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Where drinking tea helps a community bag a better future

Colleen Baldwin
Colleen Baldwin, posted on 11.12.12

Apparently Eleanor Roosevelt once said a woman is like a tea bag, because you only know how strong she is when she is put in hot water. Well, here's another insight into the humble tea bag, which relates to a particular strong woman and a group of women she nurtured towards finding their way out of poverty in South Africa. It is the tale of a thriving social enterprise, which, like many a success story in this sector, combines a problem to solve, a visionary individual and a simple idea.

First, I have a confession. When I joined ClearlySo earlier this year I was nervous of my lack of knowledge about social enterprise, and also a tad baffled about my ignorance having worked as a business reporter for five years.

How come, I wondered, I couldn't remember hearing about social enterprise before, despite all those international investment conferences I'd covered and the CEOs and finance ministers I'd interviewed? Not to mention my particular interest in sustainable solutions.

Then recently at home I came across a gift from a friend who visited South Africa a few years ago. It is a small hanging object, a pretty painted square enclosed in resin. The medium to which the decoration is applied, if you haven't guessed already, is a recycled tea bag.

My friend had told me about the workshop which produced it, and the business behind it, which is called Original T-Bag Designs. I had known about social enterprise all along - I just hadn't known I'd known, to misquote Donald Rumsfeld.

The story of this business and the people it has helped is well-documented in their website. It was started by the remarkable Jill Heyes who moved from the UK to Cape Town with her family in 1996.

Jill was shocked by the desperate and impoverished lives of the residents of the informal settlement of Imizamo Yethu in Hout Bay, and so began teaching women handicrafts they could use to supplement their income, improve their standard of living and educate their children.

In 2000 the first item using an old tea-bag was produced, a greeting card which proved highly popular. Gradually other tea-bag ideas were developed.

At first, Jill created and funded the project using her salary from part-time teaching, but in 2002 she took a leap of faith and gave up her job to focus on building a self-supporting business.

How it all blossomed and grew continues to surprise even Jill herself: "Where do I begin to tell you about this 12 year journey I have been on, changing my skills as a primary school teacher into that of a business owner nurturing a team of producers?" she asked when I contacted her recently. "We now have a wonderful product, and, I think, an amazing story that certainly does inspire every visitor that walks through our door."

The enterprise is going from strength to strength: "We are in fact struggling to keep up with demand," Jill continued, "which I guess after the years of struggle and drama is a good place to be."

She tells me that for her, as 2013 approaches, the biggest challenge of the future, (which will be familiar to social entrepreneurs everywhere), is how and when to expand. As she explains it: "We now have a very skilled team but I am always hesitant to take on new staff. Do we keep on growing - after all my purpose was to create jobs - or try to produce faster, thus getting our very high costs down?"

She dreams of transferring her idea and the success of the company to other countries: "The entrepreneur in me would love to replicate "˜tea-bags' and franchise our product, our ethos, etc.," she continues. "I realise that we have developed a business that is truly growing people, and could grow in other parts of the world, as they would have our story and reputation to begin with."

But she is realistic that for this level of expansion, she would need to pass on the reins of the enterprise to others: "Sadly I have the vision, and the ideas, but not the skills or the finance to see this through. I am not in a position to take on any more expense or stress so we would need to employ someone to run with this," as she puts it.

Used tea bags are donated by individuals and companies. Once dried they are carefully opened up, emptied out, ironed and painted. The decorated tea bags are put on paper, wood and fabric. The objects produced include handbags, trays and stationery. Each is unique and hand-made, and the artists now include refugees from Zimbabwe.

The workshop, which is open for visits, currently employs 15 production staff, a part-time sewing teacher, an accountant and general factotum Helen White, also originally from the UK. The products are sold to tourists and locals at retail outlets in Cape Town and abroad at craft fairs. International visitors tell their friends back home, who can buy online.

I haven't had the opportunity to visit South Africa yet, but when I do get there I know that a tour of the Original T-Bag Designs operation, to meet Jill and her team of inspiring artists and designers, will be a firm fixture on my itinerary.


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