Hearing the deaf - Innovative social entrepreneur creates employment opportunities for deaf people


According to StatsSA’s 2014 Profile of Persons with Disabilities in South Africa Report, 2.9 million people in this country are living with disabilities. In the deaf community the functional illiteracy level is about 75 percent and deaf people form less than one percent of the approximate 0.26 percent of disabled people in South Africa who are formally employed.

One non-profit organisation, Deaf Hands at Work (DHW) is changing the lives of deaf people in Cape Town and was started in 2011 by a young Zimbabwean, Charles Nyakurwa, now 30 years old. Academically bright, despite being orphaned at the age of seven, Nyakurwa originally came to South Africa to study further and earn money to educate and care for his deaf mute brother Peter.

But that changed after Nyakurwa realised there were many deaf and hard of hearing people in Cape Town who also had difficulty being accepted into society and earning a living.

His capacity for work and starting new projects is boundless, as Leadership found out, when trying to schedule an interview with him.

“I started working part-time with DHW while I continued studying, working as a waiter and a carpenter,” says Nyakurwa, whose multi-tasking lifestyle has not changed since then.

Construction tools

DFW was conceptualised when Nyakurwa had almost completed his accountancy degree at Unisa. He realised that not only he, but 23-year-old Peter, who only started at a school for the deaf at 15 years old, were ready to start work. “I thought that I would give him all my construction tools I used in the jobs that paid for my studies, and he could upskill himself - hopefully find a company that he could work for. But the more I thought about it I realised there was no company that would employ him.”

Nyakurwa says he also realised that NGOs assisting disabled people were trying to help them find jobs, rather than training and enabling them to work on projects.

“I thought about this and using myself as an example— I could make furniture and if Peter could make a chair he could sell it. But I realised it would be difficult for him to negotiate a good price, although he deserved to sell it at a better price than myself; because it would be difficult for him to communicate this.”

So from half-hearted concerns for his brother’s future, Nyakurwa understood that he needed to create a platform that in ten years’ time Peter would be empowered to be financially independent. “If not I had to ask myself, this is how it is at the moment – I am supporting him. What if in ten years’ time he actually has to look after me – he wouldn’t be able to. It is like the situation happening right now in South Africa, where the government says hang on to the social grant until we get something permanent and then we can get back to you. A social grant is a temporary solution and not an empowering one and makes disabled people dependent on the government or other people.”

The aim of DFW is to train deaf people to help them become self-sustainable through work opportunities. “The challenges are not created by disabled people and my ultimate aim is to train deaf people so that they can become entrepreneurs.”

Starting DFW was not without difficulties as his carpentry premises in Masiphumelele burnt down in 2012, followed by a burglary a couple of years later when Nyakurwa’s laptop and other valuable equipment was stolen. His tenacity at starting afresh soon caught the eye of organisations and he attended whatever learnership programmes were available and soon started winning awards and a chance to study for a master’s degree at UCT Business School.

Nyakurwa’s resolve to continue the NPO was further strengthened by people like Eddie, who is now a full-time member of DFW – who he met on a train. Eddie was selling snacks, but had great difficulty communicating prices with customers.

“It was then (2011) that I decided to learn sign language so I could help my brother to communicate, as there were a lot of unanswered questions, like the death of our mother, that neither myself or family members had been able to explain to him. I also realised how empowered I was in communicating with other deaf people who needed to be heard. Imagine living in a world where no-one understands you or believes that you are intelligent, can learn and master a profession,” comments Nyakurwa, who undertook the first of his ‘silent’ solo-fundraising walks in 2012 to highlight the disability.

Sign language

It was also then that Nyakurwa started working on small projects with deaf people. “Through sign language we had a common passion and that was to work. My mission then was that by the time my brother graduated he could come to South Africa and see what had been achieved and train to be an entrepreneur, which he now is, creating chandeliers for customers.”

Today, DHW is in demand and highly regarded for the quality workmanship from the trained artisans who work on painting, carpentry, renovations and building projects, making chandeliers or working in the garment industry.

”At DHW we work, clothe and sign in ‘Deafstyle’, which is a creative new approach to providing skills training to deaf and physically challenged people through our services,” says Nyakurwa.

The Deafstyle clothing that the artisans wear is printed with common South African sign language gestures to help hearing people communicate with them. “It’s easier for somebody who can hear to learn to sign than it is for a deaf person to talk or read lips.”

Artisans go through a three-year apprenticeship programme with DFW and can obtain a trade certificate when they qualify.

Nyakurwa explains that DFW is constantly aware that where it was in 2012 is vastly different from where it stands today. “A lot of the opportunities we have now are more aligned to the skills the artisans have, than before when the artisans were not skilled enough and I had to do most of the work with other qualified hearing abled people to assist.”

Nyakurwa recalls that some of the more skilled deaf artisans were willing to pass on their knowledge, but had no idea how to interact and pass on their skills to other disabled people. “We forget that deaf people, when thrown into the deep end have difficulty orientating themselves to their environment.”

But according to Nyakurwa, deafness has not hampered the artisans and they are in fact quicker than hearing workers in completing jobs. “Our guys are faster than most construction workers because there is a high level of concentration in what they are doing, to the point that they don’t feel the need to stop, as they will only stop and sign if they want to do something.” He says that the output from the artisans has expanded the boundaries of projects far more than they could have imagined.

The aptitude and skills of the deaf artisans spread by word of mouth and from photos on social media, and soon DHW was working and upskilling artisans on jobs for private clients in Cape Town.

However, in order to work in a more competitive market and tender for major projects DHW had to look at its legal framework and go through legal processes, as it initially started as a company and then acquired its NPO status. “We are now a hybrid enterprise and we are registered with the Department of Social Development and we have made application to SARS to get our public benefit organisation status. What we have also done is to register ourselves as service providers on various databases so that we can get contracts that become available.”

Hybrid enterprise

Currently DHW has been afforded work as sub-contractors on construction contracts, particularly with NGOs who have received funding for ECD centres (crèches) in informal settlements. “They chose us as the first contractors to do renovation work. We have also had work from some of the deaf schools where we have done construction work. We are able to recruit some of the former students, who are on our database, so that when we get work from that school we make a point of hiring one or two of them to join our team.”

Despite the success of this hybrid enterprise, government has yet to recognise that DHW is a successful working model that could be replicated.

“We haven’t been approached by government as such, but we have registered with SEDA and they were very excited about what we do after visiting our workshops in Masiphumelele, but I think due to some bureaucracy or red tape, we haven’t gone further logistically. However, everyone is still excited by the skills that have been developed and the complex projects we are doing.”

The question that many might ask is, “how can a skilled and motivated deaf person go and work on his or her own, without a hearing abled person beside them or DHW behind them?”

“There are two models that we are working with right now, one is where we are grooming our own intrapreneurs, that is, those artisans who are working for themselves, but within one of the branches, and we are also grooming entrepreneurs as well. One thing we have recognised is that deaf people want a brand that they can identify with. If they become successful service providers they will always know that there is strong, well-known brand that they can rely on, that will back up their qualities and work ethics.”

DHW has added more qualifications to its portfolio, particularly in the construction industry where the company is now building bigger, new houses. DHW has applied for its National Home Builders Registration Council (NHRBC) registration to become a registered contractor. “We have also joined the Master Builders Association for the Western Cape and also the Institute for Timber Frame Builders. Those three will qualify us to take on any project.”

Nyakurwa says that now that DHW has created this platform and elevated it, artisans at the bottom (according to their skills) can be raised up to a level, through on the job training to where DHW is operating from and can become sub-contractors, as opposed to DHW finding work for them. “We are actually empowering them to take on new leadership roles where they will have to register their own companies under DHW, which is almost like a social franchise.”

Nyakurwa explains that in the course of their training, artisans are also taught business principles and these are applied to the social environment to make the change and DHW is now in the position to register as a social franchise.

“As a social franchise we want to achieve social economic empowerment for the deaf community, so we will use the social franchise to offer short courses. This means we are running a business, not for profit, but we are sustaining ourselves to achieve our social mission.”

According to Nyakurwa, DHW’s goal is to run a profitable business under a social cause. “DHW itself is a hybrid business, so 60 percent of its profits are returned back to the business and 40 percent is for the shareholders. The two shareholders we have is the NPO, which can sustain itself from internal funds and then the other will be for the shareholders, who are the franchise owners of DHW.

Our vision as a social franchise is that for every R100 we get, R60 of that is ploughed back for the good of the NPO and R40 is given to shareholders. You could say that it is like seed funding, which is what makes this social franchise the hybrid that it is.”

Nyakurwa and DHW have won many recognition awards, including the 2014 and 2015 Zimbabwe Achievers Award for Zimbabweans making a difference in the diaspora, as a community leader and for the organisation, as well as the Under 35 Maverick Award for social innovation. They have also won recognition and support in competitions such as the 2015 Spark International Change-makers Completion and the Cape Talk Small Business Competition. “We were also chosen the first among one thousand top entrepreneurs in a Change Africa in the next fifteen years’ competition and won recognition and funding and we were also won in our category in the Tony Elumelu Entrepreneurship Awards in Nigeria.”

Nyakurwa’s advice to other aspiring social entrepreneurs is that perception is the only disability people face. “It is only after we have gone past our own perceptions that we can start to make a difference. The best way to move forward is working in partnership with the social mission that we are advocating and the rest will fall in place.”

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