Fixing fashion, fast: Esethu Cenga, 27, wins R1.19 million for her recycling start-up
The South African development economics graduate and Mandela Rhodes Scholar is the first-ever recipient of the Äänit Prize, The Mandela Rhodes Foundation’s new award for social Impact
On October 23, 2021, Esethu Cenga, 27, won 1.19 million rands for Rewoven, the textile recycling start-up she co-founded in 2018 with Lonwabo Mgoduso and Tshepo Bhengu. The South African development economics graduate and Mandela Rhodes Scholar is the first-ever recipient of the Äänit Prize, The Mandela Rhodes Foundation’s new award for social Impact.
“Rewoven is a compelling and innovative textile recycling start-up that brilliantly addresses critical needs for economic development, broad-scale employment, women’s empowerment, and planetary responsibility. This enterprise has the potential to be transformative economically, socially and environmentally. It is sustainable by profit and globally scalable.” This was the citation delivered on behalf of an independent panel of judges made up of African experts from various sectors, chaired by Elliot Gerson, Executive Vice President of the Aspen Institute.
Every second, the equivalent of a rubbish truckload of clothes is burnt or buried in a landfill. The fast-fashion industry is one of the most polluting in the world. It generates 90 million tons of waste annually, of which only 1% is recycled. Rewoven diverts textile waste from landfills by collecting it from the source and recycling it into new fabric. Rewoven’s manufacturing process uses 99% less water and generates 50% less CO2 emissions than normal production processes. The fabric has the same look and quality as fabric made from virgin fibers. The labor-intensive textile recycling process provides much-needed jobs, particularly for women, who make up the majority of clothing industry workers. Rewoven’s vision is to create a socially and ecologically sustainable way to create clothing and to contribute to more socially and ecologically sustainable ways of living.
Professor Njabulo Ndebele, Chairman of the Board, said that the awarding of the new prize was a historic moment in the life of the Foundation, which is Nelson Mandela’s official legacy organisation for leadership development. “By entrepreneurship we mean a belief in the critical role played by individual human effort, hard work, innovation and creativity in leading to the betterment of society and Africa’s place in the world. Each of the seven finalists beautifully embodies this spirit. I am struck by the combination of pragmatism and hopefulness that characterizes these projects – a way of seeing possibilities hidden within the challenges that we face,” he said. Professor Ndebele also emphasized his gratitude to the donor, David Cohen.
The awards were co-hosted by actor Masasa Mbangeni and MRF CEO Judy Sikuza, who are both Mandela Rhodes Scholars themselves, and streamed to a global audience. Sikuza said that she was delighted with the result. “Esethu Cenga’s leadership of Rewoven is exactly what we hope for when we select and develop Mandela Rhodes Scholars. Esethu demonstrates courageous, visionary leadership that is grounded in hard work and humility. We are very proud of her and Rewoven, which offers such a creative solution to several complex problems.” She added that the competition was extremely tight and that all of the finalists’ ventures are exceptional and worthy of support and investment.
Cenga gave a few words of thanks and acknowledged her team. “Thank you to the foundation first and foremost, I wouldn’t be here without the foundation. more than the education and funding, MRF made me see myself. It changed my life and made me see that I could actually do what I wanted to do, and I was always very insecure before that. Thank you to the team at Rewoven – I don’t do it alone. I’m really grateful for this opportunity.”
The Äänit Prize is a complementary offering to the Foundation’s flagship program, the Mandela Rhodes Scholarship, and is available alumni of both the Mandela Rhodes Scholarship and the Rhodes Scholarship. The prize supports both for-profit and non-profit initiatives, increasing the impact of leaders in both alumni communities by supporting their efforts to reduce inequality and deliver positive social impact in Africa. The Prize is funded by Ezrah Charitable Trust which was started by long-time MRF supporter and Rhodes Scholar David Cohen.
More information about the prize is available here. More information about the finalists and their extraordinary projects is available below.
Vuyane Mhlome: Quro Medical, “A hospital at home.” Quro Medical is a digital health tech start-up based in South Africa, where the healthcare system is overburdened. Quro’s focus is on providing hospital-level care for patients without them needing to leave home. Quro aspires to build Africa’s biggest virtual hospital. The Hospital at Home is powered by cutting-edge technology and supported by highly skilled clinical staff, protocols and best practices. When patients are referred by their doctors, Quro gives them monitoring devices which collect health data minute-by-minute. This data is analyzed constantly via a 24/7 monitoring site. The doctor can access this platform and easily manage the patient’s treatment plan. Constant monitoring allows the slightest change in the patient’s health data – such as heart rate or blood pressure – to be picked up. This provides early warning about any possible deterioration, in time to get them the necessary healthcare.
“Covid-19 has shown a huge need for this type of care. Our hospitals have struggled with bed capacity and limited resources and healthcare workers are run off their feet. Even without a pandemic, resources are strained. We have come up with an innovative way to tackle these challenges,” said co-founder Vuyane Mhlome, a South African Rhodes Scholar who co-founded Quro with Zikho Pali and Rob Cornish in 2018.
James Tayali: Keki-Mawe, “Nutritious food products and effective agriculture”
Hunger and malnutrition are critical public health problems in Malawi. Keki-Mawe uses innovation and food science to produce simple but highly nutritious food. Keki-Mawe makes iron fortified powders, biscuits and instant porridge from locally sourced ingredients. These products are rich in nutrients such as iron, folate, calcium, proteins and vitamins, which are essential for human growth and can reduce the risk of developing health problems such as anemia and malnutrition. Keki-Mawe also empowers rural farmers with innovative agricultural training to grow nutritious crops, increase yields, and improve resilience in the face of climate change. Some of this produce is procured as raw materials for the Keki-Mawe food products.
“Nutritional supplementation through simple but highly nutritious food is in high demand in Malawi. Our aim is to help the government to meet the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal Two of reducing hunger and malnutrition, through agriculture and food security interventions in Malawi,” said founder James Tayali, a Malawian Mandela Rhodes Scholar and health innovation specialist.
Sarah Burns: Nia Crowdfund, “Connecting African businesses to much-needed investment.” There are many businesses in Africa which need a significant boost in capital but are too small to take on the huge amounts of money that most investors require. Additionally, potential investors may not have access to the right networks and businesses. Nia seeks to help shrink this SME financing gap through alternative financing methods. Nia supplies between $100 000 and $1 000 000 to exceptional African businesses. This capital is sourced via crowdfunding, which makes it possible to work with investors’ varying appetites for risk and makes it easier to raise for SMEs and start-ups stuck in the “missing middle”. The minimum investment per deal is at $135, which means that Nia makes African markets accessible to all types of investors. Nia uses local partners such as angel investors or accelerators, to support business growth and development post-investment.
“Nia’s primary goal is to make investing in Africa easier, cheaper, fully transparent, and more accessible to help bring in much needed investment and shrink the $140 billion dollar ‘missing middle’ financing gap. We can find ‘purpose’ with our finances by fueling local business growth and prosperity,” said founder Sarah Burns, a Canadian Rhodes Scholar and impact investment expert.
Kenechukwu Ikebuaku: Mozisha, “A skills factory getting African youth job-ready.” Youth unemployment is a major challenge in many African countries; at its root lie inadequate job creation and the lack of skills or skills mismatch on the part of the job seekers. Mozisha seeks to close the skills gap between industry and job-seekers through Digital Apprenticeships. The company connects learners with businesses in order to develop their skills in line with the demands of the labor market. Unlike platforms that are theory-based, Mozisha focuses on the practical dimension of learning, by immersing learners in real businesses and projects. Learners also gain access to mentors, a supportive community, and are provided with further opportunities to monetize their skills.
“Mozisha is building Africa’s largest talent development ecosystem powered by a sophisticated digital platform which will help young Africans identify, nurture and monetize their skills while providing a conduit for recruiters to have access to skilled talents across Africa,” said founder Kenechukwu Ikebuaku, a Mandela Rhodes Scholar from Nigeria.
Chido Dzinotyiwei: Vambo Academy, “Language learning for Africans by Africans”
Africa is the fastest growing and second largest continent in the world yet African knowledge resources are difficult to source. Vambo Academy is an educational technology (EdTech) platform that uses digital resources to offer language learning, translation and knowledge services. Vambo teaches indigenous languages online and offers a dictionary, blog posts and podcasts on cultural topics. A student may enroll for the self-learning tool and learn an indigenous language at their own pace or they may book a virtual session with an experienced tutor for a personalized learning experience.
“We are committed to building resources that drive inclusion, localize experiences, campaigns and business by making it easier for language to form the basis of the story. We believe that every African language and culture deserves to be preserved and learned,” said co-founder Chido Dzinotyiwei, a Zimbabwean Mandela Rhodes Scholar and entrepreneur.
Sammy Sambu: Bartanel Discovery, “Decentralizing the malaria vaccine”
Rural, remote and low-income patients are often excluded from clinical trials in Africa. Currently, only formally recognized research sites can conduct vaccine trials, which limits participation. Working on the problem of malaria in Kenya, Bartanel Discovery is proposing decentralized, mobile-enabled clinical trials situated in high-malaria regions, that can demonstrate that the vaccine works. Using mobile technology, the project seeks to secure the continuity of service and consistency in health-seeking behavior. This will lead to more people enrolling and completing the malaria vaccine program. Malaria takes a huge toll on people and economies in some African countries. If we can immunize enough people against malaria, there will be many positive benefits: if less children die of malaria, families are less likely to hedge against infant mortality by having more children. This supports family planning. Preventing malaria will also improve early development and educational outcomes among children, by reducing the loss of school time due to sickness.
“If it can be proved that a mobile-enabled deployment of the malaria vaccine is effective in a real-world context, this will enable almost immediate implementation in child and adult immunizations,” said Kenyan Rhodes Scholar Sammy Sambu, MD of Bartanel Discovery.
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