Sewing unemployment out of Alex

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Ponani Shikweni. Photo: Lucas Ledwaba.
Ponani Shikweni. Photo: Lucas Ledwaba.

AFTER losing her job as a street sweeper Ponani Shikweni started a sewing business operating in her tiny RDP home in Alexandra township and now employs more than 30 people.

Shikweni, 33, runs Hluvuko Designs, which counts among its growing clientele the Netcare group and specialises in manufacturing hospital gowns, surgical suits, blankets, bags, sheets, pillowcases, jerseys, masks and shopping bags among a host of other items.

Hluvuko, which is xiTsonga for development, also manufactures school uniforms that are sold to local schools.

Shikweni who together with four other siblings was raised by a single mother who worked as a farm labourer, came from rural Dzumeri near Giyani in Limpopo determined to build a future for herself in Johannesburg in 2005. 

After her employment as a street sweeper was terminated in 2012, she volunteered at community organisations in the township and put aside enough money to buy a knitting kit.

Then she used her spare time to knit doyleys which she sold and with the proceeds she added a domestic sewing machine to her growing trade.

“I don’t give up easily. I am a patient woman. One needs to have faith and avoid negative influences. Sometimes I feel that the youth are too relaxed and lose hope easily because of the challenges they face.

But if you are determined you can do it,” she said.“I had no training whatsoever in sewing. I knew nothing about the machinery or how to operate it. I bought books and learnt from reading them,” she said.

By then she had already recruited other women that she trained and worked with to sew items such as shopping bags, jerseys, doyleys, caps and tablecloths and once she’d bought her first industrial sewing machine, she could diversify her offering. 

In 2019 Shikweni registered the business formally and enrolled into a business management course. She is now incubated at an entrepreneurial hub at Alex Mall as part of the Yes4Youth initiative, which connects youth to economic opportunity.

Shikweni said the move from her cramped RDP house has given the business a new lease on life and helped to increase their productivity and visibility. 

The outbreak of Covid-19 in 2020 presented an unexpected opportunity with a sudden high demand for face masks.

Hluvuko Designs received an order for 10 000 masks from Netcare and another for 20 000 masks from Yes4Youth project. “We were working day and night during that period. Some of our clients had closed because of the lockdown. But the demand for masks went up and that really kept us busy,” she said.

Hluvuko employs 25 fulltime workers who were trained in-house and she trains youth from Alexandra too – having trained more than 53 so far. “One of my main goals is to help the youth to grow and also to help the government to reduce unemployment.” 

She plans to expand her training and business enterprise to other areas of the country in her bid to help fight the unemployment scourge and empower youth with skills. She could use MTN’s Made for Skhokho flexible package to help her use social media to build her profile on a national basis and achieve her goal.

She urges the youth to get involved in community development projects and diversify their skills and knowledge base.

“Start small. Money is scarce but let’s take risks. There is no progress without risk,” said Shikweni. 

To register for MTN Skokoho click here.

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