Two hundred kilometres north-east of Port Elizabeth lies the little town of Bedford. Bedford is comprised of 2,206 households. 54.6% of people in Bedford are unemployed. Many eke out a living from social grants while an estimated 83.6% live in poverty. Only 11% of young people over the age of 20 have matriculated. 61.4% are qualified up to Grade 9. With such high rates of poverty, unemployment and illiteracy, Bedford epitomises the plight of rural towns around South Africa.
Amidst the dire circumstances in Bedford is a small and enterprising best-practice, the Thembani Special Day Care and Women Project (Thembani). Thembani outshone a number of larger projects in 2010, winning a Silver Impumelelo Award for demonstrating that small towns can be commercially-viable for large industry. Through its clever project design, Thembani has grown into one of the leading economic hubs in Bedford.
Sindawonye Granulators is the e-waste recycling company based in Gauteng driving this for Thembani. Sindawonye Granulators adopted the project in 2004. Currently it helps the organisation financially, and sustains the core operations of Thembani. Every month Sindawonye Granulators delivers 10 tons of redundant Telkom optic cable, which Thembani manually strips and sorts. Much of the plastic sleeving is returned to Sindawonye Granulators and the Kelvar (yellow fibre surrounding the optic cable) is sold to a company in Pietermartizburg. Sindawonye Granulators uses the recovered plastic to manufacture “fencing droppers”, commonly used in the farming sector. Thembani is a licensed waste management site and purportedly the only project in South Africa that recycles optic cable.
According to Thembani Director, Lana Blom, this local recycling industry is changing the town for the better. As the only recycling initiative in Bedford, Thembani receives other recyclable material from the community. The streets of Bedford have become visibly cleaner, particularly after weekends, as people can now receive up to 25 cents a kilogram for bringing waste like glass or metal cans to Thembani for recycling.
This renewed community pride, cultivated through environmental awareness, is growing its own off eco-tourism offshoots. Thembani created the Bedford Township Garden Route as part of the annual Bedford Garden Festival. This festival now also attracts viewers to the beautiful and creative gardens in the less affluent parts of Bedford. Last year, 14 township gardeners participated and garnered media coverage in the local press.
The “producing against poverty” division of Thembani works closely with the Bedford Eagle Hout Workers Co-operative (BEHWC), a manufacturing unit which shares their premises with Thembani. The BEHWC and Thembani manufacture and refurbish furniture, make sellable crafts and maintain a thriving composting and nursery business. The staff also receives additional skills training in a range of competencies. Thembani and BEHWC employ 50 people permanently.
Thembani even has its own social development arm. Their day care for disabled children assists 12 children, in addition to other vulnerable children affected by HIV and poverty. This arm draws on the help of women from the Bedford Congregational Church to prepare meals, provide psycho-social support and conduct home visitations.
Despite their humble size, Thembani teaches us that building social capital and creating employment in small towns, although difficult, is not impossible!
Read about the creative ways South Africans solve public problems every week from the Impumelelo Social Innovations Centre, the country’s repository for solutions that improve quality of life for the poor. Visit impumelelo.org.za