Esethu Cenga boldly backed her intuition to make a social impact and win R1.19m prize

By Logan Marshall Time of article published Oct 25, 2021

Cape Town – Esethu Cenga believes in following her intuition. Her decision to back her entrepreneurial skills and focus on establishing Rewoven, the textile recycling start-up she co-founded in 2017 with Lonwabo Mgoduso and Tshepo Bhengu, has paid off.

Having turned down an attractive job offer, the 27-year-old Mandela Rhodes Scholar on Saturday became the first recipient of the Äänit Prize, The Mandela Rhodes Foundation’s new award for social impact. The Eastern Cape-born and bred Cenga is now R1.19 million richer, defying the odds as most small businesses in South Africa to fail within the first three years of operation.

“I try to make decisions from a place of intellect and logic, though I think that as women, we have a really strong intuition naturally,” Cenga, who studied BCom politics, philosophy, and economics at UCT, said last year on making the Mail & Guardian Top 200 Young South Africans list.

On Saturday, 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, read: ’’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.’’

In 2018, Cenga and her team began producing prototypes of recycled fabric to be experimented with by manufacturers and designers. Last year, Rewoven was accepted into the E-Squared Accelerator programme, which provides support with the aim of contributing to the transformation and the creation of jobs in South Africa.

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.

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 fibres. The labour-intensive textile recycling process provides much-needed jobs, particularly for women, who make up the majority of clothing industry workers.

Acknowledging her team, Cenga said on receiving her prize: ’’Thank you to the foundation first and foremost, I wouldn’t be here without the foundation.

’’More than the education and funding, MRF (Mandela Rhodes Foundation) 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.”

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 characterises these projects – a way of seeing possibilities hidden within the challenges that we face,’’ he said.

The awards were co-hosted by actor Masasa Mbangeni and MRF CEO Judy Sikuza, who are both Mandela Rhodes Scholars, and streamed to a global audience.

Sikuza said: ’’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.