Discarded tyres turned into treasured furniture

In the midst of the global pandemic, two designers are using recycled tyres to create unique furniture. This is the remarkable story of South Africa’s Zola Ndema and Nigeria’s Favour Oluma.

Starting a unique eco furniture line wasn’t an easy feat for Zola Ndema, 35. The Eastern Cape furniture designer, driven by passion and talent, faced every obstacle in his way head on and got to work.

When he realised he had a knack for carpentry and upholstery, he enrolled himself in several training courses, including one in interior design.

Working out of his workshop in King William’s Town in the Eastern Cape, Ndema turns discarded tyres into distinctive pieces of furniture. The father of two launched his furniture business after a company he was working for in Port Elizabeth closed down.

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Struggling to find a suitable workshop, he settled for a space on the fourth floor of a building in Korsten, in Port Elizabeth’s central business district (CBD).

“Working in Korsten was a challenge because the furniture was too heavy to go up and down to the fourth floor, I realised I needed to move,” he said. 

Ndema’s time in Port Elizabeth was fraught with problems. One morning he came to find his store ransacked and all his furniture stolen. It was then that he decided to leave the Eastern Cape’s windy city for Bloemfontein in the Free State.

4 August 2020: Zola Ndema explains to elders the intricacies of a piece of furniture and how it could be used at many events.

Success after starting afresh 

In 2001, he found another job at a furniture store and started saving towards reviving his furniture business. After a few years, having saved sufficient funds, Zola found his way back to the Eastern Cape, this time to King William’s Town, his hometown. 

“When I got to the Dimbaza location [in King William’s Town], I opened up a mini workshop. The space was small but I made it work. The difficult part about the set-up though was that my target market was in the city and I knew that’s where I would get my furniture to sell rather than in a township,” he said.

After working without success in Dimbaza, Ndema hired workers and moved to a workshop in the CBD of King William’s Town. This move brought him some success. In town, people showed interest in the furniture he made.

4 August 2020: A potential customer inspects one of Zola Ndema’s unique tyre tables.

Ndema markets and sells his work by the roadside. Stationed beside Cambridge road, his business, Kulisa Carpentry & Upholstery, started picking up as motorists showed interest in the authentic and different designs of his furniture. 

“People would stop, take pictures and promote my work on Facebook. That helped me a lot to get more customers. I use cloth fabrics, recycled tyres and leather to make my chairs and people find that fascinating.”

Overlooked for relief funds

In March, when the initial strict Covid-19 lockdown was announced and implemented, it meant that Ndema would neither make furniture nor display any for sale. Roads would be deserted anyway.

As an artisan, he had hoped to receive some funding from the Department of Sports, Arts and Culture. That was not to be, however.

Recently, Minister of Sports, Arts and Culture Nathi Mthetwa was under scrutiny when artists on social media began asking questions about the alleged unequal distribution of the department’s relief funds. 

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Many artists struggled during the lockdown, but were never funded by the department. Ndema’s business is one of the many that would have welcomed that relief. It suffered tremendously under the lockdown. “If upholstery designers could get a sponsor or funds from the government, our businesses would improve and eventually mature,” he said.

Now, making beds and sofas with recycled material, he hopes to acquire enough funds to open an eco factory in King William’s Town. “I have never been funded by any funding agency. Due to my age, a lot of them preferred to fund youth-led projects even though my business has a good employment potential. I’ve been to the Small Enterprise Development Agency and the Department of Arts and Culture, but none were willing to help,” said Ndema.

4 August 2020: A collection of modern furniture made by Zola Ndema is displayed by the roadside in King William’s Town.

Nigeria’s Favour Oluma

Also trying to get her eco furniture business off the ground is 20-year-old Favour Oluma.

The self-taught upholstery designer took up the craft after losing both of her parents at a young age. Armed with some design skills, she decided to start a small business to generate income for her family. 

Experimenting with an old tyre she found dumped in a refuse area, Oluma painted it with spray paint. Amazed at the outcome, she sought more discarded tyres and started adorning them. 

Once done, she posted the photographs on social media and the positive response motivated her to pursue this artistic path.

She was born in Benue, one of Nigeria’s 36 states, known to have a poverty rate of 75%. This reality alone pushed Oluma to work harder. She launched her business during Nigeria’s Covid-19 lockdown in April. Passionate about the environment, she hopes her business will lessen the impact of pollution in Nigeria. 

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“Pollution is a general problem everywhere, not just in Nigeria. There are over four million used tyres being discarded worldwide, causing a lot of havoc in our drains and serious health issues by creating a haven for insects and pests to hide in. I decided to turn these tyres into unique ottomans, which can be used as part of people’s decor and storage,” said Oluma. 

According to a research paper, The Rate and Causes of Poverty in Benue State by Terungwa Jato and IE Kalu, Nigeria has one of the poorest populations on the continent. It is ranked at number 140 out of the 180 countries listed in the 2013 richest to poorest countries. Rural underdevelopment is particularly stark, a result of inefficient and clumsily implemented policies over the years.

Changing the narrative

Oluma seeks to change this reality for herself and her siblings. Even though orphaned by the death of both her parents, she graduated from a public girls’ college. She is currently studying for a qualification in soil science and land management at the University of Technology in Minna state. Now in her third year, Oluma has become the breadwinner in her family. 

“I am surviving with my furniture business. When university reopens after lockdown, I might have to use my profit to pay for varsity, too,” she said. 

Oluma feels optimistic about her future and the endless possibilities for her new business. 

“I would like to encourage other young girls and women in saying that whatever your hands find doing, make the best out of it. Don’t you dare put your life in a box. Don’t you dare decide to settle for mediocrity. Don’t you dare give up on your dreams. Don’t you dare give up on your life,” she said.

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