The Soweto Sewing Company

Judith Thobakgale holds up one of the Meetings Africa 2017 shirts made by her company.

Judith Thobakgale holds up one of the Meetings Africa 2017 shirts made by her company. (Image: Gauteng Tourism Authority)

The Soweto Sewing Company – which was tasked with sewing the uniforms for Meetings Africa staff this year – is making a name for itself, especially in the exhibitions industry.

Its story is an inspiring one, as told by Judith Thobakgale, the owner and founder of Soweto Sewing Company. Faced with unemployment, she started the business in Braamfischerville in 2008, together with four friends who were also unemployed.

“We were five women, we were the breadwinners, and we were not working. So we decided to start the business,” she says.

The five founding members shared their skills with each other, which resulted in the creation of bags sewn from African print fabrics. The bags were a hit and it wasn’t long before the right people started taking notice.

Justin Hawes of Scan Display, the company tasked with creating sustainable stands for Meetings Africa exhibitors, was introduced to Thobakgale by a mutual acquaintance.

“Justin opened the business for us – he gave us the premises and helped us with the finance,” says Thobakgale. This, together with the donation of two sewing machines and an overlocker, helped the company increase production, which resulted in wider marketing of its products.

Then in 2010, the Soweto Sewing Company was offered free exhibition space by three exhibition organisers who recognised its talent and potential. Scan Display provided the company with a counter and a branded pop-up stand, as this was its first venture into the exhibitions arena.

Since then, Thobakgale and her team have been growing their business. They’ve gone from five team members to 29 and have moved from their humble beginnings in Braamfischerville to Troyeville.

“I’m doing these shows, like markets and Meetings Africa. I think these shows are our stepping stones to [growing] the business,” she says.

Soweto Sewing has grown its offering from bags to clothing, accessories and homeware, and has been getting great traction at local markets and exhibitions, as many of its products are used as corporate gifts.

This year’s Meetings Africa was a highlight for the company.

“This is the shirt that we made for Meetings Africa this year. This is the uniform for [the staff] that we made for Meetings Africa, that we manufactured at Soweto Sewing,” she says proudly, holding up one of the blue shirts.

Building confidence and encouraging others

Thobakgale is grateful for and excited about the marketing opportunities the company has enjoyed at exhibitions, and is constantly looking for ways in which to get brand exposure.

The entrepreneurial spirit shared by those at Soweto Sewing has helped build confidence and has been beneficial to the community, too. They’ve been positive role models and a source of inspiration to many, encouraging others to think business.

Thobakgale says that back in 2008 she never dreamed that her company would be attending exhibitions like Meetings Africa. Given the business's success, she's very optimistic about Soweto Sewing Company's expansion.

“The future may [hold] something [big] for us,” Thobakgale says.

Judith Thobakgale (far left) with some of her team members at Soweto Sewing Company.

Judith Thobakgale (far left) with some of her team members at Soweto Sewing Company. (Image: Soweto Sewing Company)