From discards to employers: Fast growth at Eco Furniture

Eco Furniture Design Peter Haralambous, co-owner of Eco Furniture Design, helped build the business from a small concern began by constructing a table from discarded wood to one of the fastest-growing small businesses in South Africa.

[Image] Eco Furniture DesignEco Furniture Design has made craftspeople out of people who came to them with no skills.
(Images: Eco Furniture Design)

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Tameron Grahn
Owner, Eco Furniture Design
+27 21 827 1336

Sulaiman Philip

Eco Furniture Design, a Cape Town company, has been named the fastest growing small business incubatee by the Department of Trade and Industry (the dti).

The recognition came at the National Technology Awards, held in Durban in October. The awards celebrate small to medium enterprises (SMEs) that embrace technology to improve their competitiveness.

There are 12 incubator programmes across the country in industries as diverse as IT, construction and agriculture. The programmes are designed to get enterprises from a survivalist stage or from the informal economy into thriving businesses in the mainstream economy. The awards, made by the the dti, were held at iNkosi Albert Luthuli International Convention Centre.

Eco Furniture Design was recognised for the fastest growth across all the industries. “We went from two employees as a start-up almost two years ago to a point where we employ 12 people today,” says founding partner Peter Haralambous. The business grew out of Peter and his partner, Tameron Grahn, building a table from some wood they found discarded at the side of the road.

The partners saw a business opportunity once friends started asking them to build furniture for them as well. Without funding or woodwork experience, they approached the Furntech incubator in Woodstock, Cape Town. “They have a two-year programme that helped us to build our business from scratch. It has given us the freedom to employ unskilled people with potential and have them trained at the centre by Seda technicians. This is an aspect of the business that I really enjoy,” Haralambous explains.

Support for small enterprises

Seda, the Small Enterprise Development Agency, falls under the dti. Its mission is to develop, support and promote small enterprises, ensuring their growth and sustainability in co-ordination and partnership with various role players, including global partners, who make international best practices available to local entrepreneurs.

The Furntech incubator, one of the smallest in the country, has space for 12 furniture-related businesses, from designers to manufacturers like Eco Furniture. It has state-of-the-art machinery and trained technicians who help teach skills to entrepreneurs and their employees. Furntech’s business technology incubation is affiliated to the Seda Technology Programme, which develops innovative technology based platforms that result in the creation of sustainable, globally competitive small, medium and micro enterprises.

Lucky Mhlanga, an Eco Furniture employee, has been with the company since it began. He started with no carpentry skills but today is a carpenter, having been trained to artisan level at the incubator.

Access to equipment works on rotation, which has inadvertently proven to be a good business lesson for Haralambous. It has taught him the importance of lead times and scheduling production. It is early days yet for the company, with the hiccoughs that come with starting a business. Easing the way, though, along with the technical assistance offered at incubators like Furntech, entrepreneurs can access funding and business skills training.

Training and teaching skills

“Being part of this programme has allowed us to build our business. It’s allowed us to hire unskilled people and train them. It has allowed us to grow steadily in a relatively safe environment. It’s early days yet but we’ve been given firm grounding.”

Haralambous is looking for new factory premises as Eco Furniture is almost two years old and must soon leave the Furntech space. The dti has moved it from one programme to another, one that gives businesses that come through the incubator system grants to help fund the purchase of equipment. “The programme is designed to assist with technology transfers and ensure that we build on the last two years of success.”

The department and its minister, Rob Davies, recognise the importance of South African businesses embracing technology to remain competitive. “Technology is no longer a luxury for small- to medium-sized enterprises. The Technology Awards are designed to inspire and encourage creativity and technological innovativeness among business people by rewarding those that make use of technology to advance their business,” Davies said on the eve of the awards ceremony.

The awards showcase successes from three programmes the dti runs with various parastatals:

● With the Industrial Development Corporation, it runs the Support Programme for Industrial Innovation. This fund helps companies that develop innovative products or processes from the conclusion of research and ends once a prototype has been developed.

● With the National Research Foundation, it runs the Technology and Human Resource for Industry Programme, which spends R390-million a year on research in science, technology and engineering. The focus is to train and develop researchers and technology managers who will help develop and improve competitive practices across all industries.

● With Seda, it has run the Seda Technology Programme since 2006 with a focus on improving government support for small- to medium-sized businesses. Government research has found that most small, technology based businesses that failed did so in their first three years. STP is designed to give small start-ups support and training to improve access to technology and management support to improve productivity and performance.

Other winners

Other winners on the night were Durban IT development and training company Smart Xchange, and Thabong Bakery, from Welkom in Free State. The awards are growing more prestigious and more competitive, says the director-general in the dti, Lionel October. “The development of small, medium and micro enterprises in partnership with the government, using programmes like these three, can bring a positive spin to the creation of jobs.”

It is this network of resources that has helped Anna Lelimo, the owner of Thabong Bakery, to grow her business from a home-based caterer to one that supplies bread and confectionaries to 30 supermarkets. The mother of two made a brave decision to change careers in 2001 to follow her dream to be her own boss.

Lelimo told her hometown newspaper, The Weekly, after receiving her award: “It is liberating to take your life in your own hands and decide what you are going to do with it and where you want to take it. When I embarked on this new chapter in my life as a business owner, there were a lot of challenges and sacrifices, but when you are determined to succeed, no matter how difficult the road, you will find a way to accomplish your dreams.”