Made in Khayelitsha, sold in New York

Entering the Monkeybiz shop, one is confronted with hundreds of brightly coloured beaded animals, dolls, place mats and pictures. One finds oneself smiling involuntarily.

“Just look at the beautiful work.
How can you resist it?” asked Emma Johnson, an American tourist who visited the shop twice in one week. “I am buying a lot of dolls to take home as Christmas gifts.”

Another tourist, Beatrice LaCroix from Canada, said she was impressed with the fact that Monkeybiz helped poor people. “I read about this project some time ago. When I arrived in Cape Town, I made a point of finding out where the shop was.”

Monkeybiz was started in 2000 to help poor women in the townships around Cape Town to make a living. “The poverty in the townships is staggering,” lamented Barbara Jackson, a ceramic artist who founded the non-profit organisation with fellow artists Shirley Fintz and Mathapelo Ngaka.

“As a privileged white South African I had to do something to help others so that I could sleep peacefully at night,” she said.

The women who make the beadwork for Monkeybiz mostly live in tin shacks with only basic necessities. Before they started beading, many had no other source of income. Now they earn R1 000 to R3 000 per month, depending on the amount of work they do.

Monkeybiz initially started with eight beaders. Ngaka took the beads to Khayelitsha, the township where she lived, and trained the first group of women. Today Monkeybiz employs 250 beaders.

In some cases up to 10 people depend on the income of a single woman. Many of the beaders are HIV-positive.

Bread on the table
In a country with an unemployment rate of 35% to 40% (counting those who have given up looking for a job), initiatives like Monkeybiz go a long way in putting bread on the table.

“Unfortunately there is no government appreciation of the potential the crafts industry has to create employment and generate income for this country,” Jackson argued.

Monkeybiz products can be seen in shops around the country but about three-quarters of the goods are exported to a number of countries, including the US, Norway and Japan. The products are even sold in the New York shop of designer Donna Karan.

According to Jackson, Monkeybiz’s monthly income from sales vary from R300 000 to more than R500 000. 

Monkeybiz supplies the thread, beads and other materials that are delivered to coordinators in the townships who distribute these inputs to individual beaders. “I like the idea that the women work from home. They do not have to spend money on transportation costs,” Jackson said.

Poor households in South Africa spend an inordinate amount on transport because of the legacy of apartheid town planning and the lack of cheap and efficient public transport.

When asked about the principles of fair trade, Jackson answered: “We do not work as a fair-trade organisation, but I guess we apply the same principles.”

These translate into a fair price for each piece of work delivered. Each object carries the creator’s name. The women are also trained in the craft of beading and recently Monkeybiz extended its range to include objects made from recycled rubber.

“To survive as a business, we have to sell the items at higher prices than we pay for them, and the buyers then up the prices further so that they in turn can make a profit. This is how business works. However, the money we earn is used to provide the beaders with all the materials they need and to offer them other services, like a wellness clinic,” Jackson explained.

The weekly wellness clinic for HIV-positive women and their children is run at the Monkeybiz shop in Cape Town. The women are given advice on how to live with HIV/Aids and have a chance to interact with others who have an illness that still often leads to stigmatisation by family and community members. The women also receive food parcels.

“We realise how important balanced meals are to those living with HIV/Aids,” said Jackson.

Changing lives
Linah Speelman (46), from the township Macassar near Cape Town, has been beading for Monkeybiz since 2001.

“It has changed my life,” she said. “I used to work as a domestic worker but it was very stressful. The money I earned was far less than what I get as a beader. I can work at my own pace and do as much or as little work as I want to. I don’t have to struggle with public transport to get to my place of work at a certain time.”

Through Monkeybiz, Eunice Mlotywa from Khayelitsha was able to help other people: “Compared to some of my neighbours, I had a good life. When some of them started asking me for food, I realised that I had to try and teach them some skills. I started teaching them beadwork, but I did not have a market for the products.”

When she met Jackson in 2001, a mutually beneficial partnership was entered into and she started working as a coordinator for Monkeybiz. “I realised that I could help more people who would be ensured of a regular income because of the strong marketing strategy of Monkeybiz.”

Her house soon became too busy for her and her family to live there.

“There were people everywhere. We had to move because there wasn’t space for us. The beaders bring their children and work mostly from here in summer. But in the winter most prefer to work from home. Many of them only come here on market days when I do quality control and when they get paid.”

New beaders are also trained at the centre from which Mlotywa runs a weekly soup kitchen.

“Through Monkeybiz I have been able to send my two sons to university. I have also seen how women who have had no income become independent through beading.

“A year ago it was clear one of our beaders, Mankozi, who is caring for the two orphans her brother left behind when he died of Aids, was also ill. Through Monkeybiz she has had access to medical help and good nutrition.

“She has put on weight and you will not recognise this woman as the same one who was so terribly thin and sickly a year ago,” said Mlotywa.

Zoleka Valashiya (35) works as a beader and as manager of the city shop. “The money from Monkeybiz has helped me to lead a better life. They gave me a loan to finish my education degree. Working in the shop has taught me valuable communication skills that I will be able to use anywhere else,” she said.

Monkeybiz has indeed succeeded in spreading cheer. And it is felt far beyond the doors of the shop with the beautiful handcrafted animals and dolls.—IPS

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