Thursday, April 9, 2020

What a business!

Hurriedly, she emerges from the office, where she has been consulting yet another client, and proffers a million apologies. It’s difficult not to forgive her. It’s just after 10am, and Boitumelo Marumo-Mthupha is already up to her neck with the day’s schedule.

The head (her official designation is Business Manager) of a pioneering concept in entrepreneurial development, Marumo-Mthupha and her staff are understandably busy. The Business Place is a walk-in entrepreneurial centre that provides accessible and affordable services to people who want to start or grow businesses.

The model was successfully piloted in South Africa, and the first centre in Botswana opened in September ÔÇô although the official launch only happened on July 9. The promo brochure says the aim of the centre is to plant seeds of entrepreneurship, stimulate local business and enable people to become sustainable in their communities.
Services offered revolve around general entrepreneurial development ÔÇô counselling, consultation, training, mentoring, networking, use of meeting rooms, internet services, and access to information (the latter courtesy of an in-house information centre, as well as benefit from The Business Place’s wider network that extends to the nine centers in South Africa).

Once a month, the centre hosts a Business Opportunity Day, where a particular sector of the economy is picked to sensitize people about the opportunities available in that sector. There is always an actual entrepreneur in that field to share experiences.
“If it is tourism we are featuring that day, we attempt to give a situation where we are not only talking about a motel in Kasane, but other opportunities such as catering, transport, health services, and beauty services. We try to sensitize our clients to look at business broadly. We tell them that there is a business opportunity in every corner,” Marumo-Mthupha says.

There is never a dull moment as clients of all ages walk in throughout the day. Some come to read business publications, while others want to watch business videos. Some are just to catch on the latest talk in business.

“We are here to provide a facility where people are free to explore their potential. We give them direction and steps to follow in business,” explains Marumo-Mthupha.

The concept is owned by Investec and at each centre the institution partners with a range of stakeholders with a common purpose. Local partners are Investec, Motor Centre Group, Barloworld, University of Botswana, Citizen Entrepreneurial Development Agency (CEDA), Kgalagadi Beverages Trust (KBT), First National Bank, and the Department of Culture and Youth.

Even without advertising, the response has been overwhelming. Marumo-Mthupha says their clientele cuts across the social stratum. The majority are youth (aged 35 and below). They range from semi-literate, illiterate, and university graduates. They are brought by a single purpose ÔÇô how to crack it in business. Some have basic understanding that needs to be cultivated, while others are blank on the basic business principles. There are those who want to start a business, but have no idea how to go about it, while others are captains of sinking ships ÔÇô and need assistance to steer towards less stormy waters.

Marumo-Mthupha characterises the clients’ response as emotional relief brought by realisation that finally there is a place to go to with their problems. She has lost count of the number of times she has heard someone say, “I don’t know where I would be without you.”

“They see The Business Place as an answer to their needs,” she explains. “We try to make it welcoming. We are very casual because we don’t want our clients to be intimidated by our environment. Our Centre is considered small and for a centre of its size, it was projected to see 100 clients per month. We have gone beyond that, and we currently service an average of 60 clients each week.”

There are few disappointed clients ÔÇô mainly those who rock up expecting finance. Marumo-Mthupha says The Business Place seeks to sensitize potential entrepreneurs that while money is needed for any project to take off, it’s not the answer to every problem. In the same breath, she acknowledges that many small enterprises suffer due to lack of finance.

“We share the concern about lack of money,” she says. “In Botswana, when you talk of financiers, you can count them in the fingers of one hand. There are instances when a client has orders but can’t do anything because they have no money to pay suppliers. And when you look at it, all they need is P50 000 and they can’t get it. So without micro financiers, who is going to develop our entrepreneurs further when they need that little finance to push them forward?”

To make micro-financing possible, Marumo-Mthupha says “one financier” has been approached to offer such service.
She finds that even with CEDA in place, Batswana still complain that they can’t access finance. Reasons are varied. Sometimes it’s because CEDA does not fund a particular activity, or that the money needed falls below the threshold. She advises people not to be too quick to point an accusing finger at the institution, but to look for the silver lining somewhere.

“We don’t want to see CEDA not helping clients, but they might be protecting you because you might be getting into a business that is not profitable,” she says.

Rather than see The Business Place as “the” answer to the common occurrence of collapse of local enterprises, Marumo-Mthupha prefers to view it as “part of the answer”.

“We are starting people, and making them learn the steps ÔÇô to crawl, walk, run, and then sprint,” she explains. “Batswana have to change their attitude towards entrepreneurship and realise the intensity and amount of input needed for a business to survive and thrive. You have to approach it as your career, job, and survival.”

She summarizes the twin scourges of local entrepreneurs as inadequate skills and lack of access to finance.
“We need a lot of skills. We need to look ahead, and beyond our current status as a rich country. What if things change for worse? Would we survive?” she ponders.

She knows all about survival against all odds, having had to support her family in the United States and put herself through school as a self-sponsored student. In the process she studied for a Business Marketing degree, and an MBA.
She started a business with her husband that is still running. It was as if fate was preparing her for the current job. While in the process of setting up the business, they got assistance from a centre almost similar to The Business Place ÔÇô only the US version is called SCORE, which is short for Service Corps of Retired Executives.

Marumo-Mthupha’s past points to a passion for entrepreneurial development. In 1990, the former Home Economics teacher started vocational centre in Lobatse for people with disabilities. Financed by the Norwegian donor agency NORAD and Lobatse Town Council, the centre offered rehabilitation, business development skills, and job placement for people who would otherwise not have a chance in life.

“We gave them skills and confidence ÔÇô and successfully planted them back into the community,” she says.

In 1996 ÔÇô while working in Kanye for the council ÔÇô the family decided to go to the United States to explore educational opportunities. They quit their jobs, and left. Close to a decade later, she came back in 2005, and found an opportunity to pioneer the Business Place. When the job was advertised, she saw an opportunity to apply what she learnt at SCORE to help others find their feet, just as some people did for her in a foreign land.

At another level, she says the passion to help others is something that runs in her family.

“I come from a family that has a strong passion for helping, giving back and success. When I help a businessperson to a point where they see a light at the end of the tunnel, that gives me great satisfaction ÔÇô and the drive to wake up every morning. I have a strong passion for my success and the success of others. I believe God put me here for a purpose,” she says.

Her drive and passion is matched by the board that includes Motor Centre Group patriarch, Satar Dada, and Marthinus Seboni, the CEO of Investec (Botswana).
“Our board is the best I have worked for. They are very knowledgeable, and very supportive; quick to give advice and serious constructive criticism. They want us to believe in ourselves and them. Like us, they are very casual. They come in and out. Their checking on us is supportive. They are people who run successful organisations. They let us run this place as we feel is right for the average Motswana,” she says.
It’s a demanding job that can be emotionally draining, especially when a project cannot be navigated out of trouble.

“I tell my colleagues that if someone failed, don’t lose your sleep, and the only way not to lose sleep is to know that you offered the best you could,” she says. “There are various ways to measure success. One way is by how many people we’ve made aware that they are not ready for business, or that the business they’re contemplating going into is not viable.”

With some clients coming from as far as Francistown and Maun, there could be an indicator that these services are in need countrywide. She would not rule out the possibility of this centre being replicated elsewhere in the country. Another possibility is to do a feasibility study and on the basis of its findings perhaps partner with another organisation that already offers similar services outside Gaborone.

“At the moment, we want to consolidate this centre and see if Batswana really need it. In South Africa, they are opening up new centers because of the demand,” she explains. “We’re being criticized for offering some things for free. Our position is that most Batswana may not be able to afford certain services that are critical for success in business. We discourage handouts, but at the same time we want to make our services affordable.”