Empowerment: One Tea Bag at a Time

In South Africa, creating jobs that are accessible to people living in townships is essential. Creating those jobs for women is even more critical because it gives them some financial stability and the opportunity to provide for their family. One place we stopped along the way that opened my eyes to the creativity of these employed women was T Bag Designs. When we visited, we learned about the company and what they stand for, but what touched me the most was the women who worked there.

The company was founded on giving opportunities to those who otherwise may not be able to find a job or find one that pays well enough to both provide for their families and save a little for the future. As we walked from the shop area to the actual workplace, I was astounded at the beauty and simplicity of the sight. It was a refurbished farm, yet it held so much hope and joy in every face we encountered. We entered the work shop area and were introduced to 4 workers: 1 male and 3 female. They explained their jobs at T Bag Designs and told us a little about why they like working there. Every one of them explained that they can finally create something they are proud of, make money doing it, and provide for their family all while staying within the township.

As I looked at the walls decorated in meaningful quotes and passages of scripture, I was inspired. I loved the empowerment of women seen in the shop and the opportunity presented to them that otherwise would not exist. I thought the product they created was not only beautiful, but extremely well made while reusing something as simple as a teabag to make each piece unique. I even felt like the Tea bags themselves were a symbol of empowerment because they may seem worn out or no longer usable, but in reality they are only beginning their journey to become something beautiful again.

Before going to T Bag Designs, old tea bags are basically seen as used up. They made the tea they could and serve no further purpose. But, when shipped to T Bag, they are reused and repurposed. Instead of simply being tossed aside, they are reshaped, painted, and displayed as beautiful works of art, each with their own unique look. This process reminds me of each woman employed there. They may have felt cast aside or forgotten, like the tea bag, but once they begin working there they realize that they were beautiful the whole time. They maybe just weren’t seeing themselves in the proper light.

The story associated with the product clearly touched me. As I walked the grounds and talked to the workers I realized the company provides a creative outlet at home as well. Workers can take home teabags to decorate and get paid nicely with each design they create. Some of the women explained that this was a way they could be creative, express themselves in a new way every day, and still be home with their families. Again, opportunity presented to township women that both empowered them and allowed them the freedom to express themselves.

I could hardly believe a place with such a beautiful story and product lied at this stop with practically no advertising. Yes, the tour bus stopped there, but very few got off and the store would be easy to miss. I never would have even known it was there if we hadn’t stopped as a class because it was barely advertised on the tour bus, on the stop itself, or in the township. After researching advertising in townships, it made sense that T Bag Designs wouldn’t be advertised in the township itself because emphasis is placed on needs rather than wants. Getting tested for HIV/AIDS is more important than buying something frivolous, so advertising the shop there would be pointless. But, the tour bus could do a better job advertising the location because it is an authentic tourist location rather than a tourist trap that is commonly found along those routes. At T Bag Designs you meet real people of South Africa who want to talk about their experiences and how the opportunities provided to them there have changed their lives. Topics that really matter. Although they have a shop at the Waterfront, a tourist-filled location, it is not the same as going to their workshop personally and meeting the women behind the products.

This and many other locations we stopped at along our journey showed me the creativity of people artistically and in the creation of the jobs themselves. According to “What Economic Future, South Africa?”, the economic future of South Africa relies on the people’s ability to create jobs, particularly in small businesses, to help grow the economy instead of waiting for the government to diversify the jobs for them. One thing I’ve learned on this trip it is the people’s ability to create jobs out of what seems like nothing. Whether it is standing in the street offering a windshield cleaning, selling fruit on the side of the road, or working for a creative entity like T Bag Designs, there are so many opportunities made by the people to make some money, even if it is only a little.

Many of these creative jobs are particularly focused toward women to allow them the independence they deserve and provide a creative outlet to not only be paid for, but to be proud of. This allows them to discover and develop a side they otherwise may not have seen before. As Mamphela Ramphele stated, “Empowerment is a process of acknowledging the humanity of those people who have been systematically dehumanized, thereby enabling them to stand up and challenge the status quo (124).” Empowerment is exactly what T Bag Designs stands for. They recognize the struggle of being a woman in a township and formed to serve those needs. Not to treat the women as victims, but to show how incredible they all are, because “they have been victimized as a group… to treat them individually as victims is to disempower them (Ramphele 119).” If this company did one thing, it is empower the women who worked there. One woman in the video we watched explained that with the money she earned from making and selling handbags there, she could buy a house on her own, something she never would have dreamed of doing before. Stories like this show the endless opportunities and possibilities of jobs in townships, particularly directed at the women there.

These kinds of organizations may be the future of South Africa. They are helping create jobs while also making a unique market of items to sell. In those jobs people are being trained through different means, gaining new skills, and refining those they already possess. The products created are well made and beautiful, making them easy to sell to tourists or to locals as gifts, and eventually, things begin to grow. By breaking down gender stereotypes and creating more organizations like T Bag Designs, it could help South Africa grow its economy, even a little, while empowering and teaching those who may have never had the opportunity before. Even bringing in more companies like T Bag would provide new possibilities to the residents of the townships, particularly the women. By providing jobs and experience to these women, it changes the social climate of the townships as they realize their inner beauty and strength, knowing they are capable of great things. And if the social climate of the townships changes, how much more could we change South Africa as a nation by simply focusing on empowerment of those living within townships?



Works Cited

Ramphele, Mamphela. A Bed Called Home. Ohio University Press: 1993. 107-125.

Spector, J Brooks. “What Economic Future, South Africa?” Daily Maverick, 1 July 2014, https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2014-07-01-what-economic-future-south-africa/#.WIYp8hsrJPY. Accessed 29 December 2016.


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