Nisha Maharaj: Women in tech are admired, go and make things happen!

nisha mahaj woman in tech

Technology innovation is a buzz word across the continent. More investors are rewarding ideas that are disruptive and can be used to make meaningful change in people’s lives. Yet looking through lists of top African tech companies, you may need help finding the women. Enter Nisha Maharaj, the founder of Niche Integrated Solutions which sets up strategic partnerships and innovation platforms in South Africa.

Nisha readily dishes info on the South African tech scene and what it takes to succeed as a woman in tech.

What is the tech scene like in your country? Are there many women in it?

South Africa is advancing in the tech arena, but we can still learn from the tech leaders out there in the rest of the world. My context is to lead some of the best technologies in the world to Africa and vice versa. I also want to lead some of the best of South African technologies to the rest of the world.

Women in technology is always a subject of debate, yes there are many women on the forefront of the tech scene but I still find myself walking into a boardroom of 20 men and 1 woman. That one woman being myself. We need to make a serious effort to change this status quo!

Did you face any obstacles when you started your company? How did you overcome them?

Funding is always a challenge when you start off, new markets , new clients –always stressful. It takes perseverance to get through it and determination coupled with a good business plan is what sets you out from everyone else.  In a way, an entrepreneur learns best the hard way. You simply never give up –that should always be the motto.

I was lucky, I have friends amongst the global leading technology partners in the world and this has helped us close a few multi-million dollar deals in a very short space of time.

Your company is 100% women owned, is there any particular reason for this?

We are 100% black owned, 100% debt free, we have made 100% turnover as compared from one year to the next. The reason we are 100% women owned is simply because we are trying to show the world that women can be leaders in the technology arena as well !

What does it take to establish a successful technology business in Africa?

You need to make a thorough assessment of the technology innovation, critical studies and research on application. Then you need to be sure about your market. Having the best technologies in the world is pointless if you don’t have the right marketing strategy. The take to market and entry point is a critical success factor and if you can get this part right, success is inevitable.

If you could make a 30 second speech to young African women, what would it say?

I would say that Africa is an oyster of opportunity –technology is the one thing in life that will never remain constant. There will always be a demand for it. Women should be more courageous to take on this context of technology. Whether you are a sister, child, mother, grandmother, you don’t need to be a genius to own a technology company.

You simply need to have the business acumen to do well at it in order to thrive. Women in technology are admired, go out there and make it happen!

If you’d like to share your story with She Leads Africa, let us know more about you and your story here

Thokozile Mangwiro: Africa is producing the most beautiful, natural and organic skin and hair care products

nyla organic hair care

Global black hair care is on the rise. In South Africa, the black hair care industry was estimated to be valued at R9.7 billion a year in 2015. Budding entrepreneur Thokozile Mangwiro believes that Africa is producing the most beautiful, natural and organic skin and hair care products. Her brand, Nyla is reaching for a share in that billion rand market by creating products using marula oil, an indigenous oil to southern Africa.

What is the natural  hair scene like in Johannesburg? What sort of events do you have?

The natural hair movement in Johannesburg is absolutely inspiring. There is a lot of consciousness and awareness about the movement from chemically laden products towards greener natural hair care. We are currently in the midst of the South African winter which can be very harsh to the skin and hair. Protective styling is the order of the day. Hair-line friendly plaits and wigs are definitely in.
Naturals here also have “Hair stokvels”, where we get together to share and educate each other about caring for and growing our natural hair. Hair stokvels also have natural hair care product stalls and guest speakers. There are other events like the “For Black Girls Only” event, which does not set out to exclude other races, brings together all African women from all walks of like to celebrate just who we are.


Why does your brand focus on marula oil?

We believe that marula oil the secret to timeless hair  and skin nourishment. This magical oil is obtained from the core of the marula fruit. Marula oil is indigenous to Southern Africa, yet clientele have never heard of it and it’s rich properties. The Tsonga women of South Africa and Mozambique have used this oil as a moisturiser and a massage oil on babies for years. Marula oil has protected the African skin and hair against harsh and dry, hot and humid weather conditions.  It’s multi-purpose, used for personal care and is safe for both babies and adults.

Marula oil contains properties that create a high performing cosmetic oil that mimics the skin’s outer layer, regenerates the skin cells, thus promoting a youthful looking, well-nourished healthy skin. It’s a light weight oil, meaning it quickly absorbs into the skin and hair, while leaving a non-greasy silky smooth feeling. It is gentle enough to use alone or with any lotions and facial skin creams.

Do you only create hair care products?

We focus solely on natural hair with Nilotiqa Hair Care which is formulated for dry and damaged hair. Nyla Marula Beauty is our luxury natural and organic brand that caters for all types of skin and hair care. Our Marula Evolution Collection showcases pure Marula oil, fused it with various natural botanical and organic ingredients to create the most luxurious products to nourish skin and hair. Because the products are organic and natural, they are suitable for all skin types.

Our product line consists of a deep replenishing co-washing conditioner, deep moisturizing butter, detangling cream and nourishing scalp and hair oil. Our natural products are formulated with high-quality nourishing ingredients such as shea butter, coconut oil, castor oil and avocado oil. We avoid artificial sourcing of ingredients and our products do not contain petroleum, lanolin, parabens, phthalates, or artificial colors.


What tools do you use to grow your business?

Firstly, our business is incubated. This has given the business organizational, financial and operational structure. Secondly, we ensure that we collaborate with cosmetic organisations that have high standards for compliance. This forces us to look into how compliant we are and ensure we distribute high quality products locally and internationally.

Lastly, we purposely use social media to reach out to clients that are not only local, but also international.

What is your favourite style for a bad hair day?

Bad hair days for me means seriously dry hair. I first try to get moisture back in my hair using my Nilotiqua Deep Moisture Butter.  I am lucky enough to have long dreadlocks and so after adding the butter, I can just tie my hair up into a bun.
I am also huge fan of head wraps, known as doek in South Africa. Those can get you by for a week.

If you’d like to share your story with She Leads Africa, let us know more about you and your story here

Tshepy Matloga: Recognition is the best motivator

tshepy matloga south africa malawi

South African journalist Tshepy Matloga started making frequent visits to Malawi in 2014 when she noticed the lack of business magazines with Malawian content. Tshepy jumped at the chance to address this gap by launching Inde, a business and lifestyle magazine aimed at Malawian women.

Here, Tshepy shares tips on setting up shop in another African country and speaks on being voted a top South African inspirational youth.

You’re South African, why did you decide to start a publication in Malawi?

More than a year ago I became a frequent visitor in Malawi. I was charmed by how serene and peaceful the country is compared to the hustle and bustle of South Africa. As a journalist by profession myself, some of the things I collect are magazines and it baffled me that I could not find a single publication that was about women and the business landscape in Malawi.

Yes, there are so many publications in Malawian shops but they are all South African publications coming here packaged with South African content. I also met my partner here who happened to be in the media too. When I ran the idea past him, we both decided to bring to life Inde magazine in March 2016. “Inde” is a Chewa word meaning “yes”, Inde Magazine is Malawi’s only business and lifestyle magazine.

What is the business climate/culture like in Malawi and how is it different compared to South Africa?

The business landscape in Malawi is extremely different than the one in South Africa. I am used to a fast paced business environment and I have found Malawians to be very relaxed, there’s no hurry here whereas in South Africa time is money.

With that said, I think my biggest challenge was having to slow down my normal work pace so that I didn’t become too overwhelming. I however like the Malawian walk-in policy, you can just rock up at a company with no appointment and request for a meeting and if the person is available they will make time to hear you out. That part has made things easier for me because I came here with no business contacts.

inde magazine

What tools do you use to extend the reach of Inde magazine?

Social media has been very helpful in this regard. Then, Malawians are generally friendly people and it being a small community, word of mouth also goes a long way. I have also been trying to partner with local events so that the brand is exposed even more

What other projects do you engage in outside Inde?

My public relations firm, Chronicles Media Group is present in both South Africa and Malawi. Outside Inde, Chronicles Media group also offers PR services such as corporate communications, social media management, brand management and events.

Besides PR and the magazine, I blog for a South African organization called Leadership2020 where I write about my life journey, from growing up in the village of Botlokwa in the northern part of South Africa to running my own company.

You recently made Youth Village’s list of the top most inspirational youth in South Africa, how does that feel?

Recognition is the best motivator. To be young and know that in the few years that you have been on this earth you have impacted lives is a sign that you are going into the right direction. Everyone who knows me well knows that I have struggled to get to where I am today.

From Botlokwa, packing my bags and going to university even though I knew very well my mother could not afford the fee; to struggling to find employment, and when I eventually did find one I did not like it; to starting my business with a few thousands I have saved from freelancing jobs. I have to admit it was a curvy road. So with that said, it is things like such recognition that remind me that the journey was and is worth it.

What advice will you give to young African women looking to start a business in another African country?

I’d say the beauty of venturing into another country is that you are new there so it makes it easier for you to identify gaps and thus fill them up. Africans are generally friendly people therefore making it easier for a new person to just get lost into the communities and be part of them.

But, I have to say markets are not the same. In another country you might find yourself having to adjust your prices and make them lower to make your services/products affordable to the locals.

If you’d like to share your story with She Leads Africa, let us know more about you and your story here

Seapei Mafoyane: Fill yourself up with hope, belief and pure audacity

Shanduka Black Umbrellas CEO, Seapei Mafoyane

Small business is seen by many in South Africa as the saving grace in the fight against unemployment and with the track record of small business success, measured interventions to bolster this sector receive a lot of attention.

One such intervention is Shanduka Black Umbrellas (SBU), a business incubation programme in South Africa that is focused on supporting small black business on its path to achieve sustainability. SBU is arguably the top business incubator in South Africa, recognised for the solid interventions it is making to corporatize black businesses.

2015 was a watershed year for the incubator, as it celebrated six years in existence and won the Randall M. Whaley Incubator of the Year Award at the National Business Incubation Association in the United States.

To top it all off, they appointed Ms. Seapei Mafoyane as the new Chief Executive Officer. Seapei is a bold woman who believes that South Africa needs sustained long-term impact interventions to make notable strides in small business development. She defines this as her mission in her role as CEO.

SLA contributor Asanda spoke to her to understand how she sees the small business landscape in South Africa going forward and most importantly, the role SBU will play in the years ahead.


You have spent a significant amount of your professional career in strategy and financial services, how did you make your way to small business development in the not-for-profit space?

I worked in strategy and the financial services in various capacities for my entire career and this was in line with my undergraduate degree in the sciences. I came into direct contact with the small business development area during my MBA studies at Wits Business School a few years ago.

My research focused on an area that was not explored at the time, the challenges facing black female entrepreneurs in South Africa. It was during this time that I realised I had to be selfish and follow my heart. So you could say my dissertation led me to Shanduka Black Umbrellas.

Everyone is talking about small business development and how it can be the saving grace for the current economic climate is South Africa, why do you think it is receiving so much attention?

I think we have the buzz that we have now in South Africa because of the realisation of the dire needs in this country in terms of entrepreneurial activity and the economy as a whole. Sustained security of the black person is no longer in the employ of the white person. Black people can now dare to dream.

The challenge is to ensure that it is not just a buzz but that we have a coordinated approach from the various stakeholders that will ensure that we start seeing the upside to it.

What role has Shanduka Black Umbrellas played in the past to grow black business?

Shanduka Group has played a key role in setting the stage for the face of black business in the country. They led the pack in the establishment of a black-owned investment holding company in S.A. and it was a natural progression to have a foundation that focuses on both small business development and education.

What sets SBU apart is the clear focus that says, ‘we know we cannot be everything to everyone.’ So we chose to respond to the need of 100% black-owned businesses, which also happens to be the greatest area of need in terms of entrepreneurial activity in the country.

The businesses that are incubated at SBU are what we call the ‘cream of the crop’ in terms of entrepreneurial potential. We incubate businesses that will be sustainable so that they can improve the economic conditions in the country.

Our focus is not on survivalist businesses, but game changers and high impact entrepreneurs that can grow into large corporations and employers.

Over the last five years, SBU’s statistics have shown that out of the 100 business owners that walk through our doors, only 5% of them get to be incubated. This is because we have a clear focus on long-term sustainability and choose to support businesses, which can meet our strategic objectives which are aligned to the country’s National Development Plan (NDP).

What sets your business incubator apart from other incubators in the country?

We conducted extensive research on the trends in small business development and we found that 84% of small businesses fail within the first 24 months of operation and out of that, 90% are black businesses. Reducing the failure rate especially of black business is extremely important and that is why we have our mandate to respond to this group in particular.

When a business is accepted into our extensive 36-month program, they need to create a minimum of four jobs during that time. Other structures in South Africa on the other hand create on average 1.2 jobs and when you look at other developing nations, the figure sits at 3.3 jobs over the same period.

Our other focus is to ensure that at least 50% of the businesses that graduate from our program are sustainable. The national average of success currently stands at about 20%. SBU have maintained a statistic of 70% graduation sustainability over the last few years.

What has the business incubation industry and government not done well thus far?

What has not been done well is the maximising of all the available resources in the system to help execute the mandate.

The value chain for small business is still very disjointed and if we are to make the progress needed, this needs to change.

What are your priorities as the Chief Executive of SBU?

No doubt sustained long term impact. However there are a few things that need to happen for that to be realised. We want to not only see businesses doing well but as they graduate, they need to stay a part of the alumni of successful businesses which others starting up can look to for advice, mentorship and potentially market access.

I believe that it is this kind of growth that is needed in small business to start seeing long term, sustained impact. Outside of my work, my greatest passion is the restoration of the dignity of the black person and entrepreneurship is one of those vehicles that can help in the achievement of that.

What have you found to be the greatest challenges facing entrepreneurs?

I have found that the greatest misconception that exists with entrepreneurs is that they need funding to get their businesses going. I have found the main challenge as refining of the business model to ensure that there is a unique value proposition and a plan for scaling the business.

Having said that, SME’s need to take it a step further to understand how to support it once they have scaled it. Other challenges you find are:

  • The business is often the person and they tend to be married to their ideas and they are not open to taking in other peoples’ sound advice; and
  • The inability to adapt the offering to suit the demand of its clients. Most entrepreneurs do not take well to rejection and unless they are able to deal with this, it can be a stumbling block for their growth potential.

What would you say is the one thing SBU needs to work on?

Only 38% of incubated businesses at Shanduka Black Umbrellas are female, in a national population of 50% females. This is a gap that needs to be filled. Women tend to approach entrepreneurship differently, espousing the nurture inherent in them as opposed to the courage often required to start & run a business.

Women have made great strides in politics as seen in our parliament and in other growing sectors and we need to see this boldness in the area of entrepreneurship.

I do believe we will get there as a country as a whole and we, SBU included, need to drive that message of confidence in the abilities of women in business.

What advice do you have for business owners who say this journey is far more than what they bargained for?

You need to be clear about why you want in, in the first place. You need to fill yourself up with hope, belief and pure audacity because there will certainly be bumps along the way and when you reach them, you can dip into your bag of goodness to stay afloat.

Want to see women you know featured on SLA? Tell us what amazing things women are doing in your communities here.

Scared of frauds? No wahala: 4 tips for conducting proper due diligence with global partners

Due diligence

A significant amount of entrepreneurs in South Africa are getting comfortable with the idea of doing business across borders, be it sourcing goods and services to even looking for strategic partnerships with foreign entities. The African continent has become more accessible and opportunities abound for entrepreneurs and small and medium enterprises. What’s more, African businesses have been partnering with the relatively unknown East.

Social media exposes business owners to opportunities they would not otherwise have access to. This is exciting. Those who have done cross border business will tell you that in so much as the potential for business synergies is there, the risks are equally matched. Take for an example a recent case that came to my attention for assistance.

A South African business owner (who we will call James to protect his identity) in the commercial real estate industry got the shock of his life when it turned out that the Chinese businessman he had an ‘in principle agreement’ with (which was later deleted from the email correspondence) was nothing but a fraud. Mind you, James had incurred large costs in setting up partnerships with other businesses and even going as far as paying for elements of the agreement.

You might think, ‘that’s not smart!’ and I would have to agree with you. However, the need to acquire first mover advantage sometimes propels us to make an early commitment for fear that someone else may snatch the lucrative opportunity from us. In the process, we tend to skimp on due diligence with disastrous consequences for our livelihoods and credibility.

Stories abound of orders that were never delivered or were of a cheaper variant. These occurrences are not unique to South Africans and Chinese businesses; they happen throughout the continent with potential partners across various regions. Like in any business relationship, proper due diligence is of paramount importance in conducting trade or investment relations.

As more people take the entrepreneurship route, it is important to know that doing business across borders has inherent risks and one needs to be smart to avoid frustrations. Doing your homework can mitigate risks and help you make informed decisions.

Below are some considerations I take into account when I’m dealing with prospective cross border relations:

Seek out word of mouth referrals

Nothing is more comforting than finding good partners/suppliers. Like with anything these days, word of mouth goes a long way and in most cases save you a lot of hassle.

However, reviews by themselves cannot substitute for verification. Speak to those who have walked along the same path as you and where possible, speak to their associates as well.

A traceable track record is key

When you are in the early stages of your business, the last thing you need is to deal with amateurs who will promise you heaven and earth and deliver nothing. If you’re a novice, you need to ensure potential partner has a proven record for quality service.

Invest time in establishing the authenticity of such a claimed record. It may be tedious, and possibly costly, but it will spare you losses further down the line.

Courtship is the way to go

Just as when you meet a prospective life partner, you need to take your time to get to know your business partner before committing. Don’t go on impulse, court first!

Don’t be like James and fall prey to pressure tactics. Solidifying business relationships takes time so don’t rush things!

Get samples beforehand and VISIT premises where possible

Too many people have relied on assurances from a seller about the quality of their goods. Too many people have taken letterheads as proof of existence. You can make no bigger mistake as a small time buyer than to buy goods you have not sampled or not visiting the premises of your manufacturer.

You would be amazed the things some conmen will do to dupe you into buying their non-existent goods from their non-existent premises. Nothing can ever substitute for checking out the premise yourself.

If this is not physically possible, there are trade agents who can do the leg work on your behalf for a small fee. Do invest in your future success.

Trust your gut (first listen to it)

We all have that little voice that tells us from the moment we meet someone whether you can trust them or not. Most of the time we ignore this voice and many a times, we wish we had listened to our gut.

I have dealt with a number of entrepreneurs who allude to feelings of ‘something not feeling right’ and yet go ahead and invest their time and money, blaming themselves when things fall apart. Learn to entertain your inner voice and debate with it a bit. It will serve you well. Trust me!

Whether you are contemplating local partnerships or across borders, due diligence is key. Even more so for non-local partners due to the prohibitive costs of enforcing your rights. Do not be pressurized into early commitment as this may leave you occupying a reactive position and a trip down crisis management.

And if you are not sure about cross border regulations that govern your business, ASK. The Department of Trade and Industry (The DTI) in South Africa (and relevant in-country departments that deal with trade and investment issues) can save you from making costly mistakes!

6 career lessons you can learn from South African singer Lira

miss lira

Not many singers can say they have sung Nelson Mandela’s favorite song to him on his birthday, have performed with the whole world watching during the World Cup, or sold-out tours in the U.S.A.

But, South African singer-songwriter, Miss Lira, can! With various awards and critically acclaimed albums on her shelf, Lira has plenty career advice we can watch and learn from.

1. Be open to inspiration

Lira talks about personal influences and explains the effect Stevie Wonder has had on her growing up: “Music unifies people and expresses feelings they might not be able to articulate. That made me want to be a songwriter. I thought, if there’s any reason to write music, that’s a good enough reason right there.”

Inspiration for a career or a business can come from reading , observation and listening to others. Being open-minded can really open new doors for you.

2. Choose what makes you feel good

“I used to be an accountant, and chose to become a musician. And that whole transition, going from earning a great income to starting a career as a musician… I was like, am I out of my mind? What was I thinking? But I just wanted to feel good. On a daily basis, I wanted to feel excited about life and my plans.”

If what you do for a living is not fulfilling, if it’s not what makes your heart beat faster, it’s not too late to chase after your career dreams.lira

3. Work with what you have

A great quote from Lira: “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are right now.”

You may not have it all at once, but you’ve already got something. Lira lets us know it’s most important to keep going, and not let temporary circumstance weigh us down.

4. Explore your options

Lira’s American fans had been reaching out online, requesting her to come sing in The States. But prior to her huge U.S. tour, Lira took some time to check out the scene, and did a mini-tour of 5 shows in different states.

“We had sold-out concerts. There was quite an interest in what I had to offer.” Trying out venues and styles of delivery for your service or product can help you specify your professional approach and guide your career direction.

Photo credit: AfroStyle Magazine

5. Allow yourself to break away from pressure

In a 2013 interview, Lira explained that after 9 years of non-stop work, she wanted to take some time out: “I want to be able to just be, and not feel pressure for a while.”

Encourage yourself to work as hard as your time allows you. And when necessary, after long, busy days, a little time to decompress will have you back on your grind extra strong.

6. Find power in humility

Lira tells us she can find beauty in Africa, America, in Europe, in the East, but: “There’s something that Africa can offer to the world, that the world needs today. There’s an element of humility that we have, that I feel the world has forgotten. We still have a sense of community.”

Taking values from your home front into your business can help you keep track of both your personal and professional growth. If what you’ve learned growing up is accurate to how you want to do business now, that’s something you want to keep close.

What other lessons have you learned from this power house’s journey? Share them with us.

Business incubation hub in South Africa focuses on women

she hive participants she leads africa

Statistics indicate women-owned micro enterprises in South Africa currently experience higher barriers to success relative to those owned by men. This trend is unsurprising given the country’s predominantly patriarchal culture and history of exclusion of women in the work place. Thankfully, more effort is being directed towards correcting this injustice by both the government and civil society. Among key interventions is the growing number of business incubation hubs.

These hubs differentiate themselves by levels of support, entry requirements and industry focus. At their core, they aim to help early stage businesses thrive amid the incessant challenges new business face.

One recent entrant is the newly founded 1Accord, located in the East of Johannesburg, an industrial perimeter that has been hollowed out by the closure of manufacturing plants in the country. Founded by Mduduzi Dladla, an upwardly mobile businessman, the hub prioritises women enterprise support through a special program called the ‘Women Entrepreneurship Accelerated Program (WEAP)’. WEAP is aimed exclusively at women entrepreneurs at various stages of their business journey.

Though he had all the traits of a street-savvy black youth, Mduduzi Dladla or Mdu, 26, as he is affectionately known, carries himself with a level of seriousness that’s rare among his peers. He sees himself as the new face of South African business: ambitious and well educated with a developmental approach to business. With his passion and drive, he’s on the way to being a business leader in South Africa.

An accountant by profession, his first taste of entrepreneurship came while working full-time. For two years, he juggled his job and the start-up. When he did decide to go entrepreneurial route full-time, it was not without challenges, ranging from lack of finance to competitors. It was with this in mind that he developed 1Accord Innovation hub to provide business support, skills transfer, and linkages between small, medium and micro enterprises (SMMEs) and corporations.

Mduduzi decided to dedicate a full program to women because, 21 years into South Africa’s democracy, the odds are still stacked against female entrepreneurs, especially in the mainstream sectors of the economy. “Women entrepreneurs have dominated the ‘softer’ sectors like catering, events managements, the beauty industry and the informal economy in this country,” he said. “Due to this fact, there is a growing need for structured programmes to get more women into previously male-dominated industries.” In his opinion, such a programme must provide support encompassing access to finance, markets, supply chains of large buyers of established businesses and the government, and assistance with developing business systems. “For women to learn and grow – especially those at the early stages of business – they need to learn from established women-led enterprises,” Mduduzi said. “This is key because women have a better appreciation of the subtle and not so subtle challenges women face in trying to establish their businesses.”

WEAP provides support in the following areas:

  • General information and business educational programs
  • Financial assistance through access to finance granting institutions
  • Mentoring and coaching programmes, and
  • Support for networking structures.

The program has been especially designed to help women entrepreneurs take charge of their journey and empower themselves. Participants are provided with expertise to enable them achieve both business and personal success. They are exposed to tools that will help become effective communicators and networkers. They also have the opportunity to upgrade their by learning finance and sales as it applies to small business. 

Participants also have access to a network of successful women entrepreneurs. This network provides support, guidance and links to the mainstream of the economy.  Women in the program take part in business, strategic and financial workshops that accelerate their preparedness to run successful businesses. The ultimate goal is to ensure that participants leave the programme as confident, competent and motivated business women.

The emphasis on ‘self-awareness as the basis for sustainable business success’ sets WEAP apart from other support initiatives. The intention is to empower women to overcome their internal inhibitions and rise to the challenge of entrepreneurship without mimicking their male counterparts, or losing what makes them successful in the many other complex roles they fulfil in society. 

Launching WEAP during the African Union’s Year of the Woman was vital. With the right support and access to opportunities, women have demonstrated their resolve and ability to run successful enterprises that add value to their communities and shareholders. And in the entrepreneurship landscape for women,  1Accord is a welcome addition.

Sheila Afari: Mistakes and hardships were my best teachers

Sheila Afari is a young pan-African entrepreneur who launched Sheila Afari Public Relations at the age of 26 after recognizing the opportunity to promote African brands across the globe. Sheila wants to create one of Africa’s leading boutique agencies, and with clients in Nigeria, Ghana, Zimbabwe, Botswana and South Africa, she is well on her way to pan-African domination. In this piece, she shares with SLA her entrepreneurial journey and some advice on how startups can develop a public relations strategy that turns heads. 

You resigned from a marketing manager position to start your own business. How were you able to make the transition from a steady job with a guaranteed paycheck to the uncertain world of entrepreneurship?

Having been an entrepreneur before taking on the marketing manager position, I was aware that I was able to create something from nothing. The plan was to work to get more business skills and leave. Fortunately for me, I had no debt or people dependents, so I was fearless and able to make the transition being comfortable with my odds in the risk vs rewards scenario. I also had a degree to fall back on as well as invaluable skills to offer if things have not worked out for me. And since I had no large monthly overheads/expenditures, I was able to offer my services for free and do jobs at low paying rates to build a portfolio and show my worth.Sheila Afari By Xavier

What are the branding and marketing tools that you have used to grow your company and differentiate it in the marketplace?

From day one, I decided that I wanted my PR agency to take on a bespoke approach to the clients we service. With that in mind, growth came from referrals as clients were happy with the services they were receiving. Word of mouth is known to be one of the most powerful marketing tools, so I go out of my way to ensure that every client is happy. I’ve spent the past 3 and a half years very hands on in shaping the business and overseeing the work done for each client.

I believe my agency stands out in the marketplace because of the below reasons:

  • We have a continental focus and reach outside of South Africa
  • We work with traditional and non-traditional media platforms
  • We incorporate a social media drive to all campaigns and projects
  • We have a bespoke approach to each client
  • We have a strong brand development focus
  • We operate under unconventional business hours
  • We believe in ethical business practices; integrity, honesty, exceptional service and team work

Sheila Afari PR LogoAs a lot of our clients are entrepreneurs and don’t operate with an “8-5” mindset, there’s a need for an agency that can keep up with them and service their needs in “real time”, which is what we do. We are available 7 days a week and after hours for our clients.

From a branding perspective, I’ve stayed behind the scenes and that has positioned the business as somewhat exclusive. People won’t often see me unless it’s business related and they’ve done their homework. The work we do is better known than me or the company’s name, so if clients haven’t come via referral then they have done their homework and sought us out.

My 2016 approach to branding and marketing will change somewhat as the company has grown. I’m tackling different industries, and there will definitely be a concerted effort with B2B marketing and advertising/visibility in key industry platforms.

Sheila Afari By Xavier

What advice would you give to startups that are looking to develop a PR strategy but don’t necessarily have the funds to hire an agency to work with them?

1) Draft a PR Plan. Even if it is just a one pager, you should be able to answer the below:

  • Who am I/Are We?
  • What am I trying to achieve in the market place?
  • Where do I want to be in the next couple of months, 1 year, 5 years, 10 years?
  • What do I want to be known for?
  • Who are my competitors?
  • Who do I strive to be like?
  • What is my unique selling point? i.e. What do I bring that is different from my competitors as well as different from who I strive to be like?
  • How can I get my message/service/talent across authentically?

Then take a blank piece of paper and understand that your PR plan is a blank canvas that you can do anything with. Don’t try copy your competitors or the people your strive to be like. Pave your own way. Come up with fresh creative ideas and map out a way to get there.

2) Get online! Make sure that you have a strong online presence. With the digital age, and Google being one of the first platforms people go to search, you need to make sure you have a presence online and can tell your story the way you want it to be told.

To start off with, get on the below platforms (may vary slightly for different industries):

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Instagram
  • YouTube
  • Soundcloud
  • LinkedIn

3) Identify 5 people or platforms you deem important/relevant to giving your brand publicity and start making your way through the list.

4) Understand that contacts aren’t necessarily secret and content is king. Pick up a magazine, call the telephone number there and ask for the contact details people relevant to your field that you need to get in touch with. Also understand that media platforms need content, so “pitch” your story with an understanding of who their target audience is and how your story will be of interest to them.

5) Don’t give up. You will need multiple interactions in order to build your brand. Every attempt you make at building your brand’s presence all adds up and you will surely see results even if they may appear barely visibly.

Sheila AfariWhat is the one thing you know now that you wish you knew when Sheila Afari PR launched?

I wish I knew that mistakes and hardships would be my best teachers. I spent so much time “playing it safe” out of fear of not being perfect or not keeping clients happy, that it took me quite a while to learn a lot of the things that have helped my business grow exponentially. Had I allowed myself to make more mistakes at an earlier stage, I believe my company would have been where it is now about a year or two ago.