The writer says even if the Treasury’s independence and SA’s investment-grade credit status are maintained and economic growth improves, a major historic challenge appears to have been provoked. Picture: SUPPLIED
The writer says even if the Treasury’s independence and SA’s investment-grade credit status are maintained and economic growth improves, a major historic challenge appears to have been provoked. Picture: SUPPLIED

DESPITE all the nonsense that distracts us, I’m convinced SA is alive with possibility. I say this because over the December holidays I met a brilliant 25-year-old female entrepreneur who would do even better with mentorship and advice. She could become a black industrialist.

Her determination demonstrated that not all is wrong with the procurement strategies implemented by the government. Having spent the entire festive season in the Eastern Cape, I have decided to start the year on a good note and talk about the amazing work this woman has done against all odds. Thanks to her, I will now pretend that I did not see the poor road infrastructure and litres of clean water being wasted through unrepaired leaks.

The person who got me out of whingeing mode is Yanelisa Zaphule from Zone 14 next to the Polar Park informal settlement in Mthatha. Her clan name is maMtolo and her surname means "break them", as if her ancestors had known a long time ago that she would make a living by chopping and selling firewood.

She was raised by her father, Zaphule from Libode, and after completing Grade 11, she started in the firewood business with a handsaw.

She paid the chief in charge of a certain forest money to chop wood, which she sold. She made a bit of money, but realised she needed more than a handsaw to make her business more efficient and to increase profits. Like a typical entrepreneur, she used capital from her stokvel and mechanised her business by acquiring a chainsaw. Two years later, Zaphule has retail and institutional clients, although she is reluctant to disclose her revenue quantity.

Her retail clients are individuals who need firewood for braais and to cook for big events.

She sells a wheelbarrow packed with wood for R50. My brother and I spent about R1,000, acquiring wood from her in three days. I am certain there were many other clients during that time.

Schools are her institutional clients. Zaphule says she bought a chainsaw because she realised it was not only individuals who needed firewood, but also schools who cook food for children.

You see, with the democratic government having rolled out full meals to poor schools, there is a need for firewood to cook food in rural areas.

Zaphule says it has not all been easy. She has had to make cold calls on school principals. Sometimes she has had to jump fences because male security guards have refused her access.

At one school, she clinched a deal, but because of patronage politics, the contract was taken away from her.

She continues to maintain good business with the schools that have acted in good faith and have supported her without expecting any bribes.

Zaphule is now looking to diversify her enterprise beyond the firewood business. She is in the process of building rental flats to meet the growing demand for accommodation in Mthatha.

She has learnt that when people realise that a certain type of business is lucrative, they tend to flock to it, putting pressure on profit margins. Zaphule had a spaza shop, but decided to move into firewood because the market became overtraded with multinational entrepreneurs.

It became clear what she had achieved in the past two years since entering the firewood business, when she told me in Xhosa: "Uyawubona lamzi bhuti nala moto, ngumzi ndawakha ngenkuni, nemoto ndayithenga ngenkuni! (You see that bigger house, my brother, with the vehicle in it? I built it from selling firewood.)"

Zaphule, who has two young children, is confident she will be able to save enough for her kids to go to university. That is her dream.

It is people like her that companies such as Sappi, Merensky and PG Bison should be taking on as black economic empowerment partners.

She has the ability to supply franchises such as Spar, Makro, Game, Shoprite and many others with the cheapest wood available.

It is Zaphule and others like her who can do with mentorship from powerful women such as Gloria Serobe, Faith Khanyile, Louisa Mojela and Mary Bomela. Focusing on young rural entrepreneurs like Zaphule has the potential to transform SA beyond our imagination.

• Ndzamela is finance writer