South African women are bringing their dreams to life through small business
Mittah Sethusa, a 42-year-old entrepreneur, lives in the suburbs of South Africa’s sprawling Johannesburg metropolitan area.
Mittah gets up at 4:30 a.m. most mornings in order to get her three boys to school. It takes some wrangling. She prays, showers, gets dressed, and starts work by 8:00 a.m. as the sun streams into the family home where she runs Goldenseed Design, a small clothing manufacturing business.
In the mornings, she used to focus on fabric shopping, administrative work, deliveries, and invoicing. She would spend the afternoons sewing retail and bespoke orders for customers from all over the area.
But lately, COVID-19 has meant that few people are shopping for new clothes, and Mittah’s sales have declined. With few customers to speak of, “work” has mostly meant worrying about whether or not she would need to look for a new job. She would often watch TV, waiting and hoping for customers to come to her as she sat in her cottage.
Early Mornings for Another South African Woman Entrepreneur
On the other side of Johannesburg, another entrepreneur wakes up at 5:00 a.m. to the sound of cars driving down their street, the sun still yet to rise.
Ntombizodwa Lunga gets her children ready for school, exercises, and checks her email. She looks for important messages about upcoming events and inquiries about her products.
Two years ago, the 41-year-old mother started NTOZOD, which produces locally handmade bags and accessories, mainly from canvas and seshweshwe, a traditional African print.
In between her calls and meetings, Ntombizodwa works around the house – often using the quiet time to think about how best to get her brand out to the public without compromising on quality and values.
Although Ntombizodwa was proud to have her own company, led entirely by black women, she was struggling with analyses of her target market, financial management, networking, and social media marketing.
“My sales were doing well back in 2019 and early 2021 before COVID-19,” she recalls. “I am currently having no sales in some months and just a few sales in others.”
COVID-19 Pandemic Still Causing Challenges for South African Women Entrepreneurs
For small business owners like Mittah and Ntombizodwa, the financial impact of lockdowns and stay-at-home orders has been severe. “My hopes are for the pandemic to come to an end, as we have lost many lives and we are living in an uncertain world,” Ntombizodwa reflects.
An Entrepreneurship Program Supports South African Women
In 2021, both Mittah and Ntombizodwa joined Box Shop, a partnership between TechnoServe and the Citi Foundation that supports young entrepreneurs in South Africa.
It’s a part of a larger movement to support and uplift more Black-owned businesses across the country, a movement that’s been important to the South African government since the end of apartheid in the late 1990s.
The partnership offers a unique approach to supporting young entrepreneurs by creating several “box shop” stores, small shops forming a market for entrepreneurs, in South African townships. In 2021, the program will help 40 entrepreneurs bring their products to store shelves and help connect consumers to local brands.
The program focuses on improving these Black entrepreneurs’ skills:
- Product quality
- Access to markets
- Business sustainability
As the pandemic dragged on and Mittah realized how few customers she was getting, she dove into the training. “I am an entrepreneur and I must make things happen myself,” she says as she reflects on her TechnoServe training. “I am now able to pay my employees and myself.”
Mittah learned a lot about the administrative side of running a business and, ultimately, to have confidence in her work.
Although she faced a different set of challenges, Ntombizodwa also worked hard at the training. She learned how to price her products, manage her finances, enhance her marketing, and use social media.
And the program helped the entrepreneurs raise their revenues by 70%.
“It’s definitely not easy, a lot of hard work is needed,” Ntombizodwa reflects. “But I can now see who my target market is, and I have gained more confidence in how I approach new customers and clients.”
Ntombizodwa can now afford to buy branded labels for her products as well as tents and tables for the business – which meant she could sell her products outside during the ongoing pandemic.
“I was thrilled [to have] more customers enquiring about and buying my products. I was motivated to even do more,” she says.
Encouraging the Next Generation of Women Entrepreneurs in South Africa
From despairing about their ability to stay in business, both Ntombizodwa and Mittah have now turned to considering the wider impact their businesses can have in the community.
And both entrepreneurs are excited about how things are changing for women in their community. “I will be able to assist more women in terms of employment and sharing the knowledge that I have,” Ntombizodwa says with a smile as she thinks about the future.
Over the last decade in South Africa, women’s workplace legislation has been expanded, and more rights have been given to women workers.
“[Women] can lead their own lives now,” Ntombizodwa says. She wants her two daughters to learn the importance of a good work ethic and finding their passion in life.
“Lots of women are moving up the ladder and can be anything they want to be now,” Mittah adds.
Staying Focused on the Journey Ahead
For both women, despite the hard work ahead, they’re confident in their decisions to become entrepreneurs.
“I would like to own my own machines, create more jobs, have a factory or a shop, and supply schools in the rural areas, in collaboration with companies and the government,” Ntombizodwa says about the future of NTOZOD.
Mittah is planning to teach sewing classes, too, as she grows the impact of Goldenseed Designs beyond herself and contributes financially to the household.
But she hasn’t forgotten her personal dreams, either: “I would love to travel the world.”