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Breathing new life into dying skin

Over the past 13 years, Furntech has produced qualified cabinet-makers, shopfitters, wood machinists and upholsterers, kitchen cupboard manufacturers, window and door producers.

Furntech has seven centres in South Africa and offers learnerships, short courses and skills programmes in anything and everything to do with furniture and wood products.

“We also assist start-ups to begin operating and existing small businesses to grow,” says Delyshia Govender, the centre manager of the Durban branch.

These are people with a passion for furniture, but who have no capital for equipment, or those working from their garage or homes.

“Ideally they apply for the programme and, if accepted, they run their entire business from our premises – they have access to our fully equipped workshops, we give them business and technical mentoring and coaching, and we help them to grow their business and take it into the formal environment.”

They have just produced the latest in a number of success stories – a young man who started with nothing and, nine months later, is running a successful business.

“All he had was an interest in lounge suites,” says Govender. “Now he has learned to make them, market them and is successfully running his own showroom, together with seven employees.”

It’s a dying skill – schools no longer teach woodwork and many of the people left in the industry, the really skilled artisans, are close to retirement. “It’s a pity,” she says. “Furniture is a necessity, not just a luxury item.”

Her job is to monitor and evaluate the classes, and track the progress of the learners and businesses.

“There is no such thing as not having the talent. It’s just a mindset. You need to be committed and have a passion. Ultimately you need to be invested in what you are learning.

“All our facilitators are from the industry and are very experienced. We also keep our groups small – ideally eight to 10 learners per facilitator.”

Of course, Govender is in a very fortunate position. “I have just moved into a new home, and I had all my items made through Furntech clients and contacts.

It is all customised, so I know that what’s in my house won’t be in anyone else’s. All my friends ask, ‘Where did you get your headboard, where did you get your table?’ They all purchase their furniture through Furntech now.”

The Nedbank Foundation

The Foundation has financially supported four groups of Furntech trainees since 2008, many of whom are hearing-impaired.

Govender says this was a challenge, but they were given a great deal of assistance from the KwaZulu Natal Blind and Deaf Society, which helped with recruitment, interpretation and the learning of sign language.

“Once we completed training for the first group, it was easy to move on, and we now deliver training to hearing impaired people nationally.”

One of the Nedbank Foundation’s standout graduates is Fani Mthembu, a young man from KwaMashu who was part of the first group of hearing-impaired trainees.

He was initially selected by his school for a place on the programme.

“In the beginning, I was just interested in getting a job,” he says. “If you are hearing-impaired and have no skills, it is very difficult to find work. I was not that interested in furniture, but once the training started, I made my first stool.

I looked at what I had produced with my own hands and my passion for furniture started to blossom.”

Mthembu was fascinated by his new field, and particularly learning from Rajesh Butharam, who patiently taught him to produce and spray-paint furniture. It was a proud day when he got his first big order. “A businessman, Mr Ndawande, saw a picture of a wingback chair in a magazine. I managed to copy it perfectly without any measurements. This meant a lot to me.”

He is currently employed by a company that specialises in making wrap doors, and after hours he is always busy making customised items for friends and family.

“My family and friends are happy for me, because I am independent. I made a three-seat sofa for my sister, which I gave to her as a present for her wedding.

"I also made a rocking chair for my friend when she was pregnant.”

This article forms part of a supplement paid for by Unilever. Contents and photographs were supplied and signed off by Unilever.

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