Afro-business: Business that makes good sense and cents

By Nosipho Mngomezulu

“Necessity is the mother of all invention” cannot be more accurate for the developing world. The poor economic structures of less developed countries have fostered generations of innovative and sometimes bizarre businesses to ensure basic survival.

South Africa is no exception; the country boasts a wide range of unique businesses in the informal economy. Things such as stokvels, ama-kip-kip and ama-ice, as well as the infamous taxis are just some of the abundant ideas that South Africans have come up with to put bread on the table. Looking around Grahamstown, one can see various examples of these vibrant informal small businesses. Some people see them as a nuisance and a danger, others as the height of convenience.

The beading ladies, who sell handmade jewellery to students and tourists as a source of income, are a permanent and colourful feature of the university. Selling accessories is a popular business venture, and walking down High Street one can see various stalls selling assorted merchandise, from cheap Chinese accessories, or fong kongs, to hand made beaded earrings and bracelets. Vanity is an everyday part of our lives, and it is not surprising that so many businesses cater to this weakness. Most South Africans have frequented the county’s “open-air” hair salons where they can get their hair braided or cut and even get a quick shave at bargain prices. Of course you have to come with your own extensions and have your hair washed; as after all it is on the side of the road.

One can get almost anything on the pavement. This culture that is not just unique to South Africa but is part of most third world nations such as India, China and numerous other African states. The Ivory Coast is probably the only place in the world where costumers can wait for a lift on the side of the road while getting their hair styled, dinner prepared and an outfit tailored.

Location-specific foods such as ama-quarta and “chicken dust” are just some of the delicacies that have emerged with urbanizing populations. Some may look at these as hubs for food poisoning and disease, but before jumping on the bandwagon, when was the last time you ate one of Mama Pam’s hotdogs outside the Rat & Parrot? Most of us can testify to being regular customers of Mama, and are still alive to tell the tale.

There are also the ever present car guards, love them or hate them, they have established a niche for themselves in the economy. The guards often work for larger security companies who recruit workers from the neighboring locations and pay them minimal commissions. The income is not secure as it depends on the weather or mood of the customers. Often drivers view car guards as a nuisance and do not appreciate having to pay someone they have not personally appointed to do any task.

There is no sphere that the imaginations of people in the developing world have not explored, from accessories to technology and transport. Next time a taxi stops right after the green traffic light, think of it as a service to the economy.


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