Creating employment and identity for the previously side-lined deaf


"Deaf Hands at Work" (DHW), the brainchild of Charles Nyakurwa, promises to be one of the most influential social initiatives to impact neglected and impoverished communities, training and employing deaf people who are often considered to be non-persons.

There are more than two million South Africans categorised as either deaf or hard or hearing, and 75% of the deaf population are functionally illiterate - meaning three out of four deaf people are essentially unemployable. Charles Nyakurwa, founder of Deaf Hands at Work" (DHW), found this out the hard way.

Charles was studying accounting through UNISA while putting his deaf brother through vocational school to become a carpenter when a dawning reality of the challenges facing the deaf, took his life in a whole new direction.

"I started looking for 'deaf-friendly' companies that could employ my brother when he was qualified, and to my surprise, couldn't find any!" In the course of his search, Charles began to realise the extent of the challenge deaf people faced. "People in townships have a distorted belief that deaf people are nobodies. They can't communicate normally, so they are excluded from society, treated as objects, seen as incapable of anything. I knew my brother had significant potential so from the beginning I couldn't subscribe to that view.

"It was unacceptable to think that my brother should just be categorised as disabled, receive a government disability grant and just be side-lined as an individual useless to society."

A social entrepreneur at heart, Charles collected the tools he had and opened a workshop for his brother. He could never have foreseen that it was the beginning of an initiative that would affect the lives of many more individuals, families and communities and change the way people viewed the deaf.

"I saw the possibility of developing a training programme to help other deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals," he continues. "So I started training people in carpentry, bricklaying and painting so that they could become qualified tradesmen. Then I met some deaf ladies, and that launched the sewing project."

It was a brilliant initiative, but cash- and time-strapped - Charles was active only part-time and his limited funds put constraints on growth.

Then in 2012, disaster struck in the form of a township fire, which destroyed all his equipment. I seemed to be at the end of the line - until destiny intervened in the form of a competition for social entrepreneurs run by NGO UnLtd SA (now Lifeco UnLtd).

"To my amazement and delight, I won, and used the prize money to get the equipment we needed. I also received mentorship for the first time and that began to revolutionise the way I operated. That also led to my attending some leadership courses in the African Social Enterprise Network (ASEN) in Woodstock and then came the big breakthrough! I connected with the Bertha Centre for Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship, a specialised unit at the UCT Graduate School of Business (GSB). That was the watershed moment!"

Charles was awarded a Bertha Scholarship to study the Postgraduate Diploma in Management Practice (then called the Postgraduate Diploma in Business Administration), a year-long generalist business degree offered by the GSB.

"I had been experiencing problems running my programmes and developing a suitable business model. I knew we had to grow and expand and didn't know how. I did the diploma in Business Administration and it gave me the strategic overview and knowledge I needed. It gave me new perspectives on how to position the initiative in a way that is relevant. It enabled me to clarify the mission and vision and really catapulted me into true social entrepreneurship."

Director of the Bertha Centre, Dr Francois Bonnici, who was previously a trustee of Unltd SA and co-founder of ASEN, cites DHW as an excellent example of what the centre aims to achieve with its work. "Our continent and country are teeming with citizens who seek to impact society at large, but need support to build the organisations to deliver it," he says. "The GSB has become a platform to advance social impact through its support for social entrepreneurs. Providing mentorship, strategic knowledge, exchange of expertise and practical know-how with leaders and other social entrepreneurs is a powerful catalyst in developing innovative initiatives with often far-reaching repercussions."

In the space of four short years, DHW's annual revenue has grown from R10 000 to almost R1.5 million. The training centre has three core operations: sewing, making chandeliers from recycled bottles and crafting furniture from pallets and other wood. They now also build wooden houses and plan to enter into partnerships in the construction industry.

"DHW is creating a platform for the previously unemployable to be employable and we offer permanent careers afterwards and NOT jobs! We do careers!

"It takes three weeks to train and be job ready, thereafter we do a three months apprenticeship where each apprentice learns at least five different skills which they then choose a career from and establish themselves under a deaf friendly brand DHW."

Charles does not envisage limits or boundaries to their work and says that DHW is currently looking for partners to expand nationally and into Africa. "We are capable of exporting this empowering social enterprise across SADC first as we venture into Africa," he says.

"We can bring identity to the sidelined and change community mindsets. We can make lives worth living."

If you are interested in partnering with Charles Nyakurwa he can be contacted on

Date: 9 February 2017




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