Devoted fans of Ghana will wear this soccer jersey, designed by Puma, when they cheer on their team this month during 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

Puma-Ghana-AwayJersey-10-12-1

Fans of Cameroon, meanwhile, will don their team’s green World Cup jersey.

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Ivory Coast

Ivory Coast

Algeria

Algeria

Puma also sells replicas of the World Cup jerseys for Algeria and the Ivory Coast.

What all these shirts have in common is that they are manufactured  by Impahla Clothing, a supplier to Puma based in South Africa that was started a few years ago by a man named William Hughes.

Surely there will be drama when play begins in the World Cup, but it will have to be exciting to compare with  the drama in the life of William Hughes. He has known first-hand the joy of victory and the agony of the defeat.

Born in Kenya, Hughes, who is now 47, moved at a young age with his family to Zimbabwe. They began farming and eventually acquired a landholding of 6,000 acres upon which they grew maize, soybeans, wheat and tobacco for African markets, as well as avocados for export to Europe. The operation was sizable–his family employed about 100 year-round workers, most of whom lived in homes on the farm with their families, and another 150 seasonal workers.

You know where this story is going, don’t you? William could see trouble brewing by the time he’d taken over the farm from his parents. Since gaining independence from Great Britain in 1980, Zimbabwe and its president, Robert Mugabe, had been talking about land reform. In the beginning, that meant buying property from white landowners and then giving it to mostly poor blacks, arguably the rightful owners. British and other foreign governments financed this “willing seller, willing buyer” approach, but stopped in 1997 amidst charges that the land was mostly going to cronies of the president. Subsequently, government-backed forces would simply seize the land they wanted. Farmers who resisted were often tortured or killed, and many of them—but not Hughes, who was active in the deeply-divided national farmers’ union—urged compromise with the Mugabe regime.

His farm was invaded in August, 2003. A mob  occupied the land and gave him 24 hours to leave. By then, his mother, his wife and two young children had been sent away. “My wife and my children were never exposed to the massive intimidation, but they were obviously aware of it,” he said. “Your house, your livelihood—it’s gone. It was absolutely devastating.” The family left for South Africa, where he began looking for a new business.

William Hughes

William Hughes

He was fortunate to come across a T-shirt company in Capetown that was about to go out of business. He bought its assets, and offered jobs to all of its people—notably Lena Jansen, a coloured woman who had worked in the clothing industry for more than 25 years, beginning as a cleaner and working her way up to production manager. She was given 10% of the company in return for her agreement to stay on, and run production.

I met William last week in Amsterdam at the 2010 conference of the Global Reporting Initiative. He was being recognized because Impahla is one of the very few small companies—it now has about 180 employees and revenues of about ZAR 20.5 million (about $2.5 million) —to publish a sustainability report. The company has committed itself to workers’ rights, health and safety, and to becoming South Africa’s first carbon-neutral garment manufacturer.

Much of this has been encouraged and supported by Puma, the German sports and lifestyle company, which has encouraged 20 key suppliers in China, Vietnam, Cambodia and elsewhere to do their own reports. This is interesting in its own right because it reflects change in the way that global brands do business with suppliers. Increasingly, they are looking beyond short-term transactions to build relationships with suppliers; that’s partly  to avoid the potential for embarrassment when suppliers exploit workers or pollute the environment, but it’s also intended to build a more secure and trusted supply chain.

“We depend on suppliers, and they depend on us,” says Stefan Seidel, a sustainability executive with Puma. “We don’t jump for a couple of cents from one supplier to another.”

Certainly Impahla (the Xhosa word means clothing) depends on Puma. While the company used to sell to adidas, New Balance and Levi’s, Puma now gets more than 95% of its production. Sustainability is key to the relationship, but William told me that quality and price are, of course, crucial as well. “We’re lean and mean,” he said.

Nearly all of what Impahla makes is sold in Africa, and the company benefits because South Africa has an import tariff on clothing. Even so, the garment industry in the western Cape has struggled to compete with Asian factories. South Africa garment workers were paid an average of  $2.22 per hour in 2008, which doesn’t sound like much, but workers are paid much less in coastal China ($1.08), inland China ($0.80), India ($0.51), Vietnam ($0.38), Cambodia ($0.33) and Bangladesh ($0.22), according to Impahla’s report, citing data gathered by China’s national apparel council.

Hughes has good relations with his workers, who are paid slightly more than the national average. They chose to keep working during a national garment workers strike last year. The company has a lower than average turnover ratio, and pictures of every worker appear in the sustainability report.

A couple of thoughts about this story: First, the resiliency of entrepreneurs never ceases to impress me. Despite losing everything, William mustered the will to start over. The key, he said, was not looking back. “When we moved on, we moved on,” he told me. Second, brands like Puma, Nike, Gap, by working more closely with their suppliers, really can play a role in creating wealth and opportunity in the global south. It’s quite a turnabout from the days when they were on the defensive about their labor and human rights practices.

By the way, William will be rooting for South Africa next week–along with Ghana, Cameroon, Algeria and Ivory Coast, of course. Business is business.


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