Sun, Jul 02, 2017 - Page 7 News List

South Africa’s township entrepreneurs go global, with some help

A not-for-profit company that provides worldwide market access has been helping small-time businesses in Soweto, Johannesburg, expand their operations

By Gregory Walton  /  AFP, SOWETO, South Africa

At the back of Mandisa Zwane’s typical yellow plaster-clad Soweto house is a bustling hive of activity set to a soundtrack of gospel music and crying babies that emanates from nearby.

Every day the 42-year-old fashion designer packs into her small improvised workshop surrounded by sewing machines and brightly colored spools of thread.

When she began making her distinctively bold and bright African print garments in South Africa’s most famous township in 2009, she made just three every month.

“Before I was just making for friends and family — and they weren’t even paying! Then I was able to hire four people to grow,” she said.

Zwane is one of dozens of township entrepreneurs whose creations have sold worldwide with help from Soweto’s Box Shop, a not-for-profit organization helping local designers and craftspeople market their creations internationally.

She now sells her designs as far away as Atlanta and London, making up to 60 pieces every month supported by her four-strong team, which includes two salespeople, a tailor and an assistant.

“I was just playing with my passion then they came in and helped me organize my business financially,” she said of the Box Shop, situated just kilometers away from her Soweto base.

“My ambition is to take my brand to the world — I want to be the go-to for contemporary African design,” she said.

Zwane, who lived in Benin for seven years, travels to the West African country every two months to source the materials which she transforms into dresses, skirts and trousers.

Buyers worldwide can purchase many products of the Box Shop’s 43 local brands on its Web site, while a larger selection is available for South African and international visitors at its physical store in Soweto.

The store is made of large metal shipping containers, giving the project its name, and hosts offices, a coffee shop and will soon be extended to include a hair salon and a radio station.

The hilly tourist hub is one of the most famous in Africa and is the site of former South African president Nelson Mandela’s one-time house as well as one of former Anglican archbishop Desmond Tutu’s current homes.

“It’s about access to market — taking backyard fashion designers, backyard furniture makers who do not have a place to showcase their products,” said Xolo Ncanywa, a consultant on the project. “We want them to be the next IKEA.”

The entrepreneurs on the scheme receive mentoring, practical assistance and investment advice from Box Shop’s team of 11 experts. Such hands-on “start to finish” support for small-scale entrepreneurs is a first for South Africa.

Designers and manufacturers like Zwane pitch their ideas to the Box Shop, which is backed by US-based not-for-profit TechnoServe, to win support for their products.

“Selling out of their car boots, they were always doomed to be small... This changes all that,” Box Shop cofounder Shungu Kanyemba said.

The organization gives the successful entrepreneurs feedback on their plans and advises on sourcing materials and finance, handling personnel issues and managing their operations.

It also takes a risk on the entrepreneurs it chooses: The Box Shop advances money for the raw materials for products to be sold on the Web site, so the entrepreneurs are not out of pocket.

The Soweto store now carries an eclectic range of products that includes bespoke speakers, shoes, furniture, clothes, cosmetics and freshly brewed coffee.

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