Inside Bangwe rare factory

The weaving factory is unlocking skills of persons with disability, our News Analyst JOY NDOVI writes.

Using his fingers with dexterity, Jeffrey James manoeuvres through the handloom weaving machine with a smile hovering on his face.

For those who have no idea about weaving, the maze of threads is meaningless to them until the 52-year-old with disability, like a magician pulling out a rabbit from a hat, hands you his final product—a beautifully woven rug.

Ziyaya utilising his skills

For 26 years, he has been turning yarn into bags, hats, sweaters and other fabrics.

“Once you have the zeal to learn how to use these machines, it becomes easy to bring out the hidden talents within oneself,” says James.

The father-of-four joined the factory in 1996 after unsuccessful interviews with various companies that felt his disability would affect his performance.

Yet at Bangwe Weaving Factory, James is a master at the centuries old art of weaving. He is the weaving supervisor at the factory.

From his salary, he bought a piece of land, feeds his family and pays his children’s school fees and.

In the design studio, Peter Ziyaya, 53, is an accomplished designer flexible with all forms of traditional printing methods, including flexography, lithography, offset printing, letterpress, gravure and the latest technology in digital printing.

Just like James, Ziyaya joined the factory in 1996 after an unsuccessful job hunting campaign in which his disability always made employers look down upon him.

“I have a physical disability yes, but that does not stop me from utilising my skills and producing state-of-the-art designs” explains Ziyaya.

The 2018 census revealed that the country is home to nearly 727 000 people with disability of working age. Almost 324 000 of them are males and 403 100 females.

According to Ministry of Gender, Disability and Social Welfare, less than half of this population is employed,.

In 2017, the International Labour Office (ILO) reported that when persons with disabilities have access to training in skills relevant to the labour market and suited to their abilities and interests, they can make a significant contribution in the workplace and to the living standards of their households, the community and the wider society.

However, the United Nations (UN) labour agency notes that the potential of many persons with disabilities remains untapped as they do not have equal access to training in employable skills, relevant to the labour market in which they seek to work—be it formal employment, self-employment or small businesses in the informal economy.

“A recent study of living conditions of persons with disability in Malawi, reports the unemployment rate among persons in the economically active age of 15-65 years as 54 percent. The unemployment rate appears to be slightly higher among people with disabilities as compared to those without disabilities [57.7 percent versus 53.2 percent],” explains the report.

The weaving factory in Bangwe Township in Blantyre has proved that the country is losing out from under-representation of persons with disabilities in the workplace.

Malawi Council for the Handicapped (Macoha) opened the factory in 1976 to train and employ people with disabilities in various crafts. For 43 years, it has trained hundreds of people with various disabilities. Now, it prides itself in being the only dedicated employment centre for people with disabilities in the country.

According to factory manager Henderson Nyondo, the centre strives to provide on-the-job training and long-term waged employment, but also to showcase to other employers the abilities and potential of persons with disabilities.

A walk through the factory affords one an appreciation of the potential in people living with disabilities.

The factory is always a hive of activity as women and men with various disabilities wearing work suits, helmets, gloves, and earplugs go about their daily chores in tailoring, weaving, embroidery, screen printing and tie-dye departments.

Some have visual and hearing impairments while others have learning and physical disabilities. Upon entering the factory’s storeroom, one appreciates a wide array of beautiful and quality products ranging from rugs and wall hangings to bags and T-shirts. The signs of great workmanship prove that disability is indeed not inability.

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