Mothers doing business with fashion cast-offs

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Two participants in The Clothing Bank’s business training scheme. Reuters

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) – Juggling paperwork, car keys and an always-beeping cellphone, Inet Situole, a 33-year-old in a crisp white blouse, runs a fashion boutique with more than 100 customers a month – a far cry from a decade ago, when she worked as a maid while trapped in an abusive marriage.

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Despite working seven days a week cleaning and cooking in an attempt to save some money, at the end of the month Situole would invariably find herself with nothing.

“My husband would take all the money and spend it,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. He also beat her and was unfaithful, she said.

When she left him, Situole – an orphan since birth – was terrified of what lay ahead for her and her toddler. “I felt like dying,” she said. “I didn’t have anyone to run to.”

But in 2015, her prospects were transformed after she joined a scheme to help unemployed mothers set up their own businesses.

The Clothing Bank (TCB) was launched in 2010 in Cape Town by two businesswomen, Tracey Chambers and Tracey Gilmore.

Gilmore started out by giving unemployed friends smart outfits to wear to job interviews – but it wasn’t working.

“While sourcing the clothing was quite easy, finding opportunities for the women to get employment was really non-existent,” she said.

At about 28 percent, South Africa’s unemployment rate is among the highest in the world.

Lack of education is a key barrier to finding work, with less than a third of South Africans completing secondary school, according to a 2011 census.

Chambers and Gilmore decided to combine business and entrepreneurship training with clothing to create a venture that could help tackle joblessness among mothers.

More than a third of South Africa’s households are run by single mothers, a 2015 study by Statistics South Africa showed.

“We’ve always believed that if you influence and change a mother’s life, you change an entire family,” said Tracy-Leigh Kinsey who runs TCB’s Johannesburg branch.

“You change generations – and that’s why we focus specifically on mothers with dependent children.”

Once selected, the women follow a two-year programme that allows them to study and earn a living at the same time.

“There was a huge amount of excess clothing stock in the retail supply chain,” Gilmore said. “That’s how we came up with the idea of using it as a tool to teach unemployed women to run businesses.”

The women buy the surplus clothing – customer returns or end-of-season merchandise – at discounted prices from TCB, setting up small fashion businesses and growing them as they make a profit.

After the training, women are free to apply their new skills in any sector, Ms Kinsey said.

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