UFS wool project invests in women

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

Women from rural communities in the Free State are economically and socially empowered through a project by the University of the Free State (UFS) aimed at expanding the wool value chain in informal regions.

The Regional Universities Forum for Capacity Building (Ruforum) project was launched in 2019 by the UFS’s Department for Sustainable Food Systems and Development. Dr Jan Swanepoel, senior lecturer and researcher at the department, and Carien Denner-Vorster, project co-ordinator, are the driving force behind this multi-disciplinary project. Dr Swanepoel says the project has been going from strength to strength since the proposal was approved by Ruforum.

Ruforum entails a network of 47 universities in Africa operating in 38 countries. This Uganda-based consortium supports universities in contributing to the well-being of small-scale farmers and the economic development of countries.

Read more about the Ruforum project.

The project consists of different legs, including research as well as farmer and community development. One of its focal points is the improvement of wool growers, sheep shearers and community members through knowledge dissemination and skills training. The UFS’s Paradys experimental farm outside Bloemfontein serves as the support base for wool production and processing.

Employing women

Training women from the different communities to convert less valuable wool from sheep into marketable products without the use of expensive equipment, is a component of the project that they are extremely proud of, says Dr Swanepoel.

This initiative was successful to the extent that seven women have been employed on a full-time basis. Elizabeth Mnwana, Nthabiseng Ndabeni, Sophia Mekhoe, Sarah Lenong, Lerato Morake, Georgina Collins and Emily Segame have been responsible for shearing and processing raw wool from the UFS’s own Dohne Merino flock since 2021. These women are full of praise for the project and agree it changed their life for the better, as they now earn an income. They are also grateful for the opportunity to improve their skills.

Processing of wool

Once the wool has been sorted, explains Carien, the less good quality wool is used and the high-quality wool is pressed and sold. The wool is washed in a special wool detergent and placed on shelves to be sun-dried. Clean wool is ‘picked’ apart by hand to lighten the texture and is then fed through a manual carding machine that works like a hairbrush. It combs the wool fibre apart, forming long, thin fibres that resemble cotton candy.

The long strips of carded wool are used to make felt consisting of three layers of fibres. These are packed on top of each other in opposite directions to aid the felting process. Hot water containing dishwashing detergent is sprinkled over the fibres on the felt machine.

Read more about Ruforum’s work in Thaba Nchu and Botshabelo.

This machine consists of approximately 1 x 1m plates that close on each other. When the layers are ready, the machine is clamped shut. The two plates then move against each other and between the friction and vibrations, the felt is then formed. It takes around an hour to make a sheet of felt in the machine. The sheets of felt are dyed in different colours using different techniques.

Popular products

It is these sheets of felt the women use to make the products. Jansie Kruger and Doretha Jacobs, who are responsible for training the women, have designed a number of patters, among them the much-loved rabbit, frog and owl design.

Other felt products include bags, wine bags, balls, waistcoats, cushions, pencil cases, hot water bottle holders, dog coats and book covers. They are also making shweshwe conference bags, which are popular and offer something traditional to foreigners attending these conferences. The products are featured on the Facebook page UFS WoolWise. – Christal-Lize Muller, Stockfarm

For more information, contact Dr Jan Swanepoel on 078 457 7655 or swanepoeljw@ufs.ac.za, or Carien Denner-Vorster on 079 891 6145 or dennerc@ufs.ac.za.

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