From day-dreamer to change maker - a short series challenging entrepreneurial stereotypes (Part 3)

The three entrepreneurs featured in this series all have inspirational stories to tell about the entrepreneurial journey in South Africa (see Parts 1 and 2). While they reflect very different perspectives and represent diverse sectors, their tales have various threads of commonality. They speak of the hardships, the challenges, and the real sense of isolation that come with being at the forefront of change. Despite the governmental push to support small, micro, and medium enterprises (SMMEs), and efforts to cultivate entrepreneurial spirit and creativity during the school-going years, many entrepreneurs still fall short, even given mentorship, funding, and networking opportunities. The series concludes with a look at how we can move forward.

Tsonga Pride

Junie Sihlangu is both a passionate green living advocate and a committed social entrepreneur. A creative by training, her artistic eye and talent led to her pursuing a career in graphic design. Disenchanted with the demands of a nine to five, and driven by a desire to give back to her community, she decided that a traditional career path would leave her unfulfilled and began looking for inspiration closer to home. She found it in the hobby her mother had started in the 70s: the creation of clothing and accessories from recycled plastic bags.

The hats and handbags that were originally crafted as gifts for friends and family, and occasionally sold to other parties, inspired Junie to formalise her mother’s hobby into a micro enterprise. All Tsonga Pride’s products promote green living and recycling, and the company’s ethos is deeply rooted in these principles. Their vibrant, handmade products pay tribute to the colourful spirit of the Tsonga people. Made up of plastic shopping bags, cardboard, and wool (or a combination of these materials), the original line has inspired the company’s latest creations: mats and fruit bowls. Aside from making beautiful eco-friendly gifts, though, Junie’s aspirations are far more wide-ranging:

‘Tsonga Pride wants to establish a network with communities in townships and rural areas: we aim to employ the locals and teach them how to make our products. Inasmuch as we’ll be empowering people – especially women – through jobs and opportunities, we also want to educate them about the importance of recycling, and incentivise them to adopt the practice in their own homes and communities.’

Indeed, the intricately crafted designs are often custom-made, and the production of each item requires skill, commitment, and patience. Junie soon discovered that she needed all of these qualities to keep her business going. She’s already encountered a couple of stumbling blocks on the road to becoming a fully-fledged social entrepreneur, but has been learning to manage them with the support of eKasiLabs Soweto. As Junie explains:

‘The biggest challenge we’ve had is a simple lack of knowledge with regard to the ins and outs of running a business. No one teaches you how to do this, and it seems a road less travelled for women in my community. Since the business’s revenue stream is inconsistent, I supplement it by freelancing. Tsonga Pride’s revenue is used primarily for supplies, transportation, and advertising.

One of the toughest realisations I’ve had to face is that it’s difficult to get consumers interested in purchasing handmade recycled goods. This is a niche market, and as the quality of the products isn’t "commercial grade," finding the right customer base is proving both frustrating and challenging. Although we’ve been able to successfully sell our products at markets and fairs, we aren’t always able to make a regular appearance due to insufficient funds.’

Despite these challenges, Junie remains optimistic. Tsonga Pride is much more than just a business – it’s her way of giving back to her community in a meaningful way. Her main aim is to uplift and empower people:

‘If I can do just one small thing to change a person’s perspective, or living situation, I will be happy. Running a business purely for financial gain doesn’t move me – maybe that’s what differentiates Tsonga Pride from regular for-profit enterprises, or maybe it’s reflective of my personality and values – I don’t know. What I do know, though, is that I find fulfillment every time I collect the materials we recycle and turn them into these beautiful creations.’

Tsonga Pride’s products range between R80 and R500, and can be delivered anywhere in South Africa. Find them on Facebook, or contact Junie directly: jfsihl87@gmail.com.