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Leading ladies of scrap: Esethu Cenga

The recycling world is witnessing great innovation. The landscape is changing, both in terms of technology and the faces seen in the crowds at tradeshows and conferences. This feature shines a spotlight on women representing the global scrap industry. Meet Esethu Cenga of Rewoven, based in South Africa.

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Esethu founded Rewoven back in 2018, after graduating from the University of Cape Town with her two best friends, Tshepo Bhengu (currently the coo) and Lonwabo Mgoduso. Their mission was clear: to create a start-up that would close the loop in the local clothing and textiles industry while creating employment opportunities, particularly for women and young people.

How are things are Rewoven?

‘Really well! In 2020 we opened our new factory and warehouse in Cape Town – the clothing and textiles manufacturing hub of South Africa. Here, we collect textile waste from clothing manufacturers based across the capital. To date, we have diverted over 360 tonnes of textile waste from landfill.’

Can you take us through your daily operations?

‘Our recycling team prepares the material for recycling – sorting, washing, shredding, baling – after which it is sold to different manufacturers who use it as input. This includes fashion designers who want to increase their recycled content. We also sell 100% recycled fabric made from a blend of cotton and plastic waste. This fabric is sold to fashion brands who use it to produce new garments such as t-shirts. Other popular applications include dog beds, filling material for upholstery, carpet underlays, insulation in construction, disaster relief blankets and high-end bed sheets.’

What inspired your relationship with recycling?

‘During my academic career that I studied global value chains, particularly in the clothing industry, and their impact on climate change, resources and the economy. My perspective on consumption changed when I realised how the fashion industry exploits workers – most of whom are women of colour – and the environment. My dissertation really pushed me to want to find a solution to this and combine my love for clothing and development studies into a career.’

How would you describe the DNA of your company?

‘Our team’s culture has a strong human-centred approach which informs everything we do – how we interact and treat our team and how our team works with our clients, suppliers and the larger ecosystem. We are all very youthful and inquisitive in nature and want to tackle textile waste through creative problem-solving, innovation and sustainable development.’

African countries are a popular destination for European exports of used clothing. What are your thoughts on this?

‘The export of used clothing from Europe is occurring in a time when African economies are industrialising their textiles sector so it threatens the growth of the sector. Moreover, most of the used clothing is in poor condition and not suitable for reuse. This creates a problem of textile waste in Africa that Africa did not create. While this is a frustrating dynamic, it also presents us with an opportunity to develop our own textile recycling industry in Africa to not only accommodate the current growing textile waste problem but also the growth of textile waste from our own emerging clothing and textiles sector.’

How do you think Rewoven has been able to impact the recycling performance in your area?

‘Cape Town is the clothing and textiles manufacturing hub in South Africa with more than 90 registered clothing manufacturers. Despite being the centre of clothing production nationally, there was virtually no textile waste collection or alternatives for landfilling. We have created a non-profit initiative called the Future of Fashion Indaba which aims to educate local manufacturers, retailers, designers and consumers about the circular economy and best practices in the textiles industry.’

How do you look back on the recognition you’ve received so far?

‘It was amazing to be part of the Recycling International Top 100 last year and also winning R1.19 million (EUR 70 000) as part of the Äänit Prize, the Mandela Rhodes Foundation’s new award for social impact. I feel torn between being proud, shocked, and even “Imposter Syndrome” as there is still so much for me to do as a young ceo.’

What’s your favourite item of clothing?

‘My Lukhanyo Mdingi scarf. He is one of my favourite African designers and epitomises “slow fashion” and what a conscious design process looks like. The scarf is made from Merino wool sourced from the Eastern and Western Cape in South Africa. The wool is woven by hand locally using an ancient technique called felting to create a texture that is really soft and cosy in winter.

What was it like going through the pandemic while running a start-up?

‘The last two years have been incredibly impactful for our business and team. Firstly, the pandemic allowed us to stress test our business model and develop a more resilient one. Secondly, it taught us to embrace uncertainty which has made us even more flexible and agile in our way of work.’

What are your plans for the future?

‘This year, I want to improve our office space and invest more in R&D while we grow and upskill our team. The prize money will help us on our way. Looking further ahead, say to the next five years, I hope we’ll have more facilities so we can reach communities across South Africa.’

Do you know anyone who deserves to be featured in our ‘women in recycling’ series? Reach out and let us know via [email protected] — all suggestions are welcome!

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