Excess clothing helps turn lives around

Zukiswa Mngcitha (centre) and "the two Traceys" (Tracey Gilmore (right) and Tracey Chambers (left)) of The Clothing Bank.

ZUKISWA Mngcitha was at end of her tether when she met “the two Traceys”, Tracey Gilmore and Tracey Chambers earlier this year. Unemployed for a year after being forced to give up her job at McDonald’s to nurse her gravely ill husband, Mngcitha was burned with worry as she struggled each day, not only to feed, clothe and educate her family, but also to provide her husband with the medical care he needed.

“I stood like this,” she says, rolling her shoulders forward, chin falling dolefully onto her chest and knees bent as if burdened with a load too heavy to bear. “It was a very hard life and you would not have recognised me. This time last year, I could not even afford to catch a taxi to look for work.”

“Now look at me,” she beams, straightening up and spreading her arms wide, as if ready to embrace the world, “I am a businesswoman. I even have agents.”

Mngcitha is one of the original recruits of The Clothing Bank, which was founded in Cape Town by Gilmore and Chambers when the former – who is also a co-founder of Dress 2 Impress, a non profit organisation (NPO) that helps low income and unemployed women prepare to enter the workplace – recognised the potential of using excess clothing from retailers to drive enterprise development.

When their paths crossed, Gilmore realised that Chambers, a fellow social entrepreneur, chartered accountant and former member of Woolworths’ executive committee, was the ideal person to help her develop the idea.

“Beware of who you agree to have coffee with,” laughs Chambers, describing their initial meeting and extensive planning and networking that ensued to get The Clothing Bank off the ground.

The South African retail industry accumulates excess clothing to the value of between R200-million and R900-million each year. These excesses, which are not unusual figures, says Chambers, are ideally given to NPOs for distribution and/or directly to disadvantaged communities. The problem is that few retailers have distribution systems that ensure that the right clothing reaches the right organisations and communities.

Chambers and Gilmore’s Clothing Bank collects excess clothing from retailers; repairs and/or revives (i.e. irons) garments; distributes appropriate clothes to qualifying NPOs and institutions, and to needy communities in cases of disaster; and sells other clothing (at an average cost of about R15 per garment) to unemployed women – like Mngcitha – who sign up for The Clothing Bank training programme.

The programme, which is the enterprise development aspect of The Clothing Bank, takes in 15 unemployed mothers each month. These recruits are required to work at the organisation’s premises – an already too-small warehouse in Salt River, which belongs to the City of Cape Town – on a voluntary basis for the first month.

“Because we do not want to develop a relationship of dependency on The Clothing Bank and we want to test the women’s commitment, recruits are asked to volunteer during their first month,” explains Chambers. “This also proves to us that they really are unemployed. We have a 20% dropout rate during this period.”

Thereafter, The Clothing Bank’s partnerships with the South African Institute for Entrepreneurship and personal financial literacy training organisation, You & Your Money provide the women with 12-months of financial planning, life-sills and business training. Chambers and Gilmore have also secured the voluntary services of eight life and business coaches who guide the participants in one-on-one sessions.

“Participants often open up to their coaches in ways that they do not to us,” says Chambers. “Perhaps they feel shy about admitting to us that they may have made bad decisions. The coaches are invaluable guides.”

During their training, the women are invited to purchase clothing from The Clothing Bank and resell it in their communities. This provides them with the ideal start-up business.

“We offer very small loans to trainees as start-up capital,” says Chambers. “But because we want to ensure that the women are properly trained before they decide to grow beyond their means, that our organisation and their businesses are sustainable in the long-term, and that they learn to look beyond The Clothing Bank for entrepreneurial ideas, we manage loans and purchases very carefully.”

Trainees are limited to R2 000 cash purchases from The Clothing Bank each month. Many are already achieving trading profits of almost R3 000 per month. They taught to set aside a portion of their earnings each month to buy new stock.

Woolworths was the first retailer to support The Clothing Bank, donating R5-million in clothing for 2010.

“The Clothing Bank’s model is not only the answer to the challenges we faced in trying to achieve equitable distribution of excess clothing,” says Woolworths head of transformation, Zinzi Mgolodela, “it is also aligned with the enterprise development aspect of Woolworths’ good business journey plan and, while we were the first retailer to make a commitment to The Clothing Bank, we look forward to other South African retailers coming on board soon.”

Chambers and Gilmore hope for this, too. Shoes move quickly through The Clothing Bank and the organisation also currently carries a small range of homeware, which is a hit with traders, and the co-founders believe that the informal trading sector provides great opportunity across a wide range of products and services.

“South Africa has a sizeable informal trading sector that supports many disadvantaged communities. While many people are focusing on developing formal entrepreneurs, we believe investing in the informal sector can also contribute to alleviating poverty,” says Chambers.

“The Clothing Bank is helping women to tap into the informal market. The training we do covers basic business principles like budgeting, merchandise control, marketing and a range of soft skills that build confidence as well as self-esteem. The women leave here with the ability to build a sustainable business and a secure future. We impart trading skills that can be used to build any entrepreneurial venture.”

She believes their focus on mentorship and confidence building is the secret to The Clothing Bank’s success: “You can’t sell if you don’t have confidence, and our aim is to combine practical learning with the kind of life skills that will have a real impact in the lives of our candidates. We are adding to the old “give a man a fish, teach a man to fish” proverb by teaching a woman to sell the fish too.”

The Clothing Bank’s next challenge, says Chambers, is to achieve growth: “We need more space. We have about 280 square metres, but we need about 1 000 to accommodate all the merchandise, processing space and training facilities.”

Space notwithstanding, Mngcitha can now afford to put her daughter through university and save money. The programme has taught her – both theoretically and practically – the skills needed to set up and run a business, including how to manage money.

“I know now that, as exciting as it is to be able to sell, a healthy cash flow is what keeps a small business alive and so I watch what comes in and goes out very carefully,” she says proudly. “People come and look at the clothes and say they are too expensive. I tell them they are from Woolies, everyone knows that means quality, and they pay my price. I travel in taxis now.”

(This was first published in Business Day in 2010.)

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Freelance writer based in Hout Bay near Cape Town in South Africa.
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