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South African women mean business

How the poor in South Africa – especially women – are learning business skills in order to find their own entrepreneurial solutions to unemployment.

Two years ago Linda Robyn, 29, was a member of South Africa's estimated 15 million jobless. After finishing school, Robyn did odd jobs around her Ocean View community in the southern coastal region of Cape Town. That ground to a halt as the economic climate grew gloomier in South Africa.

But after completing an 18-month course in community business skills in a college programme run in partnership with the Foundation for Business Development (Febdev), Robyn herself now employs two people and is currently completing an order for 1,000 ceramic bowls for the Body Shop cosmetics chain in Britain. She has moved from living on handouts to earning anything between R2,500 ($400) and R6.000 ($950) per month.

Fifty-year-old Aurelia Makhuphula from the nearby informal settlement of Masiphumelele is another woman whose dire circumstances have been changed by doing the same course. After being retrenched at a candle factory two years ago, Makhuphula added business skills to her candle-making before opening her own business. She now produces hand-made decorative candles for the local market as well as exporting them to America and Britain.

"I am now able to devise my own business plan. The only problem with my success is that it has given rise to jealousy from some people in my community who are envious of what I have achieved," says Makhuphula, who has also been able to build a brick house in a settlement dominated by corrugated iron shacks.

Makhuphula and Robyn are among many once-unemployed people who have taken basic and further education courses run by Febdev, which is funded by a mix of national and international government departments and some large private companies.

"Febdev's strategy is to link itself up with a public institution like a college, school or clinic, church and through that strengthen its programmes," says Dorette Steenkamp, Febdev's Western Cape co-ordinator. "We add value by bringing the entrepreneurial programme. The moment someone shows entrepreneurial intent the college passes them on to us."

Febdev has been providing enterprise skills to individuals, companies and educational institutions for nearly 20 years, aiming to build "a spirit of enterprise that will allow our country's people and economy to prosper," Steenkamp adds.

Many experts say Febdev is a good example of a grass roots initiative that uses information and communications technology to alleviate poverty. Although it does not work specifically in the area of ICT development, it does use ICT, such as computers and the Internet, in delivering its services.

According to the international non-profit ICT organisation, Febdev's work relates to efforts at bridging the digital divide between the haves and have-nots.

"Today's information society requires that even the smallest businesses have some level of ICT use integrated in their operations. An entrepreneur who uses ICT appropriately and effectively can run a more efficient business and reach markets that were previously unimaginable," the organisation says.

According to the authoritative Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) published by the University of Cape Town's Business School, South Africa lags far behind other developing countries – such as Chile, India and Mexico – in entrepreneurial activity.

"In South Africa, total entrepreneurial activity rates are nearly 50 per cent lower on average than in other developing countries included in GEM over the period 2001 to 2002," says the GEM.

Millions of South Africans, 30 per cent of whom are unemployed, are desperate to find work.

"We have 25,000 people coming from the Eastern Cape looking for work in the Western Cape and within the first week or two they are disillusioned because they can't find work. The college and Febdev play the role of lifting this gloom by exposing them to alternatives through our courses which enable them to be self-employed," Steenkamp says.

The process involves imparting a combination of skills and business training in the first stage.

They then have the choice to either start their own business or find work in the industry.

The third step is to become an entrepreneur where they are provided with work and office space. They pay rent and sign a contract with the college and have their own clients.

However, there have been cases of orders not materialising, causing some women to revert to domestic work for an income. "We are addressing the marketing aspect to ensure there is a constant flow of work," says Steenkamp.

While the Western Cape pilot project has gone well, Steenkamp realises that it is probably more needed in poorer provinces like Limpopo and the Eastern Cape, from where people migrate to other provinces in search of employment.

Now Febdev badly wants to replicate the project in other regions, hoping to set up in Limpopo and the Eastern Cape within the next year or two. "Many people doing our courses here are in fact from the Eastern Cape," she says.

While Febdev's initiative is solving the problems of people like Robyn and Makhuphula it will not make a significant dent on the constantly rising unemployment figures in South Africa. "The problem with many similar projects is that we are working in isolation. The only way to make a bigger impact is for us to share what we've learnt in an open forum," says Steenkamp.

An interesting feature of the Febdev courses is that they are mainly attended by women.

"The men feel it's not part of their culture to be doing courses like these. Although there are a few who attend, most of them prefer to stand along the roadside waiting for someone who needs a labourer for the day to pick them up so that they can earn some money to feed their families," says Bongile Bokwana at the Febdev office in Noordhoek, Cape Town.

Bokwana, who acts as an interpreter during presentations, says translating the presentations is key. "It's difficult enough for people without formal education to grasp the concepts, and for them to do so in a language they don't have a proper command of would make matters worse," he says.

"When people start thinking entrepreneurial we believe it puts them in a better position to find work because they would become opportunity seekers who will do more to find work. We believe self-employment and enterprise is the key to the future," says Steenkamp.

Mohammed Allie is a South African freelance journalist and Cape Town correspondent for the BBC's African Service.

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