In late 2014, the idea and vision of Umoja Wamama Crafters Cooperative, which translates as ‘United Women’ in Swahili, was developed through a consultative process with nine crafters and HRMC admin staff member. The group of women stayed at the Fish Hoek Cottages over a weekend and considered the type of organization they wished to set up, its mission, objectives, membership and programme of activities.

After the workshop, HRMC completed the paperwork needed to register the cooperative with the Companies and Intellectual Properties Commission (CIPC). However, HRMC was faced with a dilemma. As proscribed by law governing cooperatives, only those with South African IDs can be directors. After consultation, it was agreed that HRMC comply to speed up registration, hence the three directors are South African crafters, with the view to taking up this at a later date. Challenging this discriminatory regulation is on Umoja’s agenda for 2021.

Download: Coperative Certificate

Umoja was registered on 8 April 2015 with the CIPC. In line with legal requirements governing cooperatives, members meet quarterly to receive progress reports prepared by the secretary and treasurer. It is at these quarterly meetings that democratic decisions are taken by members.

The fourth and last meeting in the calendar year is the AGM where dividends, 10% of all sales made throughout the year, are shared equally among members, after 15% is deducted for the subsequent year. The AGM is a highlight; Umoja has a tradition of awarding two awards through votes. The award is a token given to crafters on different criteria in appreciation of their efforts in the year.

Umoja General Meeting 6 July 2019
From left to right: Sindiswa Ningisa, Mirelle Biantwadi, Hadija Msakamali, Jaqueline Sibomana, Lina Madodo, Mapendo Rukwasho, Theresa Mukankusi, Esperance Nibakure, Theresa Uwimana, Speciose Mukamucuzi and Epiphanie Mukasano.
Umoja General Meeting 6 July 2019
From left to right: Sindiswa Ningisa, Mirelle Biantwadi, Josi Frater, Lina Madolo, Mapendo Rukwasho, Theresa Mukankusi, Esperance Nibakure, Theresa Uwimana, Speciose Mukamucuzi and Epiphanie Mukasano.

Since 2015 to the present, February 2021, Umoja has grown in membership, craft diversity, improved financial systems, branding and marketing has advanced, and markets have expanded.

Membership has expanded: Membership is open to refugees and asylum seekers and South African struggle veterans. The membership fee is R5 per month or R60 per year. At the start of 2021, Umoja has 21 paid up, committed members of whom nine are from Rwanda, five from South Africa, four are from the DRC, and one is from Burundi, Kenya and Tanzania respectively. There is opportunity for four more members to join; 25 is the maximum number of members Umoja can accommodate.

Bringing South African and refugee women together has benefits beyond income generation. It assists in members’ finding common ground and purpose, and building social cohesion.

Expanding and diversifying craft skills:
Since its inception, there has been training every year, starting with beading, then making Umoja frames from recycled materials, tapestrying where members made kneelers for a church school and spectacle cases, mosaicking plant pots, patchworking and quilting, smocking, embroidering, and sewing a variety of stuffed animal toys, and sling bags with zips.

Some of the trainers are professionals, like Simmy Schofield, who taught patchwork and quilting, but our members also do training, such as Kate Ncisana, a master beader, and Speciose Mukamucuzi, an experienced sewing teacher. On the cards in 2021 is training in basketry with Hawa Mukamana.

Patchworking with Simmy Schofield
Patchworking with Simmy Schofield2
Hawa’s baskets
Embroiderers weekend at the Homestead in Hermanus
Patchworking with Simmy Schofield
Patchworking with Simmy Schofield2
Hawa’s baskets

Putting financial systems in place:
Since 2019, Umoja’s finances are captured on Xero accounting system whereas previously crafters received cash immediately after sales. Besides efficiency for auditing purposes, the Xero accounting system allows members to receive quarterly printouts of sales and receive their monies in cash (if they don’t have bank accounts) or via EFT on a quarterly basis. Paul Diedericks, HRMC’s finance officer, captures the income and expenditure on Xero accounting, working closely with the treasurer.

Umoja has managed one small one-year grant of R50 000 from the Ackerman Pick and Pay Foundation (APnPF) and in February 2021 Umoja applied for a further grant from APnPF to assist with operational overheads and further training.

Branding and marketing have advanced:
Umoja’s trademark is that all Umoja sewn products are made from 100% cotton fabric.

Through the APnPF grant Umoja was able to purchase cotton labels. We also have a logo.

Umoja Wamama Crafters Cooperative logo

Two articles in the Tatler Community Newspaper in 2015 and 2018, informing readers about Umoja, had wonderful responses. Umoja received generous donations, most of which has found purpose. If you have mosaic tiles, cotton fabrics, wool, tapestry canvas and threads, embroidery linen, threads and iron-on patterns and sewing accessories no longer needed, Umoja gladly accepts such donations. Call Umoja on 021 761 3303 or bring your donation to Umoja at Community House.

In 2020, during the Coronavirus pandemic, HRMC published Umoja Wamama: Threads of our lives that holds 20 members’ life stories, for marketing purposes, as buyers’ show interest in knowing who the crafters are.

Umoja Wamama Threads of our lives

The opening up of markets:
In 2015, Umoja started trading at the Lions Hout Bay Craft Market – a very good place to start. The organizers waivered the stall free because of Umoja’s membership base, but Hout Bay was a distance to travel and the foot traffic was not great. Shirley Gunn and Kate Ncisana were the marketeers there.

Hout Bay market
Hout Bay market

From 2017, Umoja has been trading at the Kirstenbosch Food and Craft Market as a permanent stall holder paying a concessionary stall fee of R150 per market. It is a busy market with local and tourist shoppers in a beautiful setting nestled at the foot of Table Mountain. Shirley Gunn and Jaqueline Sibomana are Umoja’s marketeers.

Kirstenbosch Food and Craft Market

Umoja is blessed with suitable office space at 203 Community House in Salt River, adjacent to HRMC’s office, consisting of two rooms, one for storage and the other for training and displaying of crafts. Walk-in shoppers can come any day of the week, Monday to Friday from 8h30 to 17h00, to buy Umoja craft.

Some NGOs, such as South South North, Oxfam and Wiego, have placed orders of conference and workshop materials, such as beaded and shweshwe lanyards and journals. Some companies order Umoja crafts that they resell, and some clients come back again and again to support Umoja, and also particular crafters.

Wiego conference bags
Wiego conference bags

The Coronavirus pandemic disrupted markets in 2020. Kirstenbosch shut down in March under lockdown level 5, it reopened briefly for three markets at the end of 2020 only to shut down before the last Christmas market, despite strict protocols in place. The pandemic has had a devastating impact on sales records and income for members.

We tried to find a way around the market problem. From March to September 2020, 16 sewers made regulation 3-ply, cotton masks and our neighbors at Community House designed a beautiful poster for Umoja. However, many people went into the business of mask making causing a decline in the demand for masks. Regulation masks made with shweshwe and African cotton fabric remain on Umoja’s list of sale items.

The pandemic prohibited face-to-face general meetings in the first and second quarters of 2020. Holding virtual meetings is impossible as very few members are computer literate or have smart phones or data but thankfully quarterly meetings with social distancing is possible in the downstairs halls at Community House.

Some members have survived Coronavirus, others have remained miraculously Covid-free. Nine of our 21 members qualify for the vaccine in phase 2 of the roll-out because of their ages or comorbidities. Others will probably be covered in phase 3 or won’t be vaccinated at all. Predictably, 2021 will remain challenging regarding markets and sales. Therefore, we are adapting and are putting systems in place to build an Umoja online shop. Umoja has also registered with Kirsty’s online website.