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 In praise of South Africa's entrepreneurs

 

 Building a business anywhere is always a heroic undertaking, but nothing illustrates the positive force of entrepreneurship in society as clearly as some factories in the deep rural areas of South Africa.

“You walk into a workshop standing in the middle of nowhere and see people who used to have nothing, perhaps only a standard two or standard three, processing food in HACCP conditions,” says Anton Roelofse, Business Partners Limited Regional General Manager. HACCP is an exacting quality-control system for food processing that requires high standards of training.

No corporate, government agency, school or welfare programme exists that can so dramatically change the fortunes of people who were destined for a life of grinding poverty, and turn them into proud and prospering workers.

But what inspires Anton even more about owner-built businesses, especially far-flung rural enterprises, is the realisation that they have been grown out of nothing in extremely difficult circumstances. Their markets and suppliers are often hundreds of kilometres away, infrastructure is virtually non-existent, and the potential work-force completely untrained and barely literate.

The reason for starting the business is often as mundane as the spouse of a farmer who was looking for something interesting to do. This shows that true entrepreneurship has more to do with the urge to get up and do something and a powerful tenacity to carry it through, than with the much-fabled ability to come up with fancy new ideas.

For Anton, dogged tenacity is the one overriding characteristic of all successful entrepreneurs – rural and urban – because of the harsh environment in which they succeed. The major constraints against which they fight their whole lives are a lack of education and training (in themselves as well as their workers), unfriendly regulations and systems and a lack of financial support.

But for true entrepreneurs, “any obstacle becomes an opportunity. Failure is not an option – they simply may not fail. They have to make a plan” to overcome every obstacle, says Anton. It is this adaptability that makes small and medium enterprise (SME) owners the drivers of job creation and skills development in South Africa.

Anton believes they pay a heavy price in fulfilling this role, and their sacrifices are not acknowledged and appreciated:

  • The feeling of loneliness can often be overwhelming for a business owner, despite being surrounded by people. It is borne of being fully exposed to the risk of losing everything if the business fails, and not being able to report to someone and ask for help and resources.
  • They work very long hours, with no guarantee that they will one day be rewarded.
  • The costs to their personal lives can be huge. The long hours and the stress exact a toll on their marriage and their children often suffer too.
  • Most business owners simply cannot take a holiday in at least the first three years of running their business. Again, there is just no guarantee that this sacrifice will be rewarded one day.
  • When cash runs short – and it will from time to time – business owners put themselves right at the back of the salary queue.
  • They nurture and care for their workers way beyond the requirements of normal professional relationships in the business world. “You often get the sense that the employees in an owner-managed business are more like family than just workers,” says Anton.

These immense sacrifices are hidden from the view of the public, who see business owners simply as people who work for their own profit – quite the opposite of the selflessness that they actually practice. It is partly because in order to succeed, business owners have to portray themselves as being in control, and being the best at what they do. So they tend to sweep their struggles under the carpet for the outside world.

But Anton believes there is a deeper misunderstanding about what drives entrepreneurs. If it were simply money they were after, they can probably do better in the much more comfortable corporate world. A look at the top earners in South Africa clearly shows that the way to fabulous wealth goes through the corporate hierarchy. The minority of South African millionaires are self-made.

What entrepreneurs are really after is making something out of nothing, of succeeding in difficult circumstances and doing it on their own steam. Money is just a by-product of the real prize, which is to make a business happily hum at optimum efficiency when everybody said it was impossible to do.

It is against this background that South Africans need to understand the significance of some astounding official statistics, says Anton: 42.8% of South Africans are employed by SMEs. 35% of the country’s GDP is produced by SMEs, and 90% of all new jobs are created in SMEs.

It is time to recognise South Africa’s entrepreneurs for the heroes who they are.

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