Back in 2018 when the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the South African Local Government Association (SALGA) signed an agreement to support the coordination and strengthening of individual and institutional capacity to implement the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), little did they realise how important this would become during the pandemic.

As the pandemic hit businesses in 2020, through a further link with the Japanese Government for funding, the UNDP and SALGA were able to identify businesses in need and reach out to ensure they survived the economic disruption that came with the lockdown. The programme ran from November 2020 to March 31 and assisted 1 108 businesses. The R8 million relief fund assisted businesses in all nine provinces across sectors including fresh produce, automotive and manufacturing.

The beneficiaries had an array of challenges that the programme aimed to remedy including not having the means to purchase protective clothing and hygiene products to curb the spread of the virus as well as not meeting the criteria for government grants. Also, the lockdowns disrupted food markets as agricultural production reduced and this decreased access to food as well as raising the cost of fresh produce. For some the chance to divert their business operations to help fulfil the need for equipment such as face masks, was a way to ensure their businesses survived too.

For Beauty Sonny of Monenebe Maintenance and Projects lockdown proved to be the beginning of the unexpected start of a new business that is currently coming to fruition. Her regular business is renting out equipment in the mining space, but she knew she’d need something else during lockdown, which is when she applied for the programme. “I was looking at an alternative and diverted my business to producing masks.” With the fund allocation she equipped a number of sole proprietors in her hometown of Mamelodi with sewing machines, and she also began outsourcing the cutting out of the masks for sewing. At one point her team of contractors were cutting out between 2000 and 3000 masks a day.

However, though the programme helped Sonny keep her current business going, it has since opened up a whole new opportunity. Her new business, Monekhu Creations, will manufacture acrylic furniture. Sonny said: “The seed for this business was planted by making masks.” She explained that making masks led her to research making the face shields, which were made of acrylic. She then discovered it would be a good material for furniture and shortly her new factory will start production.

For fashion designer Mahlatse Mabundla, the programme allowed him to keep his business ticking over. The owner and creator of Austin D, Mabundla has been creating his own fashions for 20 years and during the lockdown he was able to continue creating pieces in his signature style to sell once business opened up. “I set trends,” he said, “I have my own style and fashion, I don’t copy anyone. I have been making readymade stuff during lockdown on my own from home, unfortunately I can’t afford to hire anyone, I work alone.”

Lorato Mogoje, the founder and director of Lorato Creations in Kimberley, Northern Cape, was one of the beneficiaries. She owns a boutique that designs clothes and does alterations, with a focus on wedding dresses and suits. Through the programme, Mogoje was given the contract to produce 1020 face masks, which enabled her to continue paying the rental on her studio and she could also pay stipends for her staff.

“I am forever grateful for what UNDP and SALGA have done for me because when the Covid-19 pandemic hit our shores, the future of my business became bleak. I really did not see it being sustained and this is the only way I make ends meet,” said Mogoje.

Owner of HN Designs, Hlengiwe Dube, an aspiring young entrepreneur, was another of the recipients of the programme, making face masks. “The programme gave us constructive feedback throughout the face mask evaluation process. We gained knowledge and exposure in making face masks that were in compliance with the Covid-19 health guidelines.”

Having had the helping hand to keep her business going during the pandemic, she is now looking towards growth. Dube said, “I wish to expand my sewing business by including an embroidery department for job creation in the community.”

SALGA’s Tobogo Matlou said that the partnership had achieved what the parties had hoped for, however the need was great and they did receive many more applications and could have helped many more businesses had they had the resources.

“With our clear focus being on the eradication of poverty, the partnership with SALGA assisted with achieving this goal by ensuring that SMMEs are able to continue operating and feed families. What was distinct about this partnership is that we were able to work directly through municipalities which operate in the sphere closest to the people,” said UNDP Resident Representative, Dr Ayodele Odusola.

Though the full extent of the success of the project is currently being evaluated, Matlou said it made a positive impact for recipients. “It is difficult to measure as we are going to do project evaluation and lessons learned in July 2021, however most SMMEs, formal and informal traders, welcomed and appreciated the support provided by this project.”