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The Busy Bees

By South African Renewable Energy Council (SAREC) on 17 February 2017
The Busy Bee sewing company was one of the first to join a business incubation initiative that is funded by the nearby Touwsrivier CPV1 PV solar power plant.

When a 44 megawatt solar plant turned on its lights just outside the Karoo town of Touws River in December 2014, a percentage of the revenue it earned from selling electricity to the national grid immediately started trickling through into the town’s sluggish economy. Leonie Joubert visited one of the businesses that is part of an enterprise incubation scheme there.

Most of the seamstresses at the Busy Bee sewing company in Touws River are old hands at this. They’ve been working their needles and thread since they learned the craft in high school, 40 or more years ago. And yet, every now and then, a job will come in that’ll flummox them. 

‘Like those jeans there, the white ones,’ Mercia Lottering (50) quips, pointing to a folded pair next to a nearby sewing machine. 

Maria Wagenstroom (63) picks them up. The legs tumble out, showing how she’s pinned each one so she can tailor them into a more fashionable ‘skinny’ fit. 

‘Ja, these jeans are finished, but now we must fix them!’

Their ‘stressed’ look is from genuine wear and tear.

‘In this town, people want you to do everything!’ says Mercia. ‘Sometimes it’s impossible, but we must just do it.’

The banter goes back and forth: Maria and Mercia in the middle of the room, and Alida van der Merwe (50) at the front window with a green lace dress fanned out around her machine. Henrietta Olivier (22), perched on a bar stool at the back, says nothing, but her fingers blur as she knits another handbag. She’s not using conventional yarn, but bias binding tape. Maria points to a number of bags hanging along the wall, to show what the finished item will look like. 

School tracksuits, ball gowns, wedding dresses, alterations, repairs, cutting patterns from scratch, even mending jeans that are at the end of their days - the seamstresses of the Busy Bee sewing company will do it all.  

New life for old skills 

This cheery little hole-in-the-wall business is in a rectangular sliver of a room, crowded in between a general dealer and a liquor store on Dwars Straat (literally ‘Across Street’) in Steenvliet, a suburb of Touws River. A single front window and the open stable door let in light, but there’s no sign above the shop to announce that this is where they’re at. 

This is a well established business, but the four women have joined an enterprise mentoring initiative that’s trying to inject a bit of vigour back into Touws River’s torpid economy. And the endeavour is funded by the earnings from a new solar power plant about 10km out of town.

As the Department of Energy has commissioned a series of what will eventually be 96 renewable energy plants around the country, one condition of its agreement with the private firms that will build and operate these plants, is that a percentage of the revenue earned from selling electricity to the grid will be invested in development initiatives within communities in a 50km radius of the site. The 44 megawatt (MW) Touwsrivier CPV1 PV Plant was one of the first of nearly 50 of these renewable power plants that are already operating nationwide, and selling power to the national utility, Eskom.

And so it’s the community in Touws River itself that’s the focus of the development assistance from this plant. Knowledge Pele, the development wing of the consortium that owns and runs the power plant, is responsible for making the work happen. Since revenues first started trickling in during 2015, they’ve initiated bursary and internship schemes for youth, and two enterprise development initiatives for aspiring and established businesses, amongst others.

The Busy Bee seamstresses were amongst seven established operations that were recruited as part of the first intake in 2016. Knowledge Pele is still stress-testing these fledgling initiatives. If any of the established businesses don’t advance as quickly as might be expected in the first year, they can switch over to the ‘starter pack’ initiative, which takes aspiring enterprises through the process of conceptualising and starting up a business over a shorter six-month period. 

Busy Bee was already registered as a company, with a bank account and their BEE certification. Alida was their financial manager. But now that they are half way into this two-year mentoring programme, they’ve worked with the development team to see what the business’s main needs are, and developed a plan for the coming year. They’ve gone to Cape Town for training in cost accounting and financial management. They’ve been helped with some additional equipment, like an embroidery machine, and capital to buy fabrics. And they’re re-thinking how they charge for their work, because they realised they’ve been undercutting themselves. 

‘The materials we’ve been using are expensive, and we’ve been charging too little for the clothing we’re making,’ one of the ladies chimes in. ‘So we either have to buy cheaper materials, or we need to charge more.’ 

In 2017, they’ll carry on pooling their takings each month, paying the business expenses like rent and electricity, and then splitting what’s left over as their ‘salaries’. But with their amended pricing, hopefully things will start to look a bit more flush. 

Not like this month, though. January is always tough.  

‘There’s nothing left, now,’ says their financial manager. 

They also need a bit more space. There’s no room in this tiny shop for another seamstress to join them. There’s barely room for cutting large pieces of fabric. Almost every surface is a bundle of stuff: piles of folded cloth, bags of sewing accessories, garments on hangers in various stages of completion or repair.

‘I would like to design, that’s my dream,’ Alida admits, from her station at the front of the room. ‘But you have to go to school for that.’

‘Or, if it’s natural, if it’s in you, you just do it,’ chirps Mercia. ‘But with all the measuring and calculating, it’ll help (to have training).’

‘No, I can’t be a designer because I don’t like mathematics!’ Alida again. 

You must know how to work things out, they say: when a seam is 2.5 cm here, or maybe it’s 50 cm there, you have to measure it, work it all out. 

‘It’s a lot of thinking. If you make a pattern out of your head, you have to check, for all sizes. Big, small, it’s too much!’ 

At the back of the room, Henrietta’s knitting needles click in a meditative rhythm, as Maria whips out her cellphone to scroll through the picture gallery.   

‘That was the ultimate for me,’ she says, holding the phone out. A glammed-up teenager beams up from the screen, dark tresses tumbling down her bare shoulders, in a frangipani-pink gown with fitted bodice and fishtail skirt. 

Her granddaughter, off to her matric dance last year. 

‘And for the little one.’ 

Maria flicks the screen. A girl, probably four or so, in folds of the same pink. She wanted one too, Maria says. 

Tricky designs like those are the ones that keep these women awake at night. 

‘You lie at night and think ‘Oh, that dress, how do I…?’.’ says Maria. 

Alida chimes in:

‘What I like, when there’s something I really don’t know how to do and lie awake at night, I’ll come in the next day and say ‘Now I know how to do it!’.’

‘We ask each other,’ another quips, ‘how can we do this? Because if you haven’t done something, for instance, if someone comes to you with that dress and says fix this, how must you do it if you have never done it before?’

Backwards and forwards, these partners of many years natter about how they get by, these seamstresses of the Busy Bee sewing company. 

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