Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Sneak Preview: One of My Case Studies

Lize Albertyn-du Toit: Farmer and Small Business Owner

Lize with Poppie and Sophia, two of the Pêpa ladies
When you walk into Lize’s farmhouse, you immediately feel at home. Perhaps it’s the welcoming sound of footsteps on the wooden floors. Maybe it’s the rays of sunlight breaking through the little shutters in the solid wooden doors. It could be the laughter of friends busy in the kitchen, a room filled with things that say, “Life’s been lived here.” Old-school kitchenware, not for the show, but for use.
Everything and everyone—including the farmer and his wife—says, “Make yourself at home. Stay a while.” I had planned to visit for a day. I stayed a fortnight.
Lest anyone fears ever inviting me over for as much as a cup of coffee after this, I should point out that Lize's (LEE-zuh) and my friendship goes back to 1988, when we were freshmen at the University of Pretoria and lived in the same dorm for four years. In many ways, over those critical four years as young adults, we grew up together.
With me living overseas, we hadn’t seen each other since 1995, though. My visit to their farm happened in 2012, and we had a lot of catching up to do. Plus, the farm turned out to be an amazing place to do what I had to do: write.
You cannot help but be inspired when you fall asleep to the sight of the Southern Cross peering in through your bathroom window from a sky filled with stars. And you wake up smiling if, from the comfort of your bed, you see the sun poke out its red head directly behind the mountains on the edge of the farm. But I digress…
Over many a cup of tea, we talked about issues of faith and family, work and worship, pain and pleasure. I learned about Lize’s free-range egg business (called Ethical Eggs) and laughed out loud at her farm stories—like the one of how Lize had had it with the cocky rooster after he had kicked her yet again (this time, while she was fully focused on feeding some calves). So she chased him around the roost and showed him who’s the boss. Never had an issue with him or any of the other roosters again. Not once.
And I learned of Lize’s other business called Pêpa, a Sesotho (se-SOO-too) word meaning to carry someone. (Pêpa sounds like pepper, but with and ah sound at the end.) At some stage or another, all kids in South Africa are pêpad on someone’s back or on their hip. It’s part of growing up on the continent.
Lize had started the business partly because she had turned 40 and, having spent the most recent quarter of her life focused on raising her boys, she felt like she wanted to do something new.
The real impetus for starting Pêpa, however, was that Lize knew something bigger than the egg business had to be started. Farmers in South Africa receive absolutely no government subsidies, so it helps to have a side business that is not dependent on just the right amount of rain at just the right time of the year, or affected by a drop in wool and meat prices. If the farm goes under (not unusual under the current economic climate, nor with the weather being unpredictable), it cripples all the farm workers. Hence, Pêpa was born, to carry the women of the community.
Lize and her husband Stefanus (Stuh-FAH-niss)—along with their two sons, two dogs, several cats, chickens, sheep and some cattle—live on a wheat farm in the Swartland, a lush region just north of Cape Town. Stefanus’ ancestors have worked this land since the early 1700s. They have a great staff on the farm, but while they don’t grow fruit like many of the other farms in the region, the farm workers’ wives don’t have jobs. Few are educated and thus they cannot get good jobs in town.
Lize wanted to change that. She wanted the women to have something they could work for, something they could be proud of. She wanted them to have a way to be able to contribute to sending their own children to school.
In partnership with Liesl, another college friend of ours, Lize decided to start a small business. It had to be something fun and creative, they figured. Something beautiful yet practical. The quality had to be high. The style had to be both chic and distinctly African. And it had to be something that would inspire the farm ladies to be more than they ever thought they could be.
So, with Lize’s cadre of farm ladies, they started making the most beautiful girls’ dresses from shweshwe, 100% cotton in earthy hues of red, blue, brown, orange and green. (This fabric has been used in Southern Africa since the Dutch landed here in 1652. It’s especially popular for traditional ceremonies among the Xhosa people.) They had hardly launched Pêpa when they got an order for 100 girls’ dresses from an upscale safari company in Namibia.
Although very careful not to grow the business too fast, my friends are elated at the effect the business has had on Lize’s community. “There’s so much joy on the farm, Adéle,” she told me while cleaning up from kneading a huge ball of dough that stood covered cozily in a warm corner, getting ready to be baked.
Sitting down for some freshly-brewed coffee, she shares more stories of how much the Pêpa ladies love what they do. A great photographer to boot, Lize’s got photos up all over the kitchen and work areas of the ladies laughing while they’re working. Not only are the dresses made with loving care; they’re made with joy. And part of that joy is that all the hens on the farm are working hard, honing their skills, changing their world—one dress at a time.
To see photos of the Pêpa collection, visit www.pepaclothing.com.

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