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 Building on a rich legacy of caring entrepreneurship

 

 Given the fact that  the legal and cultural suppression of women in business has only recently  started lifting, South Africa has a surprisingly deep tradition of female  entrepreneurship. And if the story of Kgomotso Shiluvane is anything to go by,  it is a tradition that combines business success with social consciousness and  care.

 

Shiluvane, founder-owner of the Lunghile Nursing School, a fast-growing academy that trains and develops nurses, remembers watching her grandmother in her shop in Limpopo where she grew up. Pay next time,” her grandmother would often tell the destitute women who came in to ask to buy food on credit. And when her grandchildren reminded her that a particular client had not yet paid for the last groceries she bought on credit, she would say: “I’m not as worried about how she is going to pay me as I am about how she is going to feed her children.”

Such generosity did nothing to dampen her grandmother’s success in business nor her entrepreneurial drive. Apart from the shop, she owned a farm that exported nuts decades before any black farmer, let alone female ones, were allowed to emerge.

Whether it is due to tradition, family values or an “inherent drive;, the spirit of her grandmother lives on in Shiluvane’s nursing college. In every six-monthly intake of trainee nurses into the college, which has its main campus in Johannesburg and a sub-campus in East London, at least three or four of them simply cannot afford the fees, and are supported by Shiluvane’s bursary programme. So far, more than 300 students from impoverished backgrounds have been supported by the programme to graduate from the Lunghile Nursing School.

Today, one of the most challenging aspects of Shiluvane’s business is how to deal with requests from students who say they have run out of funds to complete their studies. She has always been acutely aware of the desperate poverty in the communities where many of her students come from, but is each individual case a genuine instance of destitution? How do you ensure that your social conscience is not abused?

Shiluvane’s strategy is to build due diligence into her business. She has a committee that looks at each request and evaluates the student’s claims, behaviour and past performance to decide whether to support the applicant with a bursary or not.

The mix of social upliftment and running her own business has always been central to Shiluvane’s aspirations. She wanted to study social work, but because her parents couldn’t immediately afford to send her to university, she opted for a free nursing diploma at first, and when she did get a chance to get a degree, she decided to stick to nursing. Early in her career, she started teaching trainee nurses, and she chose jobs that could give her the broadest possible range of nursing experiences.

In the late nineties she found herself working for the Sandton municipal clinic, biding her time until she would be able to step out and start her own nutritional clinic to combat the scourge of malnutrition that she had so often come across as a nurse. But then she saw an advertisement that took her career in a different direction. It was for an agency to supply contract nurses to a government hospital.

Given her knowledge and experience, and her entrepreneurial bent, Shiluvane knew that she could handle such a contract, and she threw herself at the challenge of going up against established nursing agencies. She resigned from her municipal job, and started her own private practice in Rivonia, big enough to pay the bills, but small enough to give her enough time to work on the bid for the nursing tender. She recruited her cousin, an accountant, to help her with the business plan.

Winning the contract propelled her into an orbit that felt at times like a roller coaster. She and her cousin, who then joined the business full time, survived the upheaval of taking over the contract from the previous agency who had it for twelve years. The biggest problem was cash flow, but pleas to the government’s finance department worked.

The business grew. They bought premises in Johannesburg, won further contracts to supply nurses to as many as five government hospitals, and set about building a pool of nurses from which to draw. But then two trends radically altered the direction of the business.

First, South African nurses were being recruited by overseas agencies in huge numbers, leaving a serious shortage. Characteristically, Shiluvane saw an opportunity for both upliftment and business, and she set up her own nursing academy to run alongside and complement her nursing agency. But then the unions started their campaign against “labour broking”, and over the next few years government moved away from contract nursing to full-time employment.

It is a mark of Shiluvane’s entrepreneurial prowess that she managed, over a number of years, to shift her business entirely from a nursing agency to one that focuses entirely on training nurses. When the agency business started shrinking, her cousin wanted out, and Shiluvane approached Business Partners Limited for funding to buy him out. This was followed by another loan for the purchase of two houses in Rosebank, Johannesburg, which today forms the main campus of the Lunghile Nursing School.

Without any outside finance, Shiluvane has managed to open another branch of the school in East London, and is planning a third in Mpumalanga. She is also looking at the possibilities of training community health care workers.

The business has recently been strengthened by Shiluvane’s daughter, who joined after completing her business studies, and who no doubt will ensure that the special kind of caring entrepreneurship of her great-grandmother continues into the next generation.

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