E-Net News

Elon in South Africa: A cup of tea sparks a movement

A group of students participating in the Winter Term program The Call of South Africa tell the story of Original T-Bag Designs, an effort to use recycled materials to create art and boost employment in the country.

Workers at Original T-Bag Designs creating designs on the recycled tea bags. (Photo courtesy of Prudence Layne)

By Abby Flavin '18, Emma Gresh '19, Emily Hill '18, Kat Grinnell '18, Brianna Levy '18, Janie Lorenzo '18 and Associate Professor of English Prudence Layne

Nineteen years ago, Jill Heyes moved to South Africa following the death of her husband. Formerly a teacher, Heyes left her life in England behind and began anew in Cape Town.

While touring a township soon after her arrival, her pastor challenged her about why she was not doing more. Inspired, Heyes began gathering women from the township. She provided them with wages as she taught them paper macheĢ and what she calls “other useless and awful crafts.”

Original T-Bag Designs founder Jill Heyes telling the story of some of the used tea bags that hang on the company's wall in South Africa. (Photo courtesy of Prudence Layne)

Realizing that their hard work was not translating into anything substantive, Heyes searched for another means that would allow the women to express their creativity and earn a living. It was Heyes’ friend Lanette, visiting on holiday, who over a cup of tea suggested using tea bags as an alternate medium for their art.

The tea bag company, Original T-Bag Designs, has been creating art with these very tea bags ever since that day. Employing both men and women from the Imizamo Yethu township, the company provides a stable income for a number of citizens.

Heyes emphasized the beauty of each creation, not only because of the creative nature of the products, but also because each one possesses its own story. Whether the tea bag used came from a group of women gathering for tea, a couple enjoying a lazy afternoon or anything in between, each background story makes these products unique. Although some background stories remain mysteries, there is beauty in knowing the tea bag came from somewhere else and will be further shared with others to enjoy.

Due to its increasing popularity, Original T-Bag Designs is outgrowing its current space. The shop’s equipment is rusting and its nonprofit power suppliers have gone out of business, leaving Heyes and her team to create their own. In addition, the company relies heavily on tea bag donations from all around the world — including from Elon University — and will only continue to turn a profit if these donations are sustained over time.

Although Heyes has been extremely successful thus far, she says, “I am never happy with where we are” because she understands the potential of her business. She wants to expand her business and would love a bigger facility to accommodate her operations and emphasis on recycling used tea bags and providing jobs for underprivileged citizens to promote her sustainable, fair-trade organization.

Original T-Bag Designs founder Jill Heyes talks with Elon students during their visit to her company during the Call of South Africa Winter Term program this month. (Photo courtesy of Prudence Layne)

Elon’s “The Call of South Africa” Winter term program introduced the concept of recycling tea bags to the campus in 2017. The inaugural efforts collected nearly 300 tea bags, which were presented to Heyes during the class’s January 2018 visit and tour to the facility. South Africa Study Abroad Alums hope to increase the awareness of this business and sustainable practice.

Heyes has drafted a manuscript about this improbable enterprise. The book will explain the roots of The Original T-Bag Designs company and undoubtedly inspire those throughout the world to think twice before trashing a used tea bag.

To learn more about Original T-Bag Designs, Jill Heyes and the stories of some of the men and women whose lives have been transformed by this business, visit https://www.tbagdesigns.co.za/

Those interested in joining The Call of South Africa’s ongoing efforts to support this business may send their dried, used tea bags to The Call of South Africa, Elon University, Campus Box 2338, Elon, NC 27244. 


The student authors of this article are participating in the communications group for The Call of South Africa, a Winter Term study abroad program led by Prudence Layne, associate professor of English. 

Owen Covington,
1/18/2018 9:40 AM