By Justin Berry, Executive: Sales & Marketing at PG Bison

As South Africa looks to address critical socioeconomic challenges of poverty, unemployment, inequality and global competitiveness, there’s been lots of talk about what can be done to stimulate key areas of the economy. Mining is the sector that seems to come up most often, and there’s more recently been a push towards the green and digital economies. To date, little focus has fallen on the furniture sector, yet this is the third-largest labour-intensive manufacturing industry in South Africa and contributes 1% to GDP. It’s therefore encouraging to see that the Department of Trade and Industry (dti) has come together with the South African Furniture Initiative (SAFI) and Proudly South African to host the Furniture Sector Forum on 17 July 2019.

PG Bison has come on-board to sponsor this event because we believe that dialogue like this is crucial to bring together industry stakeholders from throughout the value chain. We need to collaborate if this industry is to survive. The sector is under threat from imports and job losses, and working together – as private, public and civil sector – is the only way to plan a positive future.

We need to address the decimation of the furniture manufacturing industry, which supported 50 000 jobs 10 years ago in 2009, but today only employs just over 25 000 workers, mainly within SMMEs. There is clearly still a market for furniture – the fact that imports total R6.9bn tells us this.  We need to find ways to sustain and grow this important industry, which has the potential to create jobs and stimulate economic growth. And this requires input from everyone who is involved, and a willingness to work as one.

Our hope is that this event will be the catalyst for collaboration in tackling issues such as potential policy interventions and incentives (including the likes of duty protection), better enforcement (such as addressing the issue of under-declaring imports at our harbours), recapitalisation of the industry and creating access to markets.

We hope to make headway on these discussions at the first Furniture Sector Forum, and to pave the way to set industry targets and actions. We need to identify the challenges facing the furniture sector and begin to formulate solutions. If we don’t, we risk the ongoing shrinking of the sector, which includes domestic furniture and office furniture, and has the potential to spread to kitchen manufacturing too. We need to do something fast, and we need the involvement and buy-in of not only government, but manufacturers, industry bodies, unions , retailers and even the end consumer.

We hear from retail customers who say they import because local design lags behind international trends. That is a fixable problem. We have the potential to address it by highlighting up-and-coming local design talent, which South Africa has an abundance of. We should be looking to develop our own design aesthetic that appeals not just to local clientele, but helps to influence international trends too.

There is also a need for consumer education. President Cyril Ramaphosa focused on the need to support local manufacturing in his recent State of the Nation Address, and he’s right. South Africans need to be proud to buy locally and they need to prioritise local procurement, not just at individual or household level, but within organisations too. Business cannot decry a flailing furniture industry when tenders are still giving preference to cheap imports over locally produced office furniture.

Fixing this sector pays dividends on so many levels, and each of us needs to recognise our responsibility in doing so, and play our part. We look forward to engaging with those attending the Furniture Sector Forum this week, and to starting a conversation that will see us championing the interests of this sector.