06/07/2017 03:58 SAST | Updated 06/07/2017 03:58 SAST

Beyond Shisa Nyamas, Spaza Shops And Shebeens

People do not tend to take township businesses seriously and generally see them as responses to circumstance and necessity.

Nkukhu Box

Technically I started my business in 2015, but it has only been in operation since December 2016, and I have been self-employed fully since the year began. One of the key questions to answer as an entrepreneur will always be, "So what do you do"? Which I have often struggled to articulate. While I am a communications services provider, I have had to think of a simple way of saying that I provide brand solutions through creative ideas. That is even vaguer now that it's written down. But that is what I do. My current creative idea speaks to the challenges township entrepreneurs face.

While struggling to create a client base and a market, I looked at what was familiar and found myself providing my services to businesses and organisations that operate in the townships. These are businesses that many tend to overlook as SMMEs when exploring business development. This has worked well for me, as I have established a set of clients who appreciate my experience and approach to service. At the same time, my peers have expressed disappointment in the fact that I have moved from multimillion-rand campaigns and events to create "buzz" in the ghetto. But therein lies the problem faced by township businesses, as product or service providers.

People do not tend to take township businesses serious and see them only as responses to circumstance and necessity. Someone opens a shisa nyama because they are unemployed and need a source of income, there is a shebeen on every corner (which can speak to market saturation or the ever-growing demand) and there is competition between foreign-owned spaza shops and the move by major retailers into townships. Profit imperative and capitalist ambitions are concepts not thought to exist in the township or the minds of those who start and operate businesses there.

My mentor is a diversity and inclusion expert, a passion we both share. In his most recent work, he speaks of the need to decolonise every aspect of our lives if we are to achieve total transformation. We need to unlearn unconscious bias, he says. Economic transformation is at the heart of our relationship. But how can we transform the economy when we don't see the township as a viable marketplace, and not only when we want to exploit township residents to make money but also when we want to invest for growth?

If government reports are to be believed, two of Gauteng's big townships accommodate more than 2 million people and 80 percent of Gauteng's population is in the townships. If that is the case, where are these people spending their money and where are resources being invested? Should the move not be in making sure that beyond malls we have corporate parks and offices for the various small businesses in the township? Or is it that we don't think people in the townships have businesses, corporate ideals and want office space? If indeed we want to transform the JSE, should we not look to where the people are and ensure that they are capacitated to take an interest in the stock market? Perhaps I am being too ambitious.

I have managed to do business for an NGO in Soweto, to facilitate engagement in various townships in the province, to have product activations in the East Rand, to reach out to community radio stations and, at present, I am servicing an upmarket restaurant and a concert, all located in the township. Furthermore, these businesses not only employ within the townships they operate in, they create business for others in their vicinity. But in turn, that money will be spent in Sandton, Rosebank or at Clearwater.

We are consumers and, contrary to popular belief, we can be producers as well.

The story can be different, if we create viable avenues and conducive climates for these entrepreneurs, social and commercial, to establish their businesses and operate them in the townships and have areas in which to plough back their profits. Surely we can work and play in the township, therefore widening the spend there? Is that not one way of radically transforming the economy? It is clear our ways of doing business have gone beyond the establishment of spaza shops, shisa nyamas and shebeens. In fact, we have shown growth and innovation and there is evidence to this effect. We have a drink, socialise, wash our cars and eat all at the same place.

We have entertainment venues in various forms. We like weaves and natural hair, we like expensive and cheap items. We are consumers and, contrary to popular belief, we can be producers as well. The only challenge is that the gatekeepers seem to think we don't want to produce in our own backyards and sell our produce there and have it consumed there as well. This is not true and it's time things changed. True radical transformation lies right here.