Ever since she can remember, her mother toiled in menial jobs to raise her children on her own in one of the country’s poorest and roughest neighbourhoods, Nyanga, in Cape Town. Unathi knew not to ask for “things for myself”, such as socks. There simply wasn’t enough to go around, and besides, her mother prioritised education, sending Unathi to a school outside Nyanga.
So Unathi learned how to make money for herself. She would take a container full of sweets on her daily bus trips to school, and sell them to her fellow commuters and school mates. Her mother never explicitly encouraged her to do this, but neither did she stop her.
It was later, when Unathi’s reputation as a clothes retailer grew in her community, that people started remarking how similar her entrepreneurial drive was to that of her parents, who used to make a living by trading meat, buying directly from farmers and selling in the Cape Town townships.
After her parent’s divorce when Unathi was four years old, their business, which was too informal to withstand the shock, fell apart. Her father left for the Eastern Cape, and her mother had to fend for the family by taking a job. Only after retiring did her mother return to informal trading, and Unathi could see for herself where her knack for trading came from.
Unwittingly, Unathi had taken the entrepreneurial baton from her mother, at first teaching herself the basics of retailing by selling sweets at school. After school, she studied accounting at CPUT, a choice more inspired by her favourite teacher than a desire to go into business.
That came later, when she was working as a credit controller at a government export agency. Noticing that she and her colleague had to walk for ten minutes to the nearest shop, she wrote a proposal to install a vending machine at work. The enthusiastic support she received from the management in response to her proposal really sparked her entrepreneurial drive, and she started buying and selling clothes and accessories to her colleagues.
Unathi says she has never designed clothes, but she always liked fashion and has a keen eye for what people wear. She started small, finding and building relationships with suppliers and converting her co-workers into clients one by one.
Unathi sold the same kind of items as the large clothing chains, and although she obviously did not have the same buying power as the clothing giants she was still able to compete on price, because she did not have the enormous overheads of her corporate competitors.
She got to know the clothing tastes of her individual clients and was able to sell to them on credit based on a relationship of trust.
Often, her clients would spot an item in one of the big shops, send her a picture and ask her to source one for them. This was often possible, because she was able to buy overruns from the same suppliers.
Soon Unathi’s weekends were completely consumed by her sideline, selling to a growing network of clients in Nyanga and Khayelitsha.
She started looking for an opportunity to formalise her business into a boutique, and it soon came in the form of a dilapidated building that housed a scrap-metal business in Kraaifontein. Unathi and her husband had settled in the area, and she could see the potential of the building which was close to a business centre and a transport interchange.
She developed a plan to refurbish the building, establish her clothing shop, rent out the other units to businesses and later build a second storey of flats.
Business Partners Limited shared her vision of the potential of the property, and also liked Unathi’s entrepreneurial track record. In 2016, the financier approved the finance for Unathi to buy the building in Second Avenue, Kraaifontein.
After refurbishing the building, Unathi won over a church as a tenant in one part of the building, and opened her shop in the other. Shortly afterwards she resigned from her full-time job, and invested her pension pay-out into further upgrades of the building.
Letting go of her job was scary, says Unathi, but she had the support of her husband and the confidence that she would be able to trade herself out of difficulty if things didn’t go according to plan.
Her confidence turned out to be justified. She soon realised that although the building was well situated for all kinds of businesses, it was not the right spot for a boutique, and the reverted back to her network marketing while planning a new shop more attuned to the local passing trade. She is also well on her way with her plans for a second storey of apartments.
When Unathi looks back at how far she has come, she sees not only the school girl trading sweets on the bus, but her mother who once traded under extremely difficult circumstances and who never lost her entrepreneurial drive.
It is this legacy that she is determined to take forward to a new level.