Ivili loboya, a textile producer in the industrial town of Ibika in rural Eastern Cape, launched its debut Dedani Collection of fabrics in Johannesburg last month using fibre made from the local iMbuzi goat which it used in a variety of blends such as with silk and merino wool.
Cashmere is made from the soft, fine inner hair of a goat’s coat and while the term was applied only to goat hair from the Kashmir region of the Indian subcontinent, usage has since broadened to all goat hair that is similarly fine and soft.
Each year after winter, over 300 rural iMbuzi goat farmers comb out the goat fibre from their herds and package it to send to the Ibika mill where it is spun into cashmere yarn.
Ivili Loboya, which is loosely translated to mean “Wheel of Wool”, was established by International Women’s Forum (IWF) global board director Dr Vuyo Mahlati in 2012 with initial product development, and full operations beginning in 2015.
Eastern Cape-born Mahlati holds a PhD from the University of Stellenbosch with her thesis having focused on the role of value chains in mainstreaming rural entrepreneurs into global markets.
Speaking to the Saturday Dispatch, Mahlati said her interest in rural value chains was guided by her passion for farming, having learnt a lot about it, particularly wool farming, from her mother.
“My mother encouraged me to invest in wool processing as, having lost her mother at birth, it was income from wool that paid for her school fees in Matatiele and at Shawbury Teachers College.
“I was also lucky to travel the world and see the work of carpet makers in Asia and the Middle East, weavers in different parts of Africa and fabric-making in Europe,” said Mahlati.
The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) has carried out extensive research and market analysis on the significant potential there is for cashmere manufacturing to contribute to employment creation.
Mahlati said this research swayed her towards establishing Ivili.
She explained that collaborating with the CSIR on research and incubation helped convince her, as did “having buyers who were prepared to experiment with me”.
“We believe this is the right product at the right time,” said Mahlati. “Our research shows that Africa’s growing middle class is discerning in its fabric choices, looking for natural fibres where possible”, and cashmere answered this demand.
The Ivili Loboya factory is a wool-processing hub that performs wool-sorting and scouring as well as fibre manufacturing and handspinning of yarns. It also supplies insulation and inner soles for safety shoes.
The Dispatch went on a tour of the factory and watched men and women at work sorting wool and spinning yarn, creating beautiful fabrics in rich colours.
Mahlati said the textile hub was bringing jobs to the rural Eastern Cape as it employed 24 people fulltime, with an additional 30 seasonal sorters, seven weaving cooperatives (which each employ a number of people) and sourced goat fibre from 332 small farmers from areas around Mthatha, Sterkspruit, Queenstown, Matatiele and Barkly East, many of them women.
As well as the cashmere wool yarn, other yarns used in the fabric blends – such as merino, mohair and silk – are sourced where possible from local commercial agencies, communal wool producers and from rural-hand spinning cooperatives.
“While at the Development Bank of Southern Africa (DBSA 1997-2000), I was convenor of South Africa’s first Plant Fibre Cluster (Sisal, Hemp, Flax, Kenaf) where we worked with industry and research institutions [to catalyse the growth of new industries based on innovative uses of natural fibres].
“We also worked with communal farmers to develop the Ivili app, an in-house app developed to ease wool logistics. In 2015 we set up in Butterworth,” she said.
Mahlati said they considered many different locations throughout the Eastern Cape, but Butterworth was eventually selected as it was a convenient transport corridor, being 100km away from East London which has an airport and a port, and not too far from Port Elizabeth.
The town also ticked many other boxes; especially as in Ibika there was a previously vibrant industrial area.
“There are around three million communal sheep in the Eastern Cape, with many indigenous goats for cashmere. Accessibility to Butterworth was a considered advantage, given the transport corridor to customers in Durban,” said Mahlati.
She added: “Remember SA’s first wool scouring plant was in Butterworth, and the textile engineer of the time, Simon Leegwater, who was the main engineer and played an active role in the former Transkei Gcuwa wool factory, is a member of our advisory team and board member.
“Establishing a value chain enterprise could be built on existing factory infrastructure even though it was somewhat dilapidated,” she explained, referring to the state of many factories in Ibika.
Finding the right goat and farmer
AFRICAN Farmers’ Association of South Africa (Afasa) president Mahlati said finding that the indigenous (imbuzi/ibhokhwe) goat was suitable for cashmere production was the biggest surprise.
“These are the goats in our neighbourhood. Ivili Loboya has a livestock unit to handle flock management. Through this unit we train farmers how to comb the goat hair, among other things.
“Training these farmers is important for harnessing organic wool for product development. Management of the livestock – from pasture to wool fabric – is beneficial for quality production,” she explained, adding that it was a bit of a challenge to convince farmers to partner with her.
“Introducing something new is never easy. People were not used to combing goats [for their fibre/wool] as they associated wool with sheep.
“We run workshops to educate them but as they see that the goat wool fetches more rands than sheep wool it becomes easier,” she said.
She believes that in addition to skills transfer, Ivili Loboya is able to offer employment to youth who have studied for bachelor’s and master’s degrees in subjects such as textiles and engineering and are keen to live and work in their home region rather than migrate.
“Keeping a range of skills in the region is another important aspect of enhancing the socio-economic value chain. Local people are knocking on our door for jobs and we owe it to them to deliver a product that can take its rightful place in world markets, creating sustainable employment that can grow the local economy.” — ziphon@dispatch.