Undaunted by a lack of support for female entrepreneurs in Cape Town's townships, a group of Khayelitsha businesswomen simply set up their own organisation to empower women making their way in business in one of South Africa's largest townships.
Sisters Wente and Letticia Ntaka and fellow entrepreneur Xoliswa Tsholoba set up the Women in Business Zone to pool their collective skills, knowledge and sometimes even finances, providing a sounding board on business challenges and enabling them to bid for larger-scale projects.
"We started the Zone because we saw that failure in our kind of business, and giving up on your dreams, is easy as there is no support base where you can talk about your problems and get advice from people who are walking the same road as you," say the women.
The Zone has since expanded to five members, and they've been instrumental in a further four local women setting up their own businesses, while Wente, 48, Letticia, 45, and Xoliswa, 55, were selected to participate in the Small Business Academy (SBA) of the University of Stellenbosch Business School (USB).
The SBA is a sponsored programme that takes 30 - 40 township entrepreneurs a year through a nine-month course offering training in business fundamentals, networking opportunities and mentorship whereby each participant is matched with an alumnus of the USB's MBA programme.
The biggest success to date of the trio's collaborative approach was becoming the first black women to install fibre-optic cables in Khayelitsha. Their first contract for 500m of trenching and pipe-laying last year was so
well executed that it led to them being contracted for more work in Khayelitsha and Eerste Rivier and employing approximately 50 people on the project.
"It wasn't easy work to get," says Xoliswa, whose company specialises in construction. "Construction is seen as men's work. We know we have the knowledge, the skills and the people to do the work, but we still have to convince people we can do it."
Now engaged in a home-building contract in Khayelitsha, says she enjoys the "tough business" of construction because it enables her to create employment for others. "Paying my employees always puts a smile on my face," she says.
That notion of sharing and working cooperatively in a competitive environment is central to the idea of the Women in Business Zone, and all three women agree that supporting and learning from each other has not only strengthened their self-esteem as businesswomen but also contributed to growing their individual businesses.
"We have come to understand that greed is not the solution to building our businesses. Good business values mean that when one has a problem, we sit down and discuss it to find a solution.
"Each of us has specific skills - one might be good at filling out tender documents and another at compiling quotes - and so we sit down together and work out how to approach a project," says Xoliswa.
Letticia Ntaka, who has a catering business, echoes this: "We each have our own separate businesses that we focus on, but there are a lot of challenges for women in business, and we found that working together, sharing ideas, supporting and advising each other, just makes it easier."
She says their group approach strengthens tender and project bids, and applications to government for support such as training or funding.
"As a woman in business, you can't just focus on only one thing - you must always be on the lookout for opportunities and be willing to change direction if what you are doing is not working," says Letticia.
This means that while she focuses on catering, her sister Wente on cleaning and Xoliswa on construction, if a big project comes along, all will multi-task and pitch in to deliver to the client's needs. This can even mean
one of the women providing bridging finance to get another's contract off the ground, or lending equipment to each other to save costs on hiring.
The Zone members meet monthly to exchange ideas and advice, set up their own training workshops and mentoring for other women in business in the area, and bring lessons back to the group from workshops and training they've attended outside the township.
They make a point of hiring unemployed women on their projects, and for those interested in setting up their own businesses, the group walks them through the process of business registration and compliance, and offers mentoring.
"Other disadvantaged women in Khayelitsha can see that it is possible to do something - you don't have to sit at home just because you don't have a job. We want other women to see the strength we have working as a team, and the fact that not having a university education didn't stop us from being businesswomen and making a difference in our community," says Wente.
With their motto "giving up is not an option", all three highlight the financial knowledge and marketing skills they have gained through the SBA programme, and all three have big dreams to take their businesses further.
Xoliswa's vision is to expand the Zone to a national business network, while caterer Letticia sees herself operating Khayelitsha's first hotel in the next 10 years, and Wente dreams of taking her studies further to a business management degree and having a food distribution company to compete nationally.