It is easy to focus on the negatives during these dark times. Not long ago there were warnings that 75% of small businesses could go under and millions of jobs could be lost. Sadly many have closed down, but there are a few shiny diamonds scattered among the bad news rubble. These are businesses, often quite small, who took the knock of the lockdown and pivoted what they did. They saw the opportunity in the chaos. They survived. Some even thrived. This is the story of Estratweni Mobile Foods, a small business built on guts and toil by two-out-of-the-box thinkers.
On the street
Even before the lockdown, the story of Estratweni – which means on the street – was a tale of survival, hard work, reinvesting profits, inspiration and opportunities grasped, but with their roots always firmly embedded in the communities in which they operated.
Their journey began in 2016 when Thando “Space” Mavumengwana and Siphumeze “Blax” Ramncwana borrowed R200 from Thando’s sister. They used the money to buy ingredients to make muffins which they sold door to door. All the profits went back into the business, allowing them to expand. Soon enough they added beef burgers to their menu. But even with this product diversification, they were barely surviving and things were tough.
Fortunately Space and Blax found the UCT GSB incubation programme, a three-month course to help small businesses grow, on Facebook. “Shortly after the course, we started to expand”, Space explained. “It opened our minds, it reinvented our vision. It made us realise the opportunities in catering.”
Soon Estratweni was catering to corporates and academic institutions. They expanded their core business as well, by adding two trailers and a food cart to their shipping container-takeaway in Gugulethu. They also employed people from the communities they served, even reformed gangsters.
Hitting bad times
Then COVID struck. Space and Blax lost their two biggest sales areas, which were places of learning where students now had to stay away from. Their branch in Gugulethu closed and they had to retrench five people. Fortunately they were able to trade through the initial lockdown, but only until 20 April when the sale of hot food was banned. After that only deliveries were allowed by the regulations.
The pair spent their new-found spare time delivering food parcels to the needy in informal settlements in Crossroads, Gugulethu. They managed to keep the business going, even though there were no profits. They thought, as long as they could survive and not shed any more jobs, it was worth the struggle.
Against so much adversity, many small businesses would have given up by then. But Estratweni saw the opportunities. They had a ready market stuck at home in their area who previously did not know of them or how good their food was. These people were bored, craved someone else’s cooking, but the Cape Town restaurants did not deliver to the townships. There were also lots of delivery bike drivers without work.
As soon as they were allowed to, Space and Blax started delivering takeaways by bike. They also realised that their customers were stuck at home as families, and added family platters to their offering. When the delivery bikers went back to work again, they continued the deliveries by car, but they intend to buy their own bikes as soon as they could.
A helping hand
Space and Blax then saw alternative fintech lender Retail Capital’s COMEBACK competition on Facebook and entered. To their surprise, they won the R15 000 cash prize. The competition sought to find SMEs that had survived lockdown through innovation and share their inspirational stories with others to motivate them to keep on going. The competition garnered more than 150 entries, according to Retail Capital’s Cate Williams. “We pared it down to the top ten, but that was tough to do. So many business owners faced lockdown head-on and thought out of the box, which was extremely encouraging. From the ten, our leadership voted and Estratweni was the firm favourite. They are passionate people with an entrepreneurial spirit.”
How will Estratweni use the money? “We want to rebrand our place and get new uniforms for the team,” Space said, “Pay our bills and establish our delivery system. We have to buy safety equipment to be able to operate during COVID. We have to fix our broken trailers. We want to employ more young people,” says Space.
Creating jobs is, of course, the ultimate success, and is something that is so desperately needed in South Africa. With their never-give-up attitudes, optimism and will, Space and Blax are back on the street making an impact, one meal at a time.