Monday, 19 July 2010

Harriet Lamb visits Cape Town's Township Trades

Cape Town has to be the coolest city on earth. I am staying at the Daddy Long Legs Hotel which is part of a Fair trade in tourism scheme, so the coffee's good. Each room has been decorated by a local artist. I am staying in 'Open' next to 'Please do not disturb' and 'Phone Booth'. My room is wallpapered with hundreds of photos of African sun-rises and has a round bed on the floor. It makes you feel like a model or a movie star, except that there are also mirrors everywhere on the walls and ceilings offering a painful reminder that I definitely am not and never could be.

A short way from the centre of Cape Town is a painful reminder that it's not all 'chilaxing' and trendy art. Khayelitsha is the second largest township in South Africa, after Soweto. A terrifying 30% of its people are HIV/Aids positive. That's why Township Trades was established here, making the beautiful hand-made Fairtrade certified Visionary Soaps you can buy in Oxfam shops, Traidcraft and Waitrose among others. There's just five people working there and they are an utter joy to meet. Vusu from Zimbabwe is the father figure, who is pouring geranium rose oil into the mix in a big plastic bucket, stirring it with an adapted power drill. It looks like he is whipping cream and in much the same way, the mixture suddenly goes thick and is poured into crates to harden.

Neatly stored in one corner is a huge container of Fairtrade olive oil from Palestine, just one of the many Fairtrade ingredients from across the world that make the soap. I describe the difficulties of the farmers in Palestine and the workers shake their heads in disbelief. They are also using cocoa and shea nut butter from Ghana. There's a shipment of coconut oil from Fair Trade Alliance Kerala on the water as we speak and the two women are patiently cutting with scissors an order of lemongrass.

They all love the bag made with Fairtrade cotton that I've brought with me. Soon Blessings is prancing about, posing. We have a laugh about how great it must be to work in a soap factory. All the other men in factories come home smelly and dirty but the soap guys must gather a following of women seduced by the sweet smell of soap that pervades their little building.

Sandy is the woman brought in to turn the company round. She's from a straight corporate background, more used to going out with bankers and enjoying fifty pound bottles of wine. But she wanted to take on a social enterprise and now her capable hands are more than full. She cannot believe how impossible it is to get any European bank to invest in a business in South Africa, her profit margins are too tight and she needs more orders badly. But they are all pretty determined. As Blessing says: 'Maybe one day we will put on a suit and tie and go overseas to get to present our soap business overseas'.


Top: Township Trades make sure they don't create any waste so produce egg shaped soaps that can be purchased through Visionary.

Bottom: A member of the Township Trade team using a powerdrill as part of the soap production process.

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