Women's Day blog: Lessons in leading women and empowering them

By Nicole-Marie Iresch
Founder, Township Patterns 

Back in the early 90’s when I stepped in Khayelitsha (the largest township outside Cape Town) and met with some women who were desperate to work and develop themselves, many people warned me that any venture would eventually fail for at least 3 reasons:

1. the townships communities were a dangerous place and many safety issues would have to be considered before doing anything there,
2. the women would prove unreliable and would quit the business at any time for personal reasons, and
3. it was going to be impossible to get a good enough quality for the products to sell anyway!

I am glad I did not listen to these voices because this is precisely what makes Township unique!

The sewing cooperatives, which we have helped to create, have become a beacon in the communities where they are established and a safe heaven for their members, away from domestic or community issues. Most of these cooperatives have been within the Township network for many years now because we have created a solid relationship and strong business processes. And as far as the quality issue is concerned, I am going to give voice to one of our customers – Sabrina from Mining Indaba, one of the largest conferences in South Africa: “…  I just wanted to thank you for helping us to provide a fantastic bag that were able to share with our delegates this year… for the first time in a number of years there were no bags left over!... I look forward to working with you in the future.”

Today, Township Patterns is supporting a network of 7 sewing cooperatives operating in various communities, employing 70 women, all working close to where they live and producing 250,000 bags annually – shopping bags, conference bags and fashion accessories sold under the Township® brand. We export just over 50% of the production to Europe, the USA and China!

Right from the beginning our approach was to build some strong connections with the communities, a bridge leading eventually to trust each other; then we trained the women in order to make sure they would have the skills to take full responsibility for managing their business; and of course, a strong focus on quality! Never let go on that one, no matter what! We continue to grow year after year with various training programs helping everybody to continuously improve, enabling all of us to moving forward with confidence, pride, self-esteem… and joy!

The training curriculum covers multiple areas of development:

  1. Fair Trade: first, everyone gets exposed to the Fair Trade principles. A good way to build strong foundations for our future collaboration.
  2. Skills training: as quality is so critical in anything we do, we spend a considerable time teaching every woman about what a quality product looks like, develop their ‘eye’ so to speak and transfer strong sewing skills to accompany everyone through the journey. There is no complacency in our quality control process: any bag stopped by our Quality Controller back at our warehouse goes back to the cooperative, unpaid until fixed.
  3. Business skills: as each cooperative is a registered entity, we train the leadership of each group (chairlady, secretary, treasurer) to fulfil their duties as board members – cooperative legal requirements, Service Level Agreement, pricing, salary calculation, HR processes, basic financial skills, savings and investment strategy. This is critical for the operational control of each group.
  4. Personal development: we give access to the women who are interested to multiple opportunities: computer skills, personal finance, creativity workshops, participation in marketing & sales activities. The objective is to give the more passionate a possibility to grow: a few women travelled with Township staff to local and European trade shows,  one former chairlady of our first cooperative went on to study and get a business degree at a local university and is now working in an auditing firm while another one has moved on to create her own shop!

Once a month the Township staff meets with representatives of each cooperative at the MOM (Monthly Operations Meeting) making sure all our values are integrated into our network. Our women appreciate these gathering: 

“The monthly meeting helps us to build communication among us all, to understand the orders for the coming month and gives us ideas from other cooperatives on how we can improve our work. At the meeting we get extra motivation and become happy when we receive news from the clients appreciating our work!” Nontobeko, from Singalakha 

“The MOM meeting is important because it strengthens our communication between coops and Township. It is where we meet as a family and not just businesses” Soraya, from Women of Worth

Looking back more than 20 years, although I did not even know about the word at that time (!), our Fair Trade way of doing things has proven to be our most unique strength today. I did not have a choice in a way than trusting the women that we were going to make it together. By giving them an opportunity to step up and shine.

And yes, I am proud to say that today we are all enjoying that feeling of empowerment thanks to a sustainable, organic business model.