A Teabag Economy at T-Bag Designs, Cape Town


Normally, a used teabag has no value. Its only destination is to be deposited in a bin, and carted away to the municipal rubbish dump. How, then, is it possible that a used teabag can create jobs, teach people marketing and manufacturing skills, and serve as a means of raising the purchase price of a house for a family of five?

Cape Town-based company T-Bag Designs carries on a unique business. It collects used teabags from dozens of sources, dries them, empties out the leaves. The covers, coated with resin and applied to various surfaces, are painted and decorated with bright, bold colours and patterns and converted to an impressive range of products including bookmarks, calico bags, teapot stands, wall batiks, square and hexagonal boxes of the type you keep on your desk for storing thingamies, notebooks, keyrings, photo albums, ornamental calabashes, wine coolers, coasters, candles, wax cubes, bowls and cups and other kitchenware, trays.

But the significance of the business is not to be found in turnover, balance sheets, production figures, sales targets. The true meaning of the business lies in how it’s impacted on the lives of the people employed there. T-bag Designs was founded in 2003 by Jill Heyes, with the sole objective of providing employment opportunities to impoverished and often unemployable residents of the Imizamo Yethu Township, in Hout Bay. Initially, the business was far from prosperous and Jill had to pay in vast amounts of money to keep the dream going. But over the years it has grown, and today offers work opportunities and an income to 20 people who, without T-Bag Designs, would be facing a bleak and desperate future.

I’ll illustrate the work they do by telling you about Nomsa.

t-bag designs community project south africa

Nomsa’s house in Imizamo Yethu is unique. It is perhaps the only house in the world financed by used teabags. Nomsa and her family of two girls and a boy used to live in a corrugated iron shack – a single roomed, rickety structure with no toilet, no bathroom, no kitchen. The roof leaked perpetually when it rained, and the winter winds blew chillingly through the inadequately sealed windows.

In 2003 a small plot of land became available in Imizamo Yethu, at an asking price of R8 500. Nomsa, who’d joined T-Bag Designs two years previously, got to hear about it. She desperately needed better accommodation for the family, but was overwhelmed by the same helplessness that a penniless street urchin experiences when staring at the expensive toys displayed in a Christmas Eve shop window. The amount of money was out of the question, beyond her craziest dreams. Jill couldn’t help – the cash flow for the month was already at crisis point.

The following day, a UK visitor happened by chance to overhear Jill mentioning the house during a phone conversation. By that afternoon, R8 500 was donated by the UK visitor and the deal was tied up.

Nomsa still needed to finance the building costs. After meetings and paperwork, Nomsa managed to obtain a government housing subsidy, and a loan from a housing development project – a loan which she repaid from the income she was generating by painting the teabags. In five years she didn’t miss a single bond repayment. The proceeds have erected a proud brick and plaster dwelling, consisting of three bedrooms, a bathroom, a lounge, a kitchen. The two girls share one bedroom, and her son Avayile has his own. For the first time ever, the kids have homework space, privacy space, space in which they can grow and learn and develop. It’s impossible to realise how precious a bathroom is, until you’ve lived in a shack which doesn’t have one.

Every one of these stories, from the men and women who earn a living from the teabags gives Jill the reassurance that the years of struggling to make the business grow, have been worthwhile. Every weekly wage envelope she hands to a staff member represents one more weapon, one more bullet, in the quiet, persistent war she’s been waging against the poverty of the squatter camp.

But there are other lessons, as exciting, to be learnt from her campaign. If something as seemingly useless as a spent teabag can be converted into a product the world wishes to buy, and used to raise the flag against the poverty and unemployment so often crippling countries like South Africa, then there must be other opportunities, if only we’d take the trouble to look for them.

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