Blanketing Unemployment in South African Townships

by Audrey Shaughnessy

In July of 2012, 40 stu­dents from the Social Enter­prise Insti­tute (SEI) trav­eled to Cape Town, South Africa, to con­sult with local micro-entrepreneurs and social enter­prises under the tute­lage of Pro­fes­sors Den­nis Shaugh­nessy and Gor­don Adomdza of the Entre­pre­neur­ship & Inno­va­tion Group at North­east­ern Uni­ver­sity. SEI hosts inter­dis­ci­pli­nary North­east­ern stu­dents in Cape Town for their South Africa Field Study Pro­gram  each July (Sum­mer II).

On July 18, Nel­son Man­dela Day, stu­dents from SEI trav­eled to Nyanga, one of Cape Town’s old­est black town­ships, to vol­un­teer with the South African Red Cross Soci­ety (SARCS). SARCS is a grass­roots South African NPO and mem­ber of the Inter­na­tional Red Cross that serves indi­vid­u­als liv­ing in town­ships and infor­mal set­tle­ments through­out the West­ern Cape. SARCS’ work is focused pri­mar­ily on health and dis­as­ter man­age­ment given the extremely high preva­lence of HIV/AIDS and fre­quency of both nat­ural and man-made dis­as­ters in these dis­ad­van­taged communities.

Northeastern students volunteering at SARCS' Health & Care center in Nyanga. Pictured: Khalid Aldabal, Patty Montesquieu and Sam Manning

North­east­ern stu­dents vol­un­teer­ing at SARCS’ Health & Care cen­ter in Nyanga. Pic­tured: Khalid Ald­a­bal, Patty Mon­tesquieu and Sam Manning


Three SARCS vol­un­teers in front of a sign painted by North­east­ern stu­dents at the Health & Care cen­ter in Nyanga.


Stu­dents from SEI fol­low­ing their pre­sen­ta­tion to Seipati Nyelele of SARCS. Pic­tured: Renee Ross, McKen­zie Free­man, Seipati Nyeyele, Sudip Rithik Datta, Sam Man­ning, Audrey Shaugh­nessy, Rachel Sha­heen, Colleen Maney, Kelsey Duff, Khalid Aldab 

Once back in the class­room, nine stu­dents from SEI were chal­lenged by Pro­fes­sor Adomdza to find an inno­v­a­tive way to pro­vide sus­tain­able income for the women liv­ing with HIV/AIDS as well as the unem­ployed SARCS vol­un­teers who serve them in Nyanga. Adomdza, whose course focuses pri­mar­ily on busi­ness model inno­va­tion for social enter­prises, guided the stu­dents through­out their research from which they dis­cov­ered a remark­able opportunity.


Due largely to poor infra­struc­ture and envi­ron­men­tal degra­da­tion, elec­tri­cal fires and flash floods are com­mon within the town­ships and infor­mal set­tle­ments of Cape Town. SARCS responds by dis­trib­ut­ing blan­kets to their vic­tims, many of whom are dis­placed and ren­dered home­less by such dis­as­ters. SARCS buys these items from PEP, a large national retailer, and is later reim­bursed by the South African gov­ern­ment. The nine SEI stu­dents came to the fol­low­ing con­clu­sion: instead of buy­ing blan­kets from PEP, SARCS should use its gov­ern­ment fund­ing to employ its patients with HIV/AIDS as well as its unem­ployed vol­un­teers to make the blan­kets themselves.

The stu­dents devel­oped a coop­er­a­tive busi­ness model whereby patients and vol­un­teers are equally capa­ble of ben­e­fit­ing from the sewing project regard­less of the state of their health, i.e. their abil­ity to engage in man­ual labor. In addi­tion to sta­ble employ­ment, this inno­v­a­tive model pro­vides patients and vol­un­teers alike with the oppor­tu­nity to save and take out emer­gency microloans by way of a SACCO housed within the sewing cooperative.

The stu­dents pre­sented their con­cept before Pro­fes­sor Adomdza as well as Seipati Nyeyele of SARCS their last week in Cape Town. Both Adomdza and Nyeyele, extremely recep­tive of the idea, have secured fund­ing to sup­port the imple­men­ta­tion of the project. The Social Enter­prise Insti­tute and Fos­chini, a South African cloth­ing retailer, have co-financed a pilot sched­uled for launch by the end of Feb­ru­ary. Through this pilot, SARCS will pur­chase blan­kets from approx­i­mately twenty patients and vol­un­teers, pro­vid­ing them with the income they need to con­tinue treat­ment, sup­port their fam­i­lies, send their chil­dren to school and per­ma­nently lift them­selves from poverty.

 One of the nine North­east­ern stu­dents, Sam Man­ning, has returned to Cape Town on co-op to assist SARCS with the imple­men­ta­tion of the sewing coop­er­a­tive. Man­ning has entered the project into the 2013 Dell Social Inno­va­tion Chal­lenge, an annual com­pe­ti­tion ded­i­cated to pro­vid­ing young social entre­pre­neurs with the startup cap­i­tal they need to launch their inno­va­tions. To vote for the “Blan­ket­ing Unem­ploy­ment” project, visit their pro­file on the Dell Social Inno­va­tion Chal­lenge web­site here.