“I use my creativity to make a change!”

Colleen turns waste materials into stylish products

Name: Colleen Deetlefs 
Company: Lamplight gear – designs bags and accessories out of waste materials
Website: www.lamplightgear.com 
Location: Durban, South Africa

When did you start your business and why?
I’m a creative with over 20 years’ experience as clothing manufacturer and footwear buyer. You can imagine the corporate world was not really an inspiring environment for a creative spirit like me. I was not working to my full potential and had the desire to contribute to something bigger. The idea to start my own business was born one day in 2013, when I saw a pile of inner tyre tubes that was destined for landfill. Immediately I started thinking what can I do with these tubes? Wouldn’t it be great for the environment if I can turn waste materials into stylish products? I have a passion for creating something out of nothing. What other people perceived as waste, I saw as an opportunity. 

What makes your business unique?
There are so many things that make Lamplight gear unique. To begin with, all our bags and accessories are handmade and unique, made of natural fabrics or waste materials, like old tyres and video cassette tapes. Moreover, we upcycle waste instead of the more known process of recycling. Recycling is the destruction of waste in order to create something new, whereas upcycling is a way to turn old things into something new from its current state. Upcycling is one of the best ways to reduce our environmental impact. Lastly, we empower the communities by offering training programs and creating employment for young people with specials needs or disabilities.  

What are the biggest challenges you face as (female) entrepreneur?
If you are a small business owner you have to do most things by yourself, from executing business plans and finding customers to building a website and filing the paperwork. In fact, you perform multiple job functions and only have a limited amount of time. For example, I just attended an eCommerce program that gave me all the know-how to start an online shop, but how do I find time if I also have to perform the daily tasks? Apart from the time management issue, it’s a challenge to get access to finance and funding. Even more for women entrepreneurs, who are not always taken seriously. It can be a hard and lonely road sometimes, especially if you operate in the world of sustainability and recycling/upcycling, which is a man’s world. 

Can you share a business highlight with us?
At the World Economic Forum held in Durban in 2016, the late Edna Molewa, South Africa’s former minister of Water and Environmental Affairs, wore proudly one of my handbags, made from an old tyre tube. She loved my products and praised me for upcycling waste into new consumer products and urged local businessmen to start thinking about turning muck into money. It’s always nice to receive appreciation for the work you do.  

What is one of the biggest lessons you learned?
That I never should bring in a business partner just because of finance. The problem is that they don’t work with the same passion. I learned the hard way and ended up losing my business. Nonetheless I knew nobody can steal my passion and creativity, so I started building a new business from scratch again. Now I keep my ideas close to myself. 

What is the key to success?
It involves many factors, like being focussed and finding your uniqueness. The thing that really helps me is to write everything down and to make a plan, like a roadmap that gives you direction where you want to go and what you need to do in order to achieve your goals. Keep pushing forward and build your business one step at a time. I wish I would have had a business mentor, that would have made the path to growth much easier. 

What are your ambitions for your company?
If I close my eyes and fantasize about the future of my company, I see a beautiful store and workshop located on the grounds of a beautiful estate in Durban. I received funding so my company could train and employ many people with disabilities – who make beautiful stylish and creative products out of waste. People can visit our shop, attend a workshop, join a guided tour or enjoy a coffee or lunch in the botanic garden of the restaurant next to our shop. Maybe there will even be other upcycling or recycling shops on the estate, so we create an inspiring environment where we can all flourish. So through the power of creativity, I made a change in the lives of disadvantaged people and helped reducing the impact of waste on our environment.

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