Makarapa start-up, South Africa style
8 February 2010
Johannesburg-based Newtown Projects is turning out makarapas – the decorated miners' helmets unique to South African football fans – by the hundreds, while retaining the individual, hand-made quality of the product. How they do it offers a simple lesson for local entrepreneurs.
On the outskirts of downtown Johannesburg lies a district called Newtown, the focal point of an urban regeneration programme spanning the last six years. If one stops outside one of its most famously refurbished buildings, The Mills, and takes a walk to the back of the building, what awaits is a sports fan's wonderland.
Hundreds upon hundreds of makarapas fill the numerous shelves, cover the walls and lie on tables; being painted, sprayed, bent and dried.
The enormous display wall carries the headgear of two of the country's favourite club teams, Orlando Pirates and Kaizer Chiefs, as well as many more of the 32 teams that will be competing in this year's Fifa World Cup: Spain, England, Brazil, Honduras – you name it, they've got it.
Paul Wygers, one of the architects who worked on South Africa's iconic Constitutional Court building in Johannesburg, started the business, Newtown Projects, in October 2008.
Seeing the gap – and taking it
After listening to a discussion on radio one morning regarding what small businesses were doing for the 2010 Fifa World Cup, Wygers realised that there was not enough being done to create a unique product for the tournament.
"I was in my office and saw a makarapa sitting there, one we had made before we bought this building, and so I spoke to two colleagues of mine in Durban and we decided to make these for the World Cup."
Newtown Projects is based on the idea of creating large numbers of makarapas while retaining the hand-painted images, a unique aspect of the product.
Tackling the 'pinch points' in the process
"After looking at how a makarapa is made, we realised there are two 'pinch points' in the process: cutting them, and painting them. So if you can get rid of the pinch point of cutting them, which is the most labour-intensive part of the whole process, you can up the numbers."
Paul and his associates eventually stumbled across a robotic arm to do the job. The arm, housed in Newtown Projects, is similar to the ones used in the motor industry. The most difficult patterns the machine will cut in about three minutes, but the quickest pattern it cuts in less than a minute.
This means that the robot can turn out hundreds of makarapas each day. By programming the design into the computer, the operator can cut a number of different makarapas, and hence produce the large array of designs the company offers.
For Wygers, this means he can offer more people employment, a key driver behind the starting of the company.
"If you are only able to cut 10 makarapas a day, then you are only able to employ two painters. But if you are able to cut 800 a day, you are able to supply enough work to employ 50 people a day, or a 100 people a day. That thing can run for 24 hours, and it can cut 800 to a 1 000 makarapas a day, so we can never employ enough people."
The painters who make the makarapas unique
The backbone of Newtown Projects are the painters who make the makarapas so unique with their talented eyes and brushes.
Thomas "TJ" Jabulani has been working at Newtown Projects since April 2009, and has become the most senior base-painter on the team.
"I was working at the airport before this, I was spray-painting, working on the cars and vehicles, logos and touch-up paint. I like it here, I enjoy the work and the people, and now I have my own Pirates makarapa."
Daniel Molokomme is a 27-year-old artist. "I started as a base-painter because I wasn't good with the brushes yet," he says. "I worked my way up, helping the artists when big orders came in. I enjoy art, before this I was in Limpopo doing my artwork there with a couple of friends.
"I want to see my makarapas in the stands, and one day people will recall: 'Hey, this guy did something amazing!'"
2010 and beyond
At the moment, 35 people are employed by Newtown Projects, but by the time the tournament starts the company will be aiming at having a staff of 40 to 50 people. "What we really wanted to get out of this business, was not only to do something with a uniquely South African product, but at the top of the list was job creation. This is hugely important," says Wygers.
Some local tour operators are already seeing the benefits of such an offering. "We had a guy in here the other day who found out about us," Wygers says. "He does corporate travel packages and he is bringing a bunch of people over for the World Cup, and they need to be doing things while not watching matches, so one of his ideas was to bring them here to make their own makarapas, with our guys teaching them how to do it."
With plans to expand into the American sports market through baseball and American football, as well as into other sports such as rugby, demand is sure to grow.