Laurens Mare is CEO of the South African Jewelry Counsel. The interview was conducted by Marc Choyt.

Through the nonprofit organization, Vukani-Ubuntu, you have created a wonderful model that trains economically disadvantaged people from townships into the jewelry trade. Let’s start with what year you were founded and how many people are involved in your program now?

This started in 1999. I joined Demos Takoulas (current CEO) in late 1999. At that stage there was just one project-it was the first project of its kind in the country and the first entity to take gold legally into a township. That was not possible before. We did a lot of ground breaking at that stage. Now, there are 37 structures around including various other projects based on the original Vukani model. Granted there has been some improvements since 1999.

Describe your structure.

We set up a nonprofit organization, funded by government and private companies, that functions to fund as a training facility. This training facility has everything it needs, from machinery to faculty, to bring students into the trade. From this central facility, we have smaller companies that function under it in the hive system. Each of the little factories has access to the equipment from the larger factory, where more technical production elements can be assisted with.

In this environment, the rent of this small start up starts low and then grows as the business increases. He is still linked to the main facility with its expertise, so he can grow his own clientele around himself.

So, if I am understanding correctly, you take people into your training facility, teaching them the trade, while providing them all the support they need?

Yes, and we nurture the businesses until they reach a certain size. Once he has grown to a sustainable level he has to leave the confines of the hive to make space for the next entrepreneur. He still retains the link to the central facility though.

We also have set up a company which sells what is produced in this factory. It is a very cooperative system that has QC in place to make sure that the product creates opportunity to grow business in this method and maintains the supporting infrastructure.

How do you transition them into real life bench experience?

We do an exchange program going into the mass production factory in a mass production environment. They understand the environment and the pressure-this is no ensure that they get first-hand experience of the real manufacturing environment. Training is phase one and phase two is to sub-contract. For example, an order comes in for rings. A jeweler who has completed our program or is working with the program will costs it and send the cleaning and assembly to be done by the developing jewelers as an example.

Who gets to take part in your program?

There is a limited amount of money, but anyone from the townships can apply. They go through test for drawing, hand eye coordination, mathematical skills and language ability. Based on the results, we select our top candidates-ten or twenty out of up to four hundred applicants. But it depends-it can be one out of forty or one out of ten. Unemployment is close to 40% in these townships. One of our trained workers can support 3 to 8 people off his income.

How are the students supported while they are in the program?

Most of the learners receive a stipend as per the SA National regulations through the SETA’s (Sectoral Education & Training Authorities). They provide a list of minimum payments per level reached. In addition, the learners get the opportunity to assist in production and earn an additional income from that.

The more they progress, the more they can produce so their income is finally self-generated.

Can you give me an example of what one of your piece workers makes, compared to the average person in a township?

This very much depends from person to person and which field in the industry they specialize in. As an example a person specializing in cleaning castings can on average earn up to R 4000 per month with someone working for a salary at the same level earning R 1500 – R2 500 per month.

How many small companies have started as a result of your program?

Not that many, I would estimate +- 10 or so that have gone on their own. You must remember that the average period of training for entry level is 3-years. Add to that the additional time spent building up something and we have only really been up and running for 7 years.

What has been your level of success with marketing the product?

That has been the hassle with us, to get sufficient market for the product. But we work with a private company. As mentioned we have set up a hybrid situation, working with established jewelry manufacturers that have viable mass production capacities which utilize us as a resource. Eventually, once a jeweler is solid in his skills, as I said, he breaks away from us and starts his own company. They can still subcontract to the factory. In the process they are learning everything about the business. In the meantime, the money generated goes to development of training and the jeweler.

What have been the challenges?

The problems has been in the operating costs. Keeping the central system functioning, paying the staff running the projects and assisting and training all these guys, to be able to do this, the gas for the car, for example. That is the one place where we are low on funds. Our support network does not want to fund our general administrative expenses.

Please give me a list of what you can produce, and let me know how someone interested in supporting your project might go about working with you.

We will be able to produce just about anything you can find any ware else in the industry. Obviously not the kind of quality you would find in Tiffanies or the like, but reasonable mid range jewelery.