No rest for this 60-year-old livewire
“My entrepreneurship is beyond my control,” says Iris Makanya, a 60-year-old business owner from Umtata whose various businesses employ more than 800 people throughout South Africa.
To illustrate, she explains that she recently acquired some chickens as a hobby to help her relax and take her mind off the stresses of running a nation-wide security service, a school catering business, a school bus service, a cleaning company, a growing property portfolio and most recently an academy for training security guards.
“I just can’t help it – I decided to go commercial with the chickens,” laughs Iris. “The equipment (for a full-scale chicken farm) is arriving on the 20th of this month.”
A clue of where Iris’s extraordinary entrepreneurial drive and work ethic comes from lies in the name of her main companies, Dikha General Trading and Dikha Security and Cleaning Services.
They are named after her mother, whom she remembers as an extremely hard worker. She was a nurse but was constantly buying and selling clothes to make ends meet as she supported not only her three children through school, but also, as the first born, her seven siblings.
She wanted Iris to go to university when she matriculated from school in Umtata in 1979, but money was tight and Iris, who was top of her class in typing, was offered a good salary as a typist at the railways. After a few years she moved to a life insurance company where she excelled in sales, while starting her first business, a hair salon, in Umtata by employing two of her cousins.
Her break with formal employment came when she was promoted to sales manager, the first female manager in a company dominated by males. But she found that she was earning more from her own sales than as a manager. Rather than going back to be a salesperson, she decided to step away from employment and run her salon on a full-time basis.
The salon was never going to be big enough for Iris’s entrepreneurial energy, and soon she was also running a fast-food shop and butchery. She made sure that she differentiated her take-aways from all the other food stalls, and queues outside her shop next to the taxi rank became a permanent feature of the business.
This was the mid-90s, and for the first-time government contracts were becoming available to emerging entrepreneurs. Iris registered a formal business and won a six-month government contract to supply food to 50 schools as part of the state’s new school feeding scheme. The size of the contract seemed overwhelming, but Iris found that she had a knack for sourcing supplies quickly, recruiting the right people from the community, and outsourcing those parts of the project that she didn’t yet have the capacity for.
Her success in managing the project opened the door for Iris to win more contracts from government departments who were desperate for reliable service providers. She won school transport contracts and catering contracts for boarding schools, among others. And the fact that she did not waste money meant that she could finance each new contract with the proceeds from the previous one.
In the late 2000s Iris won her first security contract to guard a hospital with a team of eight guards. With one contract after another, Iris slowly built up the capacity of her Dikha Security and Cleaning Services, and soon she was winning guarding tenders for national government departments. Today her infrastructure includes provincial operations managers, regional managers and local supervisors to implement her security contracts nation-wide, as well as an armed-response service in Bisho.
Although her team of managers makes it possible for her to constantly add new projects to her growing businesses, Iris says it is not easy. Logistical problems inevitably arise with each contract, and her ability to win future contracts depends on how quickly her team can solve each problem and make it work. She says she finds the school-feeding and -transport contracts particularly stressful because the futures of children are involved.
The Covid-19 pandemic has certainly not made things any easier for Iris and her projects. The security side of her business actually saw a small increase as various institutions sought to strengthen their access control, but Iris has had to carry her staff who work on her school hostel catering and school transport contracts throughout the school shutdown.
Another aspect that makes government contracts uncomfortable is its unpredictability, which causes a fluctuating workflow. At one stage, Iris employed no fewer than 1500 guards nation-wide, compared to her current 800. No matter how efficiently you complete one contract, she says, the next one is subject to an open tendering process, which is always a bit of a gamble.
In order to counteract the ups and downs of government contracts, Iris decided to start a training academy for security guards in Umtata, and drew in the help of Business Partners Limited, with whom she had dealt with in the past with property deals. This time, she needed expertise to help set the training and testing standards for her academy and made use of Business Partners Ltd Technical Assistance Programme funding, a collaboration with the Swiss State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO).
The Programme provides loans at zero interest loans to clients of Business Partners Ltd to acquire technical expertise and solutions for their businesses. Iris used the funding to train up moderators and assessors for her academy so that it could attain formal accreditation.
Iris says the opening of the academy was somewhat delayed by the Covid-19 restrictions, but now it is ready to form the next chapter in her business story. By the looks of things, it certainly won’t be the last.