When news of the lockdown dropped, entrepreneur Ntombekhaya Nonnxuba lay awake trying to think of solutions. Her company, Rise Uniforms, which produced outfits for Pick n Pay, Boxer superstores, schools and churches, would be forced to close its doors, leaving her to cover wages for 45 people. That is, unless Rise could become an essential services provider. But it would need to happen fast.
They started off by sewing re-usable fabric masks, which seemed like an obvious solution. But Nonnxuba started thinking bigger. “At that time, nobody, nobody in the country was producing surgical three-ply masks,” she says. Instead of importing them from China, what if the company could make them locally? But it would require the purchase of an expensive machine from overseas, and a hefty loan to make it happen.
After hearing that the National Empowerment Fund (NEF) was making R200-million available to help local black-owned businesses scale up into opportunities provided by Covid-19, Nonnxuba decided to take the plunge. The company already had a relationship with the funder, which had helped them scale up in years gone by. So she applied for a R10-million loan, to cover the costs of the machine, some raw material and provide some working capital.
“My financial advisor said I shouldn’t do it,” she says. “He said that the lockdown would last 20 days. But I said: what if it lasts longer? Can I just try?”
Rise landed some large hospital deals, and, using the new machinery, the company was able to produce 55 000 masks per day. But then the government stepped in and started providing the masks to hospitals, and Nonnxuba had to pivot once again. She took a picture of disposable surgical gowns off the internet and asked her assistant to place a simple advert on Facebook, with the idea of gauging demand. “Yoh! I was shocked,” says Nonnxuba. In that first week we got quotations amounting to R24-million.” Out of those enquiries they’ve managed to secure three regular clients.
They started production almost immediately. “There was no time to think,” she says. “By 8 o’clock, you are busy with new product development, by 11 o’clock the product is already on line.”
The demand for surgical gowns has exceeded expectations, says Nonnxuba. It’s not only allowed her company to fully employ all of its regular staff, but also provided sub-contractual business to five other companies.
“This is someone who had to diversify their product range to keep afloat,” says Emmanuel Mohlamme, spokesperson for the NEF. “We started small with her and over time she’s been able to grow her business.”
The main challenge that Rise now faces is competing with cheap comparable imports. The government has requirements around procuring personal protective equipment (PPE) from local producers, to boost business such as Rise Uniforms, but Nonnxuba says she can’t rely on the government to create business for her.
So, she’s gearing up to export. In addition to meeting local SABS standards, she’s made that sure their products meet European Union standards and is in the process of obtaining approval from the Food and Drug Administration in the US. She hopes her products will be bought locally, but if not, “I will be able to make my own market,” she says.
Lessons on the job
To other entrepreneurs who are struggling in the current environment, her advice is threefold.
First: Figure out how you can meet the needs in the market with your existing set-up. “Just identify the gaps that are there and look at the investment that you currently have, and match the two,” says Nonnxuba. “You already have the space, you already have the people, you already have the machinery. I had resources, so I started with what I had, before I considered what I don’t have.”
Second: Be an eternal student. Three months ago, Nonnxuba had never made any sort of PPE in her life. She started off by following the news to look for market needs, performing Google searches to find out how to make the products she was interested in, and conforming to compliance standards to make sure they got it right. “Be willing to be a student for life!” she says. “Use technology and the internet to actually advance your business.”
Third: Don’t wait for a perfect product before you go to market. “People should not be scared of trying new things,” says Nonxxuba. Get your product out there, and then adjust according to feedback from the market. “The customers are the ones who will educate you and tell you what they want.”
Nonnxuba, who matched the NEF’s investment with R950 000 of her own, has 24 months to pay back her loan. She has a six-month interest and capital moratorium, and thereafter she will be charged a 2.5% fixed interest rate.
Although business is booming currently, there’s still no guarantee that she’ll be able to meet the terms. After all, she says, business is all about being willing to take calculated risks. “If you can’t take a risk, then you’re not an entrepreneur. You might as well get out of the space,” she says. And she’s going to do everything in her power to make it work. “If it doesn’t kill me, I will do it,” says Nonnxuba. “I will do whatever I can to make this successful.”