Johannesburg – Tractor driver Tafadzwa Mukwayo arrived in Johannesburg six years after the Zimbabwean government’s fast-tracked land reform left him jobless and hungry.
Mukwayo, 49, drove tractors on an avocado and orange farm in the country’s Eastern Highlands farming belt, but lost his job in 2007, when his employer gave up the land to resettled villagers.
In 2010, he arrived in South Africa and succeeded in his refugee application, but then he faced the difficulty of finding work, GroundUp reported.
“Employers in South Africa doubted my tractor-driving experience.”
He joined groups of homeless people collecting plastic bottles to sell to recyclers in central Johannesburg.
“It was humiliating,” he says.
Then he hit on the idea of making pillows, and selling them on the East Rand, where there was less competition. That was when he moved to Boksburg.
In 2013, he secured a R1 500 grant from the Madzibaba Apostolic Zion Church, one of the larger immigrant churches on the East Rand. He used the money to buy a Singer sewing machine and employed two young men to scour the bins of Boksburg schools, stores, and suburbs for foam and discarded woolen clothing.
“I pay them R500 for their efforts and make sure they buy soap, mealie meal, and fresh clothes, not glue and beer,” he says.
It takes a week to soak, clean, and sanitise the materials.
“Each pillow must weigh 1.5kg and be stiff, but not rocky on the neck.”
“Immigrants from Zimbabwe prefer my pillows. They complain high-street shop pillows in South Africa are either too large, too thin, or too expensive.”
He says he cannot keep up.
“I am astonished by the demand for my pillows.”
His cheapest pillow costs R150. A pillow branded with a customer’s name sells for R300.
“I even patronise Newtown International Bus Station in downtown Johannesburg to supply Zimbabwe-bound customers with my pillows. I’m exporting!” he laughs.
From spending six months in 2010 getting a stiff neck from sleeping on bags, he is now earning a living making pillows from nothing.