened”. “We are all deeply invested. It has become like a sisterhood. We feed off each others’ energy and I feel privileged to be a part of it,” she says.

In just four years, the organisation has trained 431 women whose businesses have generated collective profits of R14.6 million from re-selling over a million garments in Cape Town’s townships. The Joburg branch will assist an estimated 100 women in its first year.

“It is wonderful to empower these women, but I have also learnt a lot from them. I’ve seen the whole dynamic of a family change when the mother feels good about herself. It’s not about them making money, it’s about women learning to live for tomorrow,” she says. Tracey waves her hands around as she explains this is “only the tip of the iceberg” because there is waste in every supply chain.

Those that know Tracey well says the dynamic woman “can’t do small”. “She always thinks big. She is already planning on having an additional six branches in three years,” Tracey Gilmore, her co-founder says.

Tracey decided to leave the corporate world in 2008 after realising she didn’t want this environment for the rest of her life. “I was good at my job but I wasn’t fulfilled. Now I am. Sometimes I am very frustrated because you can’t help someone who is not emotionally ready. People get stuck in a state of dependency,” she says.

Tracey says the women in the programme go through a rigorous sifting process. “The women’s resilience, creativity, emotion readiness and selling skills are tested. We do not let just anyone into the programme because these women need to believe they have the power to change their circumstances,” Tracey says. Despite this, the programme has a 20% success rate.

After they’ve gone through this process they volunteer for a month and only then does the TCB give R500 worth of clothes to the woman. She then has six weeks to pay them back. The recommended selling prices of the garments in the townships are less than half those in the shops.

Tracey says their objective is that the women should earn at least R3 500 per month.

“It’s made me much more aware of South African’s challenges. It made me realise women face issues that are out of control – 70-80% of the women in the programme have been or are being abused by a man. I sometimes feel like I’m fighting a losing battle – but then I look at the success stories,” she says.

“This has the potential to work in any country using any supply chain. It is such a basic model,” she says.