Surplus clothing bank gives women a big leg up

Lungile Sithole
Lungile Sithole
Image: The Clothing Bank

A single mother of twin daughters surviving on government grants was able to pay a deposit on a house after taking part in a two-year programme that changed her life.

The Clothing Bank is a charity that receives clothing from stores like Mr Price‚ Woolworths and Checkers.

It passes the clothes on to unemployed women‚ training them with small business skills to help them become financially and socially independent.

The women buy the surplus clothing – customer returns or end-of-season merchandise – at discounted prices and sell it on during the two-year training programme.

After the training‚ they are free to apply their new business skills in any sector.

The project recruits 400 women a year‚ in groups of 25‚ at training centres all over the country.

Clothing Bank co-founder Tracey Chambers said classes focused on “the whole woman” – from how to maintain a business to parenting and social skills.

“A healthy body‚ mind and family make for a healthy business‚” she said. Success stories are plentiful. They include Lungile Sithole, of Johannesburg‚ who never had a stable home‚ became pregnant at 20 and found herself in a loveless relationship.

Sithole felt hopeless and even wanted her life to end‚ but after taking part in the programme she is back on her feet.

“Now I’m an independent woman able to provide for my family and son. They trust me like those who are employed.

“I am stronger than ever‚ all thanks to the Clothing Bank.

“I have business knowledge and I can communicate.”

The success of the Clothing Bank has led to a new model‚ the Appliance Bank‚ which teaches technical skills to unemployed men so they can mend broken appliances passed on by retailers.

Like the Clothing Bank‚ the project looks at improving all aspects of the men’s lives‚ socially and financially.

Mthuni Qagana, of Cape Town, started the programme knowing nothing about fixing appliances.

“I can now provide for my family and send my children to better schools‚” he said.

“I can feed my kids‚ send money to my mother and build my dignity.”

Chambers has been selected as an Ashoka Fellow‚ joining a network that identifies and supports the world’s leading social entrepreneurs.

She was one of three South Africans who attended a continental Ashoka summit in Johannesburg in June.

She said she was amazed to discover what was happening across Africa.

“The summit brought new and old fellows together to share ideas‚ synergies and connections in Africa.

“It was so incredible to meet people from all over the continent who have developed such innovative and inspiring social enterprises‚” she said.

“There are so many good things coming out of Africa that we don’t often hear about.”