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Fixing fashion, fast: Esethu Cenga, 27, wins R1.19 million for her recycling start-up

On Saturday night Esethu Cenga, 27, won 1.19 million rand for Rewoven, the textile recycling start-up she co-founded in 2018 with Lonwabo Mgoduso and Tshepo Bhengu. The South African development economics graduate and Mandela Rhodes Scholar is the first-ever recipient of the Äänit Prize, The Mandela Rhodes Foundation's new award for social Impact.

Published 25 October 2021

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"Rewoven is a compelling and innovative textile recycling start-up that brilliantly addresses critical needs for economic development, broad-scale employment, women's empowerment, and planetary responsibility. This enterprise has potential to be transformative economically, socially and environmentally. It is sustainable by profit and globally scalable." This was the citation delivered on behalf of an independent panel of judges made up of African experts from various sectors, chaired by Elliot Gerson, Executive Vice President of the Aspen Institute.

Every second, the equivalent of a rubbish truck load of clothes is burnt or buried in landfill. The fast-fashion industry is one of the most polluting in the world. It generates 90 million tons of waste annually, of which only 1% is recycled. Rewoven diverts textile waste from landfill by collecting it from source and recycling it into new fabric. Rewoven's manufacturing process uses 99% less water and generates 50% less CO2 emissions than normal production processes. The fabric has the same look and quality as fabric made from virgin fibers. The labour-intensive textile recycling process provides much-needed jobs, particularly for women, who make up the majority of clothing industry workers. Rewoven’s vision is to create a socially and ecologically sustainable way to create clothing and to contribute to more socially and ecologically sustainable ways of living.

rewoven team

The Rewoven leadership team

Professor Njabulo Ndebele, Chairman of the Board, said that the awarding of the new prize was a historic moment in the life of the Foundation, which is Nelson Mandela's official legacy organisation for leadership development. "By entrepreneurship we mean a belief in the critical role played by individual human effort, hard work, innovation and creativity in leading to the betterment of society and Africa’s place in the world. Each of the seven finalists beautifully embodies this spirit. I am struck by the combination of pragmatism and hopefulness that characterises these projects – a way of seeing possibilities hidden within the challenges that we face," he said. Professor Ndebele also emphasised his gratitude to the donor, David Cohen.

The awards were co-hosted by actor Masasa Mbangeni and MRF CEO Judy Sikuza, who are both Mandela Rhodes Scholars themselves, and streamed to a global audience. Sikuza said that she was delighted with the result. "Esethu Cenga's leadership of Rewoven is exactly what we hope for when we select and develop Mandela Rhodes Scholars. Esethu demonstrates courageous, visionary leadership that is grounded in hard work and humility. We are very proud of her and Rewoven, which offers such a creative solution to several complex problems." She added that the competition was extremely tight and that all of the finalists' ventures are exceptional and worthy of support and investment.

Cenga gave a few words of thanks and acknowledged her team. "Thank you to the foundation first and foremost, I wouldn’t be here without the foundation. more than the education and funding, MRF made me see myself. It changed my life and made me see that I could actually do what I wanted to do, and I was always very insecure before that. Thank you to the team at Rewoven - I don't do it alone. I'm really grateful for this opportunity."

The Äänit Prize is a complementary offering to the Foundation's flagship programme, the Mandela Rhodes Scholarship, and is available alumni of both the Mandela Rhodes Scholarship and the Rhodes Scholarship. The prize supports both for-profit and non-profit initiatives, increasing the impact of leaders in both alumni communities by supporting their efforts to reduce inequality and deliver positive social impact in Africa. The Prize is funded by Ezrah Charitable Trust which was started by long-time MRF supporter and Rhodes Scholar David Cohen.

More information about the prize is available here. More information about the finalists and their extraordinary projects is available here. For further information, interview or image requests contact Abigail McDougall (MRF Communications Manager) on abi@mrf.org.za.

More about The Mandela Rhodes Foundation

The Mandela Rhodes Foundation offers young leaders from across the African continent a chance to become part of Nelson Mandela’s legacy of transformative impact. We offer a life-changing opportunity for personal growth via a prestigious postgraduate scholarship and Leadership Development Programme for those who want to use their talents to serve Africa. Since our inception in 2003, we have selected 558 Mandela Rhodes Scholars from 30 African countries. The Mandela Rhodes Foundation was founded in 2003 by Mr Mandela in partnership with the Rhodes Trust, the home of the Rhodes Scholarship based at the University of Oxford.

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