Blanketing Unemployment: Sam Manning and the SARCS

By Rachel Shaheen 

After a team of nine SEI field study students engaged in business consultation with the South African Red Cross Society (SARCS) last summer, one student returned this year to transform what was simply a student proposal into a tangible, full-functioning program. Sam Manning, a rising junior and international affairs major, arrived in Cape Town to manage a project that would secure sustainable incomes for a group of women living with HIV/AIDS and being served by SARCS.

 With the goal of “blanketing” unemployment, Manning implemented a system by which SARCS employed these women to sew blankets that were to be sold to the SARCS Disaster Relief Department. Previously, the blankets were purchased from a large national retailer, PEP, thus Manning and his team discovered a crucial opportunity for these women to earn a living wage to support their families and their continued treatment.

The pilot, financed in part by the Social Enterprise Institute (R20,000 or $2,240) and Foschini (R100,000 or $11,200) was launched in February and currently employs nine women. Under the supervision of Sepati Nyelele-Rantai, who manages the SARCS Nyanga site, Manning began the implementation process by setting up the sewing venue in the town of Wynberg — cleaning and organizing the space, ordering tables and sewing materials, and repairing the machines.

As the physical aspects were being manifested, Manning recognized a need to adjust the business model within the original proposal as well as determine proper pricing, transport of goods, and method of payment for the women. It was his responsibility to configure the proper logistics in order to ensure sufficient profits for the women as well as a sustainable and lucrative program overall. Further, Manning conducted trainings for the ladies that became employed by the sewing program on accounting, pricing, organizational and business principals, and the difference between revenue and profit since the women would need to know this essential information in order to run the business themselves.

Perhaps the greatest challenge Manning endured was the lack of resources to coincide with his dedicated efforts. He expressed, “I came with a really strong desire to get this program running successfully to empower the women, but I think my desire was unmatched even by some of the women who it was supposed to benefit. Some of the Red Cross staff were too busy with other projects that our needs often were secondary. This caused major delays in the implementation process.”

Some administrative barriers including a freeze in the SARCS accounts as well as difficulty in collaborating with the SARCS office proved to be most burdensome to his efforts. Although it took a substantial amount of time to work out the defects, and the women that had been employed were not bringing in the revenue that had initially been projected, Manning was reassured that it was a start and that the program was certainly underway.

 “I think the biggest success was getting the women to take ownership of the program,” says Manning. “They understood that they were going to get out of the project whatever they put into it. Previously many of them relied on hand-outs from the government as their income, but this was an opportunity for them to work for their own livelihood and that was a rare opportunity for them.”           

While in Cape Town, Manning also assisted a clothing program for TrashBack — a social business that incentivizes recycling by rewarding people for their rubbish. Each of the projects Manning tackled in South Africa speak to the incredible value of social enterprise and that business is a truly effective means for ensuring global prosperity.