A couple of business owners

by Mihle Mapoma
21 August 2023
21 August 2023

Khethiwe and Zakhele Sthomo from Ntabamhlophe are not only proud parents, they are also successful entrepreneurs. The family joined SaveAct in 2018, when Mrs Khethiwe Sthomo was working on her dream of becoming a full-time fashion designer. At that stage of her life, she had been teaching herself how to sew. “I used to work at a clothing factory, and use my employer’s machines whenever they weren’t around, so I could learn how to sew. I would also cut the threads off clothes, and when they’d come in the next day, they’d be surprised some garments were completed but had no idea who did it. It was me! I was just so desperate to learn. It was my dream,” said Mrs Sthomo.

While she was still single, working near her home in BergZulu, Mrs Sthomo bought herself a hand-operated sewing machine, the original black heavy one with the wooden base. Using this machine, she would practise how to line fabric edges up­­­­­ correctly, over and over until she got it perfect. However, she saw that this was not enough, nor could she really upskill herself from just watching others. This is when she decided to get some help from the woman next door who was the neighbourhood seamstress. “I went to her and asked her to be my teacher. I really admired her. She taught me so much. I am forever grateful to her.”. Her neighbour taught Mrs Sthomo everything she knew, and let her sew a few items community members had ordered from her.

After training with her neighbour for a while, Mrs Sthomo met her husband, Zakhele, and later got married. He saw and understood her passion, and so made her dream his own. Mrs Sthomo reminisces about how Mr Sthomo bought her first electronic industrial sewing machine. “He saw how passionate I was about this, and supported that by buying me a sewing machine,” she said. Before that though, she upgraded from her black sewing machine, to an electronic machine. Shortly after moving to her new marital home, Eskom installed electricity poles in the rural community of Ntabamhlophe. In the years that followed, Mrs Sthomo cranked out orders received from the new community she had moved to. She was getting so many orders the electronic machines she bought weren’t holding up. “I’d work using a machine, it would break down. I’d get it fixed, and it would break down again. Year in, year out, I was buying a new machine. I have about seven of them in total,” she said.

After joining SaveAct, Mrs Sthomo registered to attend the Jabulani Fashion Academy in Mnambithi (KZN). She used her savings and savings group loans to pay for tuition fees and daily transport to and from the venue, which was over two hours away by taxi. After graduation business continued to boom – more so because she was more skilled and could do more — and her husband surprised her with her first industrial sewing machine. She later used her savings from one of her share-outs to buy a second industrial machine, both of which sit in her dining room. “My next goal is to build an area just for the business, because right now I use my dining room, and I don’t like that. This is for my family, and as much as they don’t mind and support me, I mind. I’d rather we use this space for the family. So that’s what I’m working towards now,” she said.

Mr Sthomo, on the other hand, prides himself as a farmer. The Sthomo family sells chickens, pigs, goats and cows, plus crops from their garden. They keep the sheep and cows at a farm nearby, that has more space than in their homestead, while the pigs and chickens are kept in the yard. They pay someone to watch over the cow and sheep herds, and also use their chickens to run the employee’s egg business. Throughout their poultry journey, a lot of the chicks would die within weeks. For some batches, some would survive, and would grow well, but the amount they had wouldn’t be anything to write home about.

With each batch, Mr Sthomo learned something new, and would improve on his methods with each group. Because he was also selling them, he would buy more chickens with each batch. Starting with 10, he went to 30 and then to 50, and now is in the upper hundreds. “I worked with this young man, who really helped me with the business. Then later, I went to buy water and food dispensers and got to talk to the owner, who also happened to be a poultry farmer. He gave me so much advice on what to do, and how to do better. They really helped me,” he said.Mr Sthomo went from housing the chickens in one of their rondavels, to building three chicken coops, each one bigger than the last. The latest build takes up a third of the yard, and is better equipped. They have decided that moving forward, that will be the main chicken coop, with the second largest to be turned into a proper ‘chicken hospital’. The business was doing well enough that Mr Sthomo decided to not go back to work, after having been unemployed for a while. “I decided there was no need to go back into the formal workspace, I have work. This was my job now, and I love it.”

In 2020, the peak of the Covid19 pandemic, the Sthomo poultry business took a dive. “That was a stressful time,” sighed Mr. Sthomo. “Business was very low then…very low.” As hard restrictions were eased, business slowly picked up. However, it wasn’t the same, and besides, their chickens were consistently dying in batches, making the maintenance of the business difficult. After attending a two-week poultry training course under the Siyazisiza Trust earlier this year, at their farm in Mtunzini, Mrs Sthomo learned everything she needed to know to improve the situation at home.

Having moved the chickens a few times over the years (building new coops to try to improve the chickens’ quality of life, but still not ever yielding the results desired), the couple learnt how to equip the coops for their flock to growth and flourish. After coming back from poultry training, Mrs Sthomo sat down with her husband and taught him everything she had learned. There were many new things that they hadn’t known about, and better ways to truly boost their stock, and make sure that they didn’t lose any more chickens in the six-week growth process. They devised a plan for how to best move forward in revamping their chicken coops and equipping the new houses they had built before she left for training. These improvements lead their business to a positive profit margin and it has been thriving ever since.

No chicks were dying.  Instead, they grew big and healthy and sold well, so well the family now consistently sells out as soon as their chickens mature to selling age. Not only do they sell to community members, but also to small local shops. Once they saw that the new methods worked, the couple decided to buy several hundred chickens at a time.

Mr Sthomo explains that they now have the temperature, food and water ratios all perfect – the chicks are thriving and the business is thriving. “If you feel the chick’s feet, that’s the where the secret is. That’s how I know if all my methods are working. There’s a certain temperature I’ve now learned is what works best. It took a while, but I have it down pat now,” he said. Within the new chicken coop, there is a corner for sick chickens as well, which are kept alone so as not to contaminate the coop or make others sick. They are currently sitting at 600 chickens, and by the time of this printout, they will have already hit sellable age.

Supporting each other’s entrepreneurial endeavours was always fundamental to the couple, however, even more important was the family unit, and their children. Both Mr and Mrs Sthomo are in savings groups, and both save R500 a month per group they are part of (Mr Sthomo is in one group, Mrs Sthomo is in two). Between them, they save R1500 a month with their savings groups. When Mrs Sthomo joined SaveAct in 2018, both her children were in grade ten, and on track to go to university soon. “Savings really came in handy then! Outside of everything we bought for our home, our savings worked best for the children,” she said.

The couple used their savings to get accommodation when the kids first went to university a couple of years later in 2020. As NSFAS doesn’t pay out at the beginning of each school year, the parent have to cover the time gap between the start of the school year, and when NSFAS funds kicks in. “The kids needed new clothes, linen, crockery and really everything one will use when they are off in university. We had to get all of that. We used our savings for that,” said Mrs Sthomo. “So yes, the businesses, the house – all that stuff is great. But when it comes to our children? That’s the best use of our savings!”

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