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September 7, 2017

South Africa’s Survivalist Entrepreneur: Resilience Personified

davFace To Face Spaza & Braai, Khayelitsha

Journal Entry 1, 23 August 2017

As I have spent the past three years working with the most incredible, young entrepreneurs across South Africa, I have been overwhelmed by their resilience and their drive to thrive (or merely survive) in highly constrained environments.

Survivalist Entrepreneurship: far less glamorous 

Entrepreneurship is so often glamorized and portrayed as an exotic alternative to nine-to-five employment. According to the  The African Investing For Impact Barometer 2016 , in Southern Africa, SME support and development attracts a majority of impact and sustainability themed investors. Well-established businesses (SME’s included) are considered vehicles of economic growth and development in South Africa, hence the steady investment stream (Choto et al., 2014; Dhlamini et al., 2016) which has fed an exciting increase of business incubators popping up across the country. However, regardless of these steady investments, the increase in the number of incubators and a thriving platform for tech start-ups, a large group of entrepreneurs are still sorely isolated from much needed opportunity and support.

Survivalist entrepreneurs (also known as micro-entrepreneurs, often township based) have previously been considered as poor investment options due to their preconceived lack of  contribution to job creation and the greater economic growth of South Africa (Choto et al., 2014; Ranyane, 2015). But I have been thrilled to see thorough and current research by groups such the Sustainable Livelihoods Foundation and others, revealing that survivalist/micro-entrepreneurs along with their informal economy, does in fact contribute significantly to our GDP, meaning they are definitely worth the investment.

In my own venture to bring much needed and relevant support for these entrepreneurs, it has helped understanding that two types of survivalist entrepreneurs exist: (1) the value entrepreneur and (2) the disadvantaged entrepreneur. The former labels those who actively seek entrepreneurial opportunity and who are highly driven, whereas the latter refers to those who lack alternatives to an income and move into business (Choto et al., 2014).

Face To Face Spaza & Braai, Khayelitsha

Chatting with some makhoya (real) survivalist entrepreneurs is where the real insight lies. Before I came to Scotland, I managed to spend an afternoon with some survivalist entrepreneurs in Khayelitsha, Cape Town. And this is what I learnt:

BLD Salon, Kwanele’s barber who gets paid commission of R20/R30 haircuts, Khayelitsha

  1. Entrepreneurship as a necessity 

Out of the four micro-business owners that I spoke to, none of them have opened a business as an alternative to a nine-to-five job. These entrepreneurs moved into business as an alternative to unemployment (classified ‘disadvantaged entrepreneurs’). Survivalist entrepreneurs generate low levels of income, generally below the poverty line (Choto et al., 2014). Our conversation quickly revealed that owning their businesses is not preferable to a steady job and they did not necessarily wish their children to grow into their roles as micro-business owners.

Peter Tunolase, who owns Face To Face Spaza & Braai wishes for his boys to grow up ‘better than (him)’. As we shuffled around his braai (a poor attempt at escaping the smoke), he methodically flipped his lamb-chops and spoke about the challenges of his work; being exposed to harsh weather conditions (winter rain and the relentless summer heat) all day and everyday wears him down, tight finances and crime.

2. Crime is a super bitch

Crime was the key challenge for all four business owners. Harriet, a 52 year old woman who owns Ekuphumleni Spaza & Braai, described 17 incidents where her shop was a target of crime. In 2011, her shop was looted and burnt during the night. The damage done with every one of these incidents has set Harriet back significantly as she has to buy new stock and replace whatever has been destroyed each time. No insurance currently exists for informal micro-business owners that I am aware of.

Bulelwa of Mamvulane Braai, Khayelitsha

Bulelwa, owner of Mamvulane Braai, who runs her micro-business from a shack-structure, highlighted the need for additional security and pointed out the lack of lighting provided for the micro-business hub of spazas and braais. These entrepreneurs stressed security, running water and a decent bathroom facility as their immediate business support needs.

Kwanele, the youngest of the business owners that I spoke to, at a ripe and work-ready age of 25, runs the only hair salon in the business block with his older brother. Loud, base-intensive music was turned down for our conversation and he confirmed the fear of crime as they have lost equipment (hair shavers and stereos) to break-ins on several occasions. But his security concerns also spoke to customers on the weekend. As spaza and braai central, the micro-business block that houses more than ten spaza and braai shops, draws crowds…and alcohol. Unruly, drunk and aggressive customers have been a real concern from Kwanele and his business (along with the constant smoke into the salon from the several braai stands). Kwanele called for security guards at night, to avoid break-ins when the space is left defenseless, over their make-shift iron gates and locks. It’s tough realizing that security guards aren’t the answer but then what is? These conversations have given me plenty to think about. The channels to bring something positive here do exist and navigation of these opportunities will commence soon.

3. Basic facilities needed

The micro-business block, established by the local government in 1999 in a drive to formalize and support micro-entrepreneurs, has not received much maintenance or attention since its launch. The single bathroom (what is left of it anyway) is avoided by all costs. A bathroom at my workplace is easily accessible, clean and most definitely safe. It’s easy to get annoyed when the hand-soap is empty or one finds oneself with two measly sheets of 1 ply (NGO style) toilet paper; luxury I have definitely taken for granted.

Harriet of Ekuphumleni Spaza & Braai, Khayelitsha

4. The daily hustle is real!

Sourcing affordable produce efficiently seems impossible. Bulelwa, who does not have a fridge at her shop, needs to store any meat produce at home, however, she buys fresh produce every day. Without a car of her own, she uses taxis to fetch her beef in Mitchells Plain and her pork in Maitland. Running water is available at her house which is a 15 minute walk from her shop. She’s been running a business like this since 2008. And yet! She laughed most of her way through our conversation and was thrilled to have her photo taken.

5. Not everyone wants wi-fi

Assuming it’s due to their age, Harriet, Bulelwa and Peter, did not express Wi-fi as a priority. They do not have smart phones and expressed very little interest in accessing the internet. There are more pressing needs for them – remembering the bathroom, water and lighting. Kwanele uses a smart phone and data, mostly for job hunting and WhatsApp. He’s studying engineering. Being the owner of a salon or any micro-business is not his dream.

6. Success for a survivalist entrepreneur

When we spoke about success and what it means, I received the most humbling responses. Success was summed up into words such as ‘happiness’, ‘family’ and ‘being a good person’ (with reference to the Bible). Even with some prompting, a big house, a fancy car nor a several digit pay-check was really considered as their idea of being successful. It seems like we may have some undiscovered social entrepreneurs hustling over here…

Lunch time at Face to Face Spaza & Braai with Peter Tunolase, Khayelitsha

7. Business support

The False Bay College provided business management courses in Khayelitsha when many of these micro-businesses opened. They have done some great work with survivalist entrepreneurs.

I’m looking forward to building on the connections I have made with these inspiring business owners. They really do personify true resilience as they survive and rise-up time again, through daily trudges many of us never consider. I hold a deep respect and admiration for these South Africans and see plenty of opportunity to support them. It also makes me excited to come home!

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