MaZwane: shishanyama pioneer and community icon

August 14, 2020

Phumlaphi ‘Rita’ Zwane has become something of an icon for success, entrepreneurship and community support in the township of Tembisa, in Gauteng, where she is affectionately known as MaZwane. The story of MaZwane is one of persistence, focusing on your goals and not losing sight of your roots as one climbs the ladder to success.

Today MaZwane is an author, having published her memoir titled Conquering the Poverty of the Mind in which she relates her journey from a single mother arriving in Johannesburg with no prospects, to her iconic status today. It has been hard work and taken patience, resilience and an unwavering belief in herself to overcome all the challenges faced along the way, including the current COVID-19 pandemic, but grit and determination have paid off for MaZwane.

How did your background gear you for starting a business?

Every skill you learn or experience you’re exposed to prepares you for business. For me, it was waitressing. I got to know the hospitality industry inside out – from serving the best fresh food available to offering excellent customer service. Little did I know then that from those experiences I would create a shisanyama sub-sector that would transform the entire landscape of the food and beverage industry in South Africa.

Rita Zwane, businesswoman and author.

Describe your business in a couple of sentences? What exactly does it do?

Imbizo Shisanyama offers its patrons the Ultimate Braai Experience and a real taste of home. It has become one of SA’s most acclaimed African cuisine restaurants that celebrate authentic African culture and heritage in class, style and dignity.

What sparked the big idea?

I had a full-time job and worked as a part-time waitress in a Mediterranean restaurant. I noticed there how it was all about a nationality promoting its cultures and traditions. It inspired me to open an establishment that would embrace our true African lifestyle and identity in class, style and dignity.

How did you turn your idea into a business?

Step by step! I identified an opportunity and believed in it so much that I invested my time and R5000 back in 1997 to make it a reality. I had to negotiate terms to buy the shipping container to house ‘Meating Place’. As business grew, so did my determination to own the first Shisanyama restaurant that could compare with any other good suburban restaurant.

MaZwane: shishanyama pioneer and community icon

Best success story of your platform in practice?

So many! The fact that thousands of patrons frequent our establishment every year and contribute to a healthy revenue stream and that it is recognised as one of the top Shisanyama’s in the country.  

We have created a product that speaks to the authentic African culture, heritage and identity in the food and beverage industry. Imbizo Shisanyama has the kind of ecosystem that becomes the heart that pumps life into other small and emerging businesses in the township.

Impact of COVID-19?

Such a massive impact, particularly on many small/medium businesses and especially for the first six weeks of the level 5 lockdown. Without any doubt, some of these businesses will have folded. Of course, we didn’t anticipate that 4 months later we will still be sitting with regulations that has devastating effect on many SMMEs.

For Imbizo Shisanyama, operating in the food and beverage industry we have experienced a significant loss of revenue. Since Level 4, we have opened shop to sell only one product – meat at limited times – which is just 10% of our normal business operation so we are operating at a loss. We have done what we can to mitigate the impact, which includes scaling down on personnel, applying for government relief, seeking working capital support from the bank as well as reviewing our operational expenses. Looking ahead, we have initiated an order delivery service and are building digital tools to enable ease of online ordering.

What are your immediate business plans for the future?

First, to survive COVID-19 and to retain our trajectory of growth. I will continue to mentor young entrepreneurs so they too can achieve their dreams.

What are the challenges that you have overcome during your journey?

Learning on the go. I had no formal education or business experience except for being in the front-end of service delivery in the organisations I have worked at. I had to rely on my solutionist and positive mindset to serve as my teachers. 

Then navigating the bureaucracy of policies – from securing a liquor licence, actioning rezoning for business operations and getting financial institutions to believe in township businesses – these were crippling in the early stages of the business. Add jealousy, lack of business understanding, rumours and gossip that are all part and parcel of doing business in a township, and I quickly learned to grind my teeth, ignore and forge ahead.

Only good eats available at Imbizo Shisanyama Image source: Facebook/ImbizoShisanyama

What does being a successful woman in business mean to you?

Closing my eyes at night, knowing that I am a productive member of society! Whether you work for someone else or you own your own business, you want to know that you have given one hundred per cent to that day and that you are able to achieve independence. 

For me, it is also the privilege to leave a legacy that has given birth to a subsector that is now recognised worldwide and has created many entrepreneurs and employment. I am honoured to wave a flag for women entrepreneurs in the township and to have persevered in a male-dominated industry.

Best advice you would share with anyone starting a business?

  • Be open to advice – If someone offers to help you, accept and soak it up like a sponge. 
  • Be open to learning, and never stop – there is no excuse to say I don’t know in the age of YouTube and Google. As an avid reader, it’s been easy to research areas where I did not have much experience or knowledge. I have always been keen to understand how successful people think.
  • Just start – successful entrepreneurs start with action, and later focus on other things like support, resources and market research. That first priority is putting a real, tangible product or service in the hand of consumers. It’s the best way to gain real, accurate feedback on the viability of an idea.
  • Do the time – no one succeeds immediately, and every successful businessperson was once a beginner. As Steve Jobs wisely noted, “If you look closely, most overnight successes took a long time.” I have invested 23 years in the Imbizo Shisanyama brand, and the building process took time, hard work, discipline, energy and effort.
  • Believe in yourself because no one else will, it is your dream after al!
  • Stay true to your brand promise. At Imbizo Shisanyama it remains “The Experience”.

Best Money Management advice relevant now?

  • In early 2000, my then business mentor suggested that I invest in the property market as properties could always be converted into cash in the event of a crisis. Who knew that the crisis I would face would be a global health and economic one – equally devastating on both sides.
  • Then my FNB Financial Advisors/Planners – the late Louis Roberts and Frans Stapelberg – recommended I secure investment policies (3D Gearing in those days) so that if something unpredictable happened I would be able to access these funds relatively quickly and could use them as security if I needed to borrow money from the bank. Sound advice!

How has FNB helped drive your business goals

FNB has helped me to leverage my assets from the beginning. It has encouraged me to be innovative in using banking services so that I am able to achieve my business goals, I remember back in the late ’90s when the concept of a commercialised Shisanyama was non-existent, one of the biggest challenges was to secure finance, it was impossible. The only bank that was willing to take the risk with me was FNB.

In 2007 FNB helped me secure a loan of close to R2m to finish the building and buy equipment for the restaurant and also guided me on how to invest my money and the importance of securing my businesses through insurance policies.

The business partnership I have with FNB is empowering and enabling. It’s great to be associated with a bank that cares and understand one’s business to give the appropriate and relevant advice.

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