Nozipho Zulu, founder of Zulugal Retro, is expanding the development of local arts and crafts while creating jobs for intellectually challenged people. Picture: Lyse Comins
Nozipho Zulu, founder of Zulugal Retro, is expanding the development of local arts and crafts while creating jobs for intellectually challenged people. Picture: Lyse Comins

A Durban artist is economically empowering disabled people to be self-sufficient through her business that produces functional bags of various kinds from recycled plastic.

Nozipho Zulu, 31, born and raised in Nongoma in Zululand, is the entrepreneur behind Zulugal Retro, an SMME (Small, Medium and Micro-sized Enterprise) which after just a year of business provides jobs for a team of 10 intellectually disabled people. 

Zulu trained her team in weaving and they now work from their homes around the province, producing creative handbags, pencil cases and protective pouches for sunglasses out of industrial laminated plastic waste, such as chip and chocolate packets. 

InvoTech chief executive William Goldstone hosted Zulu, who has been supported by the local incubation hub, at a business breakfast in Durban recently after which she spoke to The Mercury about her entrepreneurial journey. 

Zulu matriculated at King Bhekuzulu High School, Nongoma, in 2003 and went on to study a Bachelor of Technology in Fine Art at the Durban University of Technology.

Her first job was as an intern for Art for Humanity and she went on to run art therapy classes for child tuberculosis patients at King George V Hospital on behalf of the KZN Society of the Arts.

Zulu’s next role was with the African Arts Centre where she worked as community arts and crafts development officer and assistant director, which involved facilitating arts and crafts to help creatives earn an income.

In 2015, Zulu was one of 40 South Africans to participate in the Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders. She travelled to the US to study at the University of Texas, Austin, and attended a three-day presidential summit hosted by former US president Barack Obama where she interacted with leaders in business, government and the non-profit sector. 

“I studied entrepreneurship. Part of the skills I learnt included how to run a social entrepreneurship enterprise and they taught us how to write proposals for grant funding,” Zulu said. 

But it was when she visited the Ten Thousand Villages, Fair Trade store that she had an epiphany regarding the future of environmentally friendly arts and crafts.

“What really inspired me was that they buy from different producers across the world, but you have to be a producer working with natural or recycled materials. For example, if you are cutting down a tree, are you growing one back to replace it?  When I walked into the store, I was mesmerised. I couldn’t get over the product range they had and I could see this was the future where we were heading.”

Zulu could not stop thinking about how she could contribute to the care of the environment while helping disadvantaged people become economically productive. 

“In South Africa, especially in KwaZulu-Natal, a lot of craftsmen are doing beadwork, but the glass beads we use are imported from Czechoslovakia and it is not contributing to reducing the carbon footprint,” she said.
“I remembered that when I was still a student, there were street vendors who were waste pickers and they used to sell this waste (industrial offcuts of laminated plastic) and I didn’t know how to use it.

“As kids, we used to make rings and bracelets with chocolate eclair wrappers. I researched on the internet to see if anyone was doing it, but found there was no one in Africa or in South Africa using laminated food packaging.”

Zulu started a small pilot project in 2016 and quit her job in March last year to set up her small business. She went on to win a place at the Red Bull Amaphiko (Wings) Academy where she received training in branding and marketing and she has had the support of InvoTech in Durban.

“One of the benefits of being an alumni from the Mandela Washington Fellowship was that I got funded by US Aid which helped me get started and I was able to run the project and train a group of young people who had intellectual disabilities at Inanda Special School.”

Zulu trained young people who had finished school but were sitting at home with their caregivers, they make the outer shell of the bags and she pays them for whatever they have done.

Zulu sells the products at the I Heart Market in Durban, the KZNSA Gallery and Gaze Art Gallery in Ramsgate.

Within the next five years Zulu anticipates setting up a production facility where crafters can work but she will continue to accommodate those who work from home.

“I hope to have a multi disciplinary business where we recycle materials, use natural materials and take care of the environment while giving people back their dignity. That is how we use arts and crafts for a purpose,” she said.