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 Stranded patients inspire young entrepreneur to start own venture

 

 The day that the health company closed down the dialysis centre where she worked as a young medical technologist in deep-rural KwaZulu-Natal, Ncamisile Maphumulo decided to start her own business one day to help the patients left stranded by the closure.

She found another job soon enough, working for various centres where people with kidney failure went for regular treatment, and became an experienced dialysis specialist in a region where kidney failure caused by hypertension was common.

But the people of Nongoma remained in her heart. Since the centre closed down because it was not properly planned and managed, the patients have had to travel for hours to Richards Bay for dialysis. Maphumulo was determined to return to the community with her own dialysis centre. Today she is closer than ever to reaching that goal, running her own dialysis centre in Ulundi, some 45km away from Nongoma.

It has been a difficult and risky journey, says 32-year-old Maphumulo. First, she has had to upgrade her diploma in medical technology to a degree, without which she would not have been able to run her own practice. Shortly after obtaining her degree, she stepped out of full-time employment, hoping to start her own centre.

Looking back on it, she realises how ill prepared she was for the process of starting up, which proved much harder than she thought. She had no equipment, no business plan, no finance and no business experience. “I just took a huge risk,” she said.

First she tried government small-business support programmes, but they took months to respond to her requests and ideas. Maphumulo thought she would sustain herself for a few months by doing freelance work at dialysis centres, but she found that it was keeping her back. Every day she spent working for one of the centres was a day less that she could devote to starting her business. She decided to stop all work and concentrate only on starting up her own business, instead of helping out the businesses against whom she was planning to compete.

Maphumulo’s story illustrates a hardship suffered by many young first-generation professionals in South Africa. They are often the first in their family to gain a professional qualification, and therefore experience immense pressure to support a large extended family. This expectation can easily frustrate their entrepreneurial ambitions because they feel obliged to hang on to a job to support the family.

Maphumulo, one of four siblings, was the first in her family to study post matric. She grew up helping her mother at her road-side table from which she sold everything from mielies to clothes.

When Maphumulo took the difficult decision stop her freelance work, she switched off her phone for two months because she knew that she would receive many requests from family members whom she wouldn’t be able to help. But in the end the family understood what she was trying to do, she says. Maphumulo herself was forced to rely on her sister, a self-employed baker and trader in Durban, to get her through the toughest months.

To make up for her lack of business experience, Maphumulo contracted a business consultant in Richards Bay to help her think through her venture and draw up a solid business plan. It was a painful expenditure, but without it she would not have managed to get off the ground, she says.

None of the banks were willing to fund a start-up business that needed at least R400 000 just for basic machinery and equipment. Maphumulo kept on searching, and stumbled upon Business Partners on the internet. To her surprise and relief, the small and medium-business financier decided to back her business based purely on the market potential and on her experience in managing dialysis centres. Most of the R650 000 loan to finance her business is unsecured.

She was able to open her doors of her business, called Coastal Nephrology Centre, in Ulundi in February this year and has managed to meet her all of her targets so far. With hypertension rife in the area, there is no shortage of patients needing treatment for kidney problems.

The real problem is the affordability of her service for the underdeveloped community of rural KwaZulu-Natal. Maphumulo says her clients are all on medical aid, and she is prepared to offer her service at cost to anyone who cannot afford it.

The other major challenge is the unreliable water and electricity supply which constantly needs “a Plan B”, says Maphumulo, but she came well prepared. After all, it was a lack of planning for such shaky infrastructure that led to the heartbreaking closure of the centre at Nongoma.

If all goes according to plan, and it looks like it will, Maphumulo will soon open a second branch in the town that inspired her to become an entrepreneur.

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