Domestic worker turned business woman

By Theresia Tjihenuna
October 2012
Women in Business
Whether it is an oversized dress; missing buttons; torn pockets or a trouser that is three inches too long, choosing the right tailor to perfectly put a piece of garment together without spoiling the material can be a challenge.

BNG Alterations’ motto is to leave the customer satisfied; they know that customers tend to have complete trust in whomever cuts and adjusts their linen, so they cannot afford to disappoint. Alterations do not only save customers lots of money but they can also prolong the closet life of a clothing so that the owner can still wear it for the longest time possible.

BNG Alterations is a seamstress-owned business that has the answer to all ill-fitting garment problems under one roof. Well known for its fast, proficient and efficient services, it is situated at the Old Breweries, Namcraft Centre in Windhoek. It has existed for more than 13 years, making it one of the most trusted and reliable alteration businesses in town.

Gertrude Shipurwa, 46, who owns and runs BNG Alterations has over 15 years experience in the garment and fabric industry. She thus works with three equally experienced ladies under her mentorship and guidance. From the amount of garments and fabrics that are neatly arranged in a colourful, orderly manner awaiting service, the business seems to be fairing well. The room is draped with linens of every kind, lots of scissors, pins, threads and marking tools.

Her three assistants are hard at work on their sewing machines, hardly looking up from their work stations where each is assigned several fabrics a day. Gertrude sits behind her own machine but gently sets the fabric aside to take a few minutes to chat to Prime Focus about her journey.

“I didn’t finish school,” she begins her story, taking a deep sigh. “I was determined to complete my Grade 10 back in 1989 by attending evening classes at Gammams Primary School but it did not work out,” she confesses.

However, she soon learnt from a friend that The Rössing Foundation was offering sewing and dressing courses and she decided to enroll in 1993. “When I started, I didn’t even know how to operate a sewing machine. We started work on paper but soon had to start doing the practicals. I panicked, because I had very little experience,” she recalls. But she surprised herself when she realised how good she had become with the sewing machine.

“I went from sewing formal shirts, two-piece garments, curtains and I even made a few dresses for myself,” she beams.

In fact, she became so good that instead of completing the six month course, she was awarded with a certificate in her fifth month. Unfortunately, her certificate didn’t mean instant success.

Gertrude only started thinking about a possible career in sewing and alteration in the late 1990s after realising that her previously discovered talent would go to waste if she did not keep it alive. Having worked as a domestic worker before, Gertrude decided that she wanted to establish herself as an independent businesswoman.

Her business would be conceived in 1999 while she was pregnant. The pressure was mounting on her; she could either swim or drown in her own dream - a scary experience many entrepreneurs face when starting off a business with little capital.

When she finally decided to start off her business, Gertrude did not have the necessary capital or resources, neither did she have assistants. Alone and pregnant, she managed to acquire a place at the Rosenberg Building, Windhoek, where she would operate her business from for the next 10 years. There was rent to pay, customers to satisfy and a baby to rear!

But Gertrude’s determination kept her above the waters; “Paying rent was a challenge as I was not earning much at the time but doing alterations for reputable clothing companies such as Edgars helped my business stay afloat.”

Just when she thought she was getting her feet in the business in the building that she had been accustomed to for 10 years, she received a notice to vacate the premises from the property owner as there would be new owners. Sadly, moving from one place to another meant losing most of the customers she had acquired during the decade at Rosenberg Building.

Desperate to find another home for her business, she began her search through contacts and finally moved to SWAMED Building until early this year when she found herself on the receiving end once again after the SWAMED Building was sold; “That is how I came to Namcrafts in April this year.”

Today, Gertrude has a string of staunch clients she does alterations for such as Edgars, Markhams, Otto-Muhr and Libero, to name but a few.

Because she only has a few tailors who operate under her, the workload is excessive for her and her three former Ramatex employees. She recently advertised in the local newspapers looking for more tailors. Despite the staff shortage, she seems to keep a balance of things as her customers always leave satisfied with the end results.

Aside from the clothing shops, her clientele-base is basically men who bring in their suits, jeans and trousers for hemming but she says she also gets a few ladies; “Some ladies bring in garments just for a button fix, yet this is a basic alteration that every lady should know.”

Her daily activities include alterations of suits, button-sewing, fixing bridal gowns, taking measurements... the list is endless. Her lowest alteration pricing begins at N$1 for a button fix to N$45 for shortening pants. And then there is an express-free fee of N$5 added if a client wants the job urgently done.

August and September are the busiest months because that’s when most weddings and matric farewells take place.

“Whenever the Otto-Muhr store has a sale, it also means I have more work to do,” she says.

Despite Getrude’s sewing experience, she tries to stay away from creating and sewing whole outfits for her customers because she says it takes up so much of her time.

“I used to do that at the beginning but now I only specialise strictly in alterations because I hardly have time to do both. I don’t even inform my customers that I also design and sew clothes,” she admits.

She also reveals a side to her business that she dislikes; “I don’t like doing alterations on old clothes as they are too much of a challenge than off-the-rack garments.”

Never do anything in a rush because you want to finish, always take your time and make sure you do a good job as customers rely on tailors for good service, she advices.

Gertrude’s future aspirations include seeing her business blossom and to be able to employ people from all walks of life.

“I believe in giving equal opportunities to people from different backgrounds and cultures that can contribute to my business in their own unique ways,” she says. PF