News Women's Month 2021

Rita Zwane: township business advocate and pioneer of the Shisanyama sub-sector

Rita Zwane, founder of Imbizo Shisanyama.

Pioneer of the Shisanyama legacy, Rita Zwane, has a passion that is deeply rooted in the streets of South Africa’s post-democratic townships.

A serial entrepreneur by heart, Rita has always been attracted to male-dominated industries, a trait she fondly credits to her mother, a domestic worker, who single-handedly raised seven children.

In her search for a new side hustle on the streets of Thembisa during the mid-90’s, Rita’s ‘voila’ moment came when she noticed the lack of easily accessible convenient stores in townships with residents often having to travel to the nearest towns to purchase everyday essentials. Her humble beginnings, in a 6m x 2m shipping container on a busy corner in Ivory Park, has helped Rita to build South Africa’s township economy that thrives today.

Almost twenty-five years later, Rita has successfully disrupted the food and beverage sector in South Africa, but it has not been an easy journey. As a young, black female requiring finance, she had to sell her house for a one-bedroom RDP house to pursue her dream.

In those days, investors were sceptical about township businesses. The financiers also required security which I did not have.  My dream was not just about selling pap and vleis; it was about providing Africa’s ultimate braai experience and my passion for the African lifestyle, culture and heritage of sitting around a fire that takes you back to your roots.”

Afropolitan beacon of hope

With four restaurants in Gauteng, Rita’s newest African cuisine experience at McCormick Property Development’s Mall of Thembisa is the ‘ultimate expression of the experience’, ‘the home of legends’ and ‘Afropolitan’, granting Rita the opportunity to increase her footprint nationally.

As a township business advocate, Rita has witnessed local businesses being side-lined and excluded from new retail developments, forever becoming the spectators.

The Mall of Thembisa is exactly what we have been waiting for, for so many years” says Rita. “I am passionate about what I do and so are Jason McCormick and his team. They are not just property developers who enter a township, make money, and exit; they are as passionate about empowering local communities, and I prefer to find myself within their tribe”.

With a ‘local first’ ethos, the Mall of Thembisa runs numerous initiatives that aim to develop a sense of pride and place for its surrounding community. One of these initiatives includes a farming co-operative partnership between Imbizo Shisanyama, the mall’s main anchor restaurant, and local farmers through a fresh produce offtake agreement.

The challenge for local businesses is the access to market. Like Kasi CoLAB, another initiative at the Mall of Thembisa, this gives these entrepreneurs an opportunity to work within a mall setting for one to two years and to learn how to understand and to communicate with customers. The Mall of Thembisa provides this space for local entrepreneurs”.

Conquering poverty of the mind

The path to entrepreneurship starts with fear and uncertainty but it takes courage to continue. Following a decision to step back from the day-to-day operations of her restaurants to focus on tapping into the Shisanyama value chain, Rita sat down in 2019 to pen her book, ‘Conquering Poverty of the Mind.

When I was spending a lot of my time at Busy Corner, young people would regularly visit and ask me for my advice. It became an unwritten rule where they would find me, working during the mornings with my coffee, at a specific table – especially over the weekends. They would ask questions about how I started the business. Over time, this became a sort of mentorship”.

At the time of changing her role within her business, Rita realized that she was no longer able to sit at that table as often, but the youth continued to visit. Her business coach, Steven Zwane, stepped in and suggested that she pen her years of advice, making this more accessible – not only to South Africa, but to Africa too.  In 2019, the Emerald Journal approved Rita’s entrepreneurship case study to be taught to Post Graduate students in the UK studying the ‘Dynamics and Characteristics of Entrepreneurship’ in Africa’s emerging markets.

I used to tell the youth that they must let the excitement of success, overcome their fear of failure. Visualize that success, build this vision in your mind, and create a roadmap. Eat, sleep, and dream this vision and allow it to take up so much space within your mind that it leads you to begin your entrepreneurship journey, which is a road less travelled”.  

While it is good to know your competition, be careful of spending too much time worrying about what they are doing. Your crystal-clear vision will enable you to run your race, to stay in your lane, and to compete with your goals, whilst having a team that supports you”.

Through her book, Rita also hopes to reach the younger girl who is working as a cashier or packer and who does not believe it is possible to change her circumstances.   

I want young girls to read my book and to see how I made it; a young mother who was earning R150 per week back in the early 90’s. I want my book to inspire her to believe that she can change her life, if she fights the poverty of her mind”.

Often, female entrepreneurs must enter unchartered territory and this reliance is something that we have learnt from our mothers who have been holding the bull by its horns for so many years”.

CEO of Business Leadership SA, Busisiwe Mavuso, said that “what holds women back is not who they are – but it is who they think they are not”.  When we work on our strengths, courage, and resilience, we can leave the world a better place.