When Lungile Sithole was 11, her mother killed herself. Four years later, her grandmother died, and Sithole says her “world came to an end.” Soon after, while still in high school, she moved in with her boyfriend, got pregnant and endured nine years of an emotionally abusive relationship. Shortly after Sithole left her boyfriend, things got so bad that she considered suicide, but now — thanks to The Clothing Bank (TCB) — she’s an “independent woman” able to provide for her family. “I am stronger than ever,” she says.
Stories like Sithole’s are all too common in South Africa, where 48 percent of children have absent fathers and 60 percent of single mothers are unemployed. But TCB is helping change the narrative, by collecting surplus clothing stock from South Africa’s major retailers and using the unwanted garments to set previously dreamless women up as microentrepreneurs. Since 2010, 2,500 women in all of South Africa’s major cities have benefited from TCB’s earn-as-you-learn program, and in recent years the charity has applied the same scalable model to men with The Appliance Bank (TAB) and — indirectly — preschool children by assisting educare centers to professionalize their offerings. Collectively, these microentrepreneurs realized profits of close to $ 3 million last year.
In September 2009, friends-of-friends Tracey Gilmore (who’d started sourcing interview outfits for underprivileged women after having to lay off the staff of her small weaving business) and Tracey Chambers (a former head of financial planning for a large clothing retailer who knew all about the pitfalls of excess stock) met for coffee to discuss their mutual desire to give back to South African women. By the time they’d finished their cappuccinos, TCB was born.
Although their vision and objective remain unchanged, achieving their goals has proved far more complex than either Tracey imagined. “We were very naive,” says Chambers, 49, remembering how grossly they misjudged the depth of South Africa’s poverty problem. “Our entire focus group was my weaving business and Tracey’s nanny,” says Gilmore, 48, with a laugh.
It’s impossible to underestimate, Chambers says, the complexities of working with a “35-year-old, with two to three kids,” who’s suffered a lifetime of poverty punctuated by abuse and other traumas. Not to mention huge levels of debt and the concomitant psychological strain. “They get stuck in what we call an ‘I can’t’ mindset,” explains Gilmore, noting how they’ve seen countless women “almost self-sabotage” at the slightest obstacle.
What started as a two-week course focused on the basics of running a business has morphed into a two-year program covering everything from trauma and debt counseling to family planning and life coaching. Every week, trainees spend one morning giving back (typically removing labels from the donated clothing), one morning in class and one morning in a coaching or mentoring session. The remainder of the week is spent buying stock at 20 percent of the shelf price and selling it — at taxi stands, flea markets and offices on payday — at a profit.
The most persistent challenge has been ensuring that the women use their earnings to exit the poverty cycle definitively.
Kim Burgess, who has worked for one of TCB’s retail partners since 2014, waxes lyrical about what has become her “favorite, favorite project.” Before TCB, her company donated excess stock to charities on an ad hoc basis — a process that was both expensive and open to abuse. TCB, by contrast, is “such a win,” as it fights poverty, reduces landfill and “ticks all the Black economic empowerment boxes,” says Burgess, referring to the government’s affirmative action policy that rewards retailers with enterprise development points on the rand value of the stock. Little wonder TCB’s six retail partners donated nearly $ 8 million of stock in 2017.
Over the years, Gilmore and Chambers have had to respond creatively to the unexpected curveball (stock theft, for example, has been flipped into a teaching opportunity), but the most persistent challenge has been ensuring that the women use their earnings to exit the poverty cycle definitively. In this regard they have been aided by the Poverty Stoplight, a self-assessment tool developed in Paraguay that gives families data about their economic situation and a way to navigate out of poverty. Laura Bergh, who adapted the tool for South African conditions in conjunction with TCB, praises Chambers and Gilmore for “really listening to the women’s feedback,” and the women themselves “for putting in the sweat capital” necessary to make a positive change and “hustling like hell.”
With operations in all of South Africa’s main urban centers and a near monopoly on excess clothing stock, TCB can’t get much bigger. Meanwhile, the founders are on the cusp of scaling The Appliance Bank — piloted in 2015 — which is an opportunity to help men struggling with unemployment, substance abuse, personal tragedy and other challenges. And the Grow network of early childhood development centers (offering schools access to cutting-edge curricula, materials and teacher training) provides a promising foundation for 780 children (this number will swell) and a 35 percent revenue increase for the center owners.
With its primary focus on South Africa, TCB is eager to assist organizations elsewhere in adopting its microfranchise model. Surprisingly, Africa — with its small retail sector and overreliance on bales of secondhand clothing from the First World — isn’t the first place they’d go. “We think the Clothing Bank could really work in America,” says Chambers. Inventory wouldn’t be a problem, and “not everyone is rich in America.”
But what’s next for TCB in its home country? “Mom is taken care of,” says Gilmore, and things are going well with Dad (TAB) and Junior (Grow) too. The one demographic they haven’t seen much success with yet? Teenagers.
As experienced mothers, they know that teens may be their toughest challenge of all, but retreat isn’t an option. “We’ll find a way,” says Gilmore, “to light their entrepreneurial fire.”