Momento’s magic mohair exports

7 April 2006

It started with three unemployed but expert weavers and a scraped-together initial investment of R4 000. Today Momento’s of Africa is a world-class producer of luxury mohair textiles and apparel, exporting over 70% of its products to countries such as Germany, Canada and Dubai.

The company is based in Port Elizabeth, the self-proclaimed mohair capital of the world. Mohair, produced from the Angora goats, has been called “the animal-lover’s fur” because the fine and luxurious fibre is produced by shearing, not killing.

For many years, South Africa has been the biggest producer of mohair, most of it coming from farms in the semi-desert Karoo region. The fibre is auctioned in Port Elizabeth in Nelson Mandela Bay.

Today over 60% of the world’s mohair passes through the city in one form or another. This has allowed producers of finished mohair goods such as Momento’s of Africa to prosper.

From self-help to world-class
Momento’s – the odd spelling is intentional – has its roots in a small self-help project run in the 1980s by British expert weaver Lin Smith at the Port Elizabeth technical college. Called Pencen, the programme taught unemployed people to weave Xhosa tapestries, to allow them to make a living.

But when funding dried up in the early 1990s the progamme was forced to shut down, leaving its graduates and trainers with good skills but no outlet for their products. Lin saw this as an opportunity and, with Pencen trainers Beauty Samana and Thandiwe Ngidi, set up a specialist tapestry curio shop at Port Elizabeth Airport with that scraped-together R4 000.

Their success was immediate, with the shop gaining a reputation for high-quality mohair products by word of mouth.

“Tourists started telling us how much they loved our blankets,” Roger Smith, Lin’s husband, told South African Exporter. “Then they started importing them in small quantities and started selling them in shops in their neighbourhoods. That’s how we started exporting.

“The shop became famous, particularly internationally. We had write-ups in American magazines as the best place to buy curios.”

Expansion
The initial success led to a rapid expansion requiring new premises, and the airport gave the company an old hangar to use. As production increased, Momento’s had a ready supply of skilled labour – former employees and graduates of the Pencen programme, all trained by Lin.

In 1998 output was increased, with new merchandise – scarves, capes, ponchos, shawls, pullovers, hats and berets – being brought into production. Overseas distributors were secured, and today Momento’s exports 70% of its products to Germany, Canada, the UK, France, Sweden, Norway, Holland, Dubai, Australia and New Zealand.

By January 2002 the company had secured enough orders to keep its staff busy for the entire year.

“We couldn’t take any more orders for that year,” Roger told SA Exporter. “People also wanted their goods as soon as they ordered, they didn’t want to wait for us to manufacture them some time in the distant future.”

So the company expanded again, moving into a new factory the following year. Today Momento’s has two shops – Momento’s of Africa and Mogo – in Port Elizabeth and another, Moyisa, in Durban. There’s also the BabyMo factory and showroom in Port Elizabeth, where the public is welcome to both view products and watch the company’s crafters at work.

International brands
Momento’s has launched a number of brand names that have come to denote quality all over the world.

BabyMo products are woven from the wool of kid – or baby – Angora goats, resulting in extremely fine and silky textiles with none of the scratchiness that can be associated with mohair. Its popularity was confirmed when it won a Best New Product award at the prestigious New York Home Textile Show in spring 2005.

The Shangora range is knitted – not woven – in kid wool, while the imiBoniso brand takes Momento’s back to its roots, with stunning mohair tapestries and wall hangings done to both modern and traditional Xhosa designs.

With all its international success, Momento’s remains a very South African company, committed to the country’s future.

With 69% of its shares black owned, it was named one of South Africa’s top 300 black economic empowerment companies at both the 2004 and 2005 Impumelelo Awards. Its staff is made up almost entirely of black people, most of them previously unemployed, and a fair number disabled.

Momento’s also actively encourages its staff to acquire new skills, spending about 16% of its income on training courses.

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