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Beading for social change

Oct 07 2015 15:05
Lameez Omarjee
Relate Bracelets employs 300 women in townships in

Relate Bracelets employs 300 women in townships in the Western Cape to bead bracelets for social change. Over the past five years, Relate sold 1.7m bracelets and generated revenue of R27m. (picture supplied).

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Inspired by Lance Armstrong’s LIVESTRONG bracelets, which raise cancer awareness, Lauren Gillis wanted to create handmade bracelets that would “change people’s lives”.

Gillis had been working on crafted gifts for conference packages since 2004. In 2008 she woke up with “Nando’s!” screaming in her head. So at 2am that morning she googled Nando’s and saw that the restaurant was celebrating its 21st birthday – she took it as a sign.

Gillis contacted former Nando’s CEO Robert Brozin with the proposal to partner with Nando’s and sell handmade bracelets that would raise money to feed orphaned and vulnerable children. Brozin agreed and Gillis got an order to make 600 bracelets.

With the help of her domestic worker, Gillis found unemployed elderly women from townships who were willing to bead the bracelets. During the 2010 Fifa World Cup, Nando’s got involved in working against malaria, resulting in Relate’s first United Against Malaria bracelet. Soccer stars promoted the United Against Malaria campaign and to date, R8.5m has been raised in four and a half years.

“Those were the humble beginnings and we’ve gone from strength to strength,” says Neil Robinson, who joined Relate Bracelets as its CEO last year.

After 23 years in the corporate sector, Robinson says he wanted to make a difference to other  people’s lives and his own. He calls it his version of a mid-life crisis.

Cape Town-based Relate still collaborates with corporates like Nando’s and charities to create awareness of important causes. Bracelets are designed to match the brand DNA or the specific cause, explains Robinson.

Some brands and causes differ, but all designs are intended to establish a longterm identity.

A 'simple but complex' model

Each bracelet is priced at R35. A third of the proceeds goes towards covering the cost management of the organisation. Another third goes back to the community, which includes the 300 women who bead the bracelets. These women often take care of orphaned, HIV positive children, some of whom they are not related to. Some of it is invested in skills development and upliftment programmes for youths in Cape Town’s townships. Currently 27 matriculants – who have few employment opportunities – work for Relate while they receive skills training. They do courses ranging from medical and social work to soccer coaching. The plan is to empower these matriculants to find careers beyond Relate in the future.

This third also includes enterprise development. Of every bracelet sold, R3 goes toward supporting the development of small businesses that have been able to establish a footprint, but need  assistance to grow.

The final third goes to charity partners, such as United Against Malaria, Endangered Wildlife Trust, Reach For A Dream and the Amy Biehl Foundation. Relate supports about 65 different charities. Causes are selected through a process of due diligence, says Robinson. Brands that are equitable, have a “solid reputation” and have transparent financial records are selected.

Bracelets are sold via various retail partners, such as Woolworths, Foschini, Clicks, Sorbet and the Protea Hotels group. The various distribution outlets are critical to Relate’s success, says Robinson, as they ensure income annuity.

Retailers receive a small margin of the sales. The wholesale price is R25 and the standard sale price is R35. Every cent is accounted for and Relate is run as a commercial organisation. A lot of the retailers invest the proceeds in corporate social investment projects. “Good begets good,” says Robinson.

This is an excerpt of an article that originally appeared in the 20 August 2015 edition of Finweek. Subscribe and buy the magazine here

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