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Never give up, says young woman bucking the unemployment trend

'Avoid friends who will distract you from pursuing your dreams'

25 December 2021 - 17:00 By GILL GIFFORD

Ponani Shikweni was 16 when she arrived in Gauteng’s Alexandra township in 2007. She had moved away from her home village in Giyani, Limpopo, and had arrived looking for any opportunity she could find.

Prepared to work hard, she found employment as a sweeper for a construction company in the inner-city, but lost the job in 2012.

In 2013 she volunteered as a caregiver for an organisation helping orphans and vulnerable children in Alex. But while it was satisfying work, it didn’t bring in an income, and paying jobs were hard to come by.

“I was helping the gogos who care for their grandchildren, making sure they take their own medication. I was helping the children with their homework, but I needed a job,” she said.

Desperate to find a steady and reliable source of income, she realised she could rely only on herself. She decided to use her skill in manufacturing textile products and started her own business, Hluvuko Designs, in 2014.

She was living in an RDP house with her husband and daughters when she started making items with the only skill she had, handwork.

“I would make those chaka chaka blankets, and eventually got a group of 10 women and we would all make them,” Shikweni said, referring to basic fleece fabric blankets finished by hand.

“Every week I would take the blankets and sell them in Sandton. With my profits I would pay the ladies, buy more fabric and save my money until I bought one small machine. I learnt how to sew by myself,” she said, laughing at the memory.

Every week I would take the blankets and sell them in Sandton. With my profits I would pay the ladies, buy more fabric and save my money until I bought one small machine
Ponani Shikweni, owner Hluvuko Designs

She has since been trained on giant factory machines, and is multiskilled in the textile trade.

In a space in her home and facing into an outside area, she created a small factory. It became a business space that grew. As the operation expanded, Shikweni recruited other unemployed women, training them into skilled seamstresses working in Alexandra.

After six years, Hluvuko Designs was literally bursting at the seams.

In 2019 the burgeoning business was spotted by private healthcare corporate Netcare. They had realised the potential of the women's entrepreneurial model as a promising enterprise development project. Shikweni was exactly the kind of self-starting professional they were looking for.

With their assistance, Shikweni formally registered Hluvuko Designs, a small operation with a BEE level rating of 1 completely compliant on business registration and income tax certification and ready to take on corporate clients.

As her first big customer, Netcare commissioned Hluvuko Designs to sew conference bags, pillowcases and kangaroo care wraps for mothers to carry their newborns against their own bodies.

When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, Hluvuko Designs was ready. The Youth Employment Service (YES) initiative in Alexandra commissioned them to make 20,000 face masks and hand them out free to people shopping at Alex Mall.

In February this year, with a good track record and firmly established clients, Shikweni closed her small factory and relocated the operation into the Netcare Ulusha Hub in the popular mall.

I put all my profits back into the business. We have no sponsors or donations, we do everything for ourselves
Ponani Shikweni

Here they have more space, and continue to be incubated and supported by YES. Shikweni and her team are receiving training in pricing, stock management and quality control. They make use of Microsoft teams, and are growing the market for table cloths and bags.

According to Shikweni, a lot of effort, hard work and word of mouth are the reasons her small idea has flourished and grown into a fully-functioning business employing 35 women and youth from Alexandra.

“Hluvuko”, she said, means “development” in Tsonga.

It is the fulfilment of her dream to offer valuable skills to the youth of Alexandra and create jobs for them.

However, her vision is not yet complete. She wants more. Hluvuko Designs is an enterprise destined to develop branches, supplying public and private sector clients. It’s Shikweni’s big plan, one that has transformed her from an unemployed street cleaner into a formidable businesswoman.

Hluvuko Designs owns 18 sewing machines, three overlockers and a bakkie.

“I put all my profits back into the business. We have no sponsors or donations. We do everything for ourselves,” she said.

According to StatsSA, 17% of SA’s employment comes from the informal sector, the so-called township economy. The Quarterly Labour Force Survey Q2 2021 puts the unemployment rate for young people between 15 and 24 years old at 75%.

It’s a bleak picture people like Shikweni are hell-bent on improving.

“You have to work very hard and have faith in your own brand and your ability to create. Listen to your heart. Avoid friends who will distract you from pursuing your dreams. Be persistent.”


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