WATCH | Stitch by stitch: How a local woman kept her textile business afloat during lockdown

  • Ponani Shikweni lost her job in 2012 and started Hluvuko Designs in 2014, which aims to empower local women and youth with employment and skills. 
  • The textile company has survived the Covid-19 pandemic by making masks, personal protective equipment and school uniforms. 
  • Hluvuko Designs made more than 30 000 masks for clients, such as Netcare and The Youth Employment Service initiative, since the start of lockdown.

When the coronavirus outbreak threatened the livelihood of small business owner Ponani Shikweni and her staff, she refused to sit by idly and watch.

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Instead she has supported her staff during the lockdown thanks to thousands of orders for masks. Her textile business, Hluvuko Designs, expanded its ever-growing list of items to include its production of personal protective equipment (PPE) during the pandemic.

Shikweni started her business in Alexandra, Johannesburg in 2014 after losing her job two years prior. She had a passion for design and only had a small domestic sewing machine.

Today, she employs 35 women and youth, offering them a wage and a purpose. Ten employees joined her workforce during the lockdown. 

"The most important is that I included women and youth. Poverty is not good. As a mother, you have a lot of stress for [your] children when you can't feed [the]]. That is why I encourage women because I know they have more power to support their children. Waiting for the Sassa grant money when no one is working, it's too little," she told News24. 

"I added the youth because if they're not earning anything and neither are their parents, it will always be on their mind that there is no food at home. Then [they] end up hanging with the wrong crowd. I encourage them to come here."

Orders

Shikweni told News24 she initially feared the worst because her clients would not be operational during the lockdown under disaster management regulations. 

"When the president announced about the lockdown, I was a little nervous about my women because some of their husbands are not working and some of the youth, their parents are not working. We are working on orders... If we don't have orders, it means we don't get money," she said. 

But three days after the president's announcement, Netcare called her and ordered 10 000 masks for their staff. The Youth Employment Service (YES) initiative also placed an order for 20 000 masks to hand out for free at Alex Mall.

Her path first crossed Netcare's back in 2015. 

"As you know, when you start a business, you don't have capital and to make something that you don't know where you can sell...was not easy," Shikweni said. 

"In 2015, when Netcare found us, it was...better because they help us to market to get other clients. But it's not easy when you're not registered. So in 2019 they helped us to register the business to get more clients."

Netcare's director of transformation, Nceba Ndzwayiba said in a statement that Hluvuko Designs stood out even when it was operating informally. 

"Ponani and the Hluvuko Designs ladies impressed us from the start. The simplicity of the model, its potential to directly benefit youth, women and their households and in particular, how their operations could be scaled up to meet demand, demonstrated to us that they would be a good prospect as an enterprise and supplier development partner."

Netcare also assisted the business with training on how to run a factory effectively, which helped them to become more efficient and keep up with the demand of constant incoming orders. 

"What started as an upcycling initiative has blossomed into a lasting and mutually rewarding partnership, which shows enormous potential as a sustainable and scalable means of building skills and creating jobs in townships," said Ndzwayiba.

'Help me too much'

Shikweni, a mother of three, said she could not thank Netcare enough for the support they had given her business - helping them to reach new heights. 

"They help me too much. I was happy and a little nervous because Netcare is a big company...But when I look at their attention, they made me a bit strong and trust myself and my staff. Look at us, we are small but they have the confidence in us. So we have to push ourselves," Shikweni said.

She has been able to buy more equipment every year and today, she owns six small sewing machines, 10 large machines, a pattern-cutting machine and more. 

"We are always adjusting our equipment. This year we worked very hard during Covid-19 and bought six more machines and bought a vehicle for our transport. No one is funding us. We are buying everything [from] our profits," she said.

The operation will soon move to Alex Mall where an entrepreneurial hub is under construction. This is part of a partnership between Netcare and the YES initiative. 

"Hluvuko Designs will be one of the anchor tenants in the hub," Ndzwayiba said.

"Very soon we can move to the Alex Mall. It will help us because we can get more customers," Shikweni added.

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