In 2008, five women got together and started sewing in a room in says founder and manager Judith Thobakgale’s house in Braamfischerville, adjacent to Soweto, she says. “We started the company out of nothing.”

The company was founded by Thobakgale, along with four other women, all of whom were breadwinners in their families at the time and without jobs to sustain their families on a steady salary, entrepreneurship was part passion, part survival.

The Soweto Sewing Centre started out as a creative, income-generating project. Sponsors included donors from the US, who provided some start-up capital, allowing the women to purchase two sewing machines and one over-locker.

Today the company employs 29 people, and specialises in company uniforms and corporate gifts. Other products in its range include bags, bibs, aprons and household items including placemats, tablecloths and coaster sets. It was contracted to supply bibs, aprons and other commodities at the 2010 World Cup Soccer event.

Earlier this year, the company was contracted by SA Tourism and Scan and Display, to make shirts for the support staff at Meetings Africa. SA Tourism also sponsored the company’s exhibition space at this year’s show. “I think this is a very good platform for us,” she said at the show. “This show may be our stepping stone.” Thobakgale said the company is hoping to secure work in the meetings and events industry on the content and internationally too.

While the group started with three machines, today it boasts 14. The company has moved to Newtown, Johannesburg and now resides in Troyeville. This latest move has been due to growth, Thobakgale says.

The company has managed to grow its infrastructure thanks, in part, to the help of Justin Hawes of Scan and Display. Thanks to Howes and others in the events and exhibitions industry, the company has been given a platform at exhibitions. This has helped Thobakgale grow the company’s reach.

Over the years, the Soweto Sewing Company has been able to purchase industrial machines, opening up opportunities for larger contracts.

Still access to finance is a challenge for Thobakgale as it is of many other SMEs. Without access to a loan, growth is slow, although steady. Thobakgale explains that next on her list, she would like to buy a machine to do buttonholes, as the company is currently outsourcing that work, cutting into its profit margins

This article is part of a series where Tourism Update highlights small, medium and micro-sized enterprises in the tourism sector. This series is brought to you courtesy of South African Tourism.