Proudly SA chief executive Eustace Mashimbye on a locally produced couch in his office in Rosebank, Johannesburg. Photo: Philippa Larkin
JOHANNESBURG - I drove past a new development in the northern suburbs recently and was struck by the boast that the units’ kitchens were “wholly imported from Italy”.

This goes back to my column of last week, where we seem to value everything imported over locally manufactured. I'm almost certain that the over-inflated prices for one bedroomed apartments in this block can in part be attributed to their expensive imported kitchens.

The furniture sector, which of course includes kitchen units (and office seating, filing, storage, desks, household items including upholstered soft furnishings, bedding and mattresses, hospitality furniture, cinema seating and outdoor and patio furniture), is a sector that we have chosen to focus efforts on as one that has great potential for job creation, because of its extended value chain and multiplier effect on other industries, but which has fallen into decline in recent years.

The sector was an employer of 50000 people in 1999/2000 in 3 500 manufacturing plants, but now supports only 28000 direct jobs in just more than 2000 factories.

Between 2012 and 2018 the number of jobs shed was as high as 6000. The sector contributes 1percent to gross domestic product currently and represents only 1.1percent of employment in manufacturing. Its report card says: “Could do much better.”

So, what went wrong and what can we do to help? With imports from China up around 45percent, it is clear that our local industry has fallen victim, like many others, to the Asian tiger.

In the old chicken and egg scenario, we lost skills, because we lost market share, and now without a skilled and semi-skilled workforce in the sector, we are struggling to reclaim our place.

Some of the raw material inputs required in the sector are scarce and expensive, which has made us less competitive, and as a result the sector has lost floor space in the big furniture retail stores.

As far as moves to rescue the sector go, in 2016 the SA Furniture Initiative was registered as a joint project of the furniture manufacturers and furniture labour trade unions and this has great support from the Department of Trade and Industry and now Proudly SA.

As an industry with an extensive value chain - from synthetic materials to natural fibres such as hides and leather, to the chemical industry which supplies paint and adhesives, to the metal and wood sectors, it is important that we find inventive ways to boost this sector.

Furniture has been one of the government's sectors designated for local procurement in the public sector since 2012.

This includes furniture for schools, hospitals and clinics and all government offices, but as we know through tracking via our tender monitoring system, compliance is low and this needs to be addressed by our new government.

Similar to the clothing, textile, footwear and leather sector government master plan, one is being formulated for furniture and the strategy in this envisaged master plan will include initiatives to improve market access for local furniture manufactures, drive creativity and design innovation.

Proudly SA was host to the Furniture Design Awards final during our March Buy Local Summit & Expo and we look forward to seeing this initiative grow in the years to come.

If anyone is in any doubt about the levels of creativity in this country, you need to get to exhibitions such as the Buy Local Summit & Expo, the Design Indaba and Decorex.

But in addition to the government playing its part in the rejuvenation of the sector, imagine if all our large corporate companies procured their office furniture locally.

At the October Presidential Jobs Summit we were able to secure commitments from at least two major banks to go local and the intention is to provide procurement support and assist them to get them to use local furniture when they fit out their offices and branches, but that is only two of all the banks in South Africa.

Then there are the private hospitals and clinics, the private schools, hotel chains and hospitality companies that can all make a significant impact on the sector, if they were to commit to spending on domestically produced furniture items.

In an up-coming Furniture Sector Specific Forum we will be hosting in Johannesburg during July 2019 we will be asking retailers to re-think the allocation of retail space to include more local content, architects to recommend local designers and manufacturers and property developers to include more local content in their off-plan offerings.

So, Italian kitchens, move over, South Africa has functional, comfortable and beautiful quality furniture of its own and that is how it is - just as Bongo Maffin says - it’s The way kungakhona.

Eustace Mashimbye is the chief executive of Proudly SA.