– 23 January 2018
Reviving a fading dream
On the outskirts of Lusaka, Zambia’s capital, is a residential area known as Chaisa. Tucked in one corner of the local shopping centre is a small shop called S&J New Fashions. Sherapy Phiri, 32, works here every day, designing and tailoring clothes.
“I opened this store in 2013,” says Sherapy. “I make suits, dresses and shirts for my customers. I also sew school uniforms. On a day that is not too busy, I am able to make four dresses,” she says from behind her sewing machine, with metres of colourful fabric as a backdrop.
Sherapy creates modern designs from a traditional cloth, locally known as chitenge. This is a colourful fabric that is a fashion essential in Zambia. She explains that opening the business was a dream she had almost given up on.
“I am the third-born in a family of ten children. I did not complete primary school, because my parents could not afford to pay my fees beyond grade seven. Shortly after dropping out of school, I got married.
She explains that without a stable income “life was tough”. She found work in a salon braiding hair, but her real interest was in sewing.
“I looked forward to the day that I would learn to sew and open my own place, but that dream was fading, overshadowed by the daily struggle to survive,” she says.
Taking steps to achieve her dream
One of Sherapy’s neighbours told her that SOS Children’s Villages was helping young people gain skills in order for them to become self-employed.
SOS Children’s Villages runs a Vocational Training Centre in Lusaka, which offers a variety of courses such as tailoring, carpentry, joinery and food production. With these skills, students can find employment or become entrepreneurs. Since the training centre opened in 2005, it has educated more than 1,600 young people.
Sherapy’s application to the vocational training centre was successful. She started a one-year course in tailoring in January 2012. She then applied to study entrepreneurship through the Junior Achievement Programme, a global non-profit organisation that inspires young people to start and manage their own businesses.
“Step by step, I learnt how to sew, cut and design. In the entrepreneurship class, I learnt how to run a business. I learnt a lot,” says Sherapy, smiling.
After completing her training, she found employment as a tailor of school uniforms. SOS Children’s Villages also asked her to sew 1,000 uniforms for the SOS Hermann Gmeiner School. “This was my breakthrough. The money I earned from that contract enabled me to buy my first second-hand sewing machine, pay rent for shop space, and stock up on fabric, ribbons, buttons, needles and threads. That is when I quit my job and started working for myself.”
To enable her business to grow, Sherapy needed human resources, and she found these in her two younger sisters. Recently, she bought a second sewing machine.
Empowering her sisters and daughters
“I taught one of my sisters to sew, and the other one was taught by my aunt. I believe that to succeed at anything, you need to be able to work with others. If I were alone, what would happen in the unlikely event that I fell sick? That would mean the business would shut down. I decided to empower my sisters. We make about 2,000 Kwacha (USD 200) per month. After paying rent, we share the remainder equally.”
The mother of two girls, 12 and 10 years old, is enthusiastic that her children have a chance at a better childhood than she did.
“I would like my children to get a good education and have more opportunities than me. One of my daughters says she wants to be a teacher, and the other one wants to become a doctor. I want to help them achieve their dreams. As for me, I would like to stop sewing one day and instead pass on this skill to other young people. I hope to be a tailoring instructor,” says Sherapy.
“I am so happy about the Vocational Training Centre, because it empowers people regardless of their academic qualifications. I am a school dropout who could not even speak English. I have since learnt to speak a bit of it. The SOS team encouraged me to use the skills they taught me to better my life and not to just sit at home. I followed that advice, and my dream and life plans have become a reality.”
Photo by Tom Maruko