Flemish businesses exchange knowhow with South African townships


With funds from the government of Flanders, Unizo and Trias have launched the second phase of Peers, a development project that strengthens small-scale entrepreneurs in some of South Africa’s most impoverished townships

Turning dreams into opportunities

The South African capital Pretoria recently hosted the launch of the second phase of Partnerships for Empowered Entrepreneurs Representation in South Africa (Peers), a development project that brings together Brussels-based organisation Trias, Flemish employers’ organisation Unizo and three South African business organisations.

For the next three years, the project will support and mentor nine local chambers of commerce in South African townships and assist small businesses there trying to grow in difficult social and economic circumstances. The project is funded by the government of Flanders, represented in South Africa by Geraldine Reymenants from the Department of Foreign Affairs.

“The government of Flanders has been supporting programmes on job creation through small enterprises since 2005,” said Reymenants at the signing of the agreement. “The goal of such programmes is to give disadvantaged groups access to the jobs market. The encouragement of enterprise is of the utmost importance in an economy with high unemployment, and Flanders is convinced that these partnerships can be a bridge towards real change.”

According to the programme’s director, Daan Janssens of Trias, his organisation was selected to lead Peers because of their experience in other parts of the world. “We focus on entrepreneurial concerns in 14 countries,” he says. “We don’t focus on the poorest of the poor; we concentrate on small entrepreneurs and family farmers because we know that if we strengthen them, they can improve things for the people around them. They are the key people to invest in.” 

Common ground

The original idea for the Peers venture came from Unizo, the organisation that represents the self-employed in Flanders. “Nine years ago, we organised an economic exchange between small- and medium-sized businesses in Flanders and South Africa,” explains Jan Boulogne, who’s responsible for training at Unizo. “At the time, we were interested in export-minded South African entrepreneurs. We learned a lot about the conditions in the country for SMEs and entrepreneurs in general.” 

Whatever the differences between the Flemish and the South African business, he says, the two sides found a mutual understanding. “It’s easy for two entrepreneurs from opposite sides of the world to build a rapport if they talk about their jobs. A carpenter and another carpenter can always find things to discuss, so it was possible to bring together organisations that share the same spirit.” 

It’s easy for two entrepreneurs from opposite sides of the world to build a rapport if they talk about their jobs

- Jan Boulogne of Unizo

For the past 25 years, Trias and Unizo have worked together on similar projects in other parts of the world, from the Philippines to El Salvador and Peru, and their collaboration in South Africa was almost a foregone conclusion. “We work closely with Unizo because they have more than 100 years of experience in bringing small entrepreneurs together,” says Janssens. “And that’s what Peers is about: sharing experiences on all levels.”

The term township has a particular meaning in the South African context. During Apartheid, only white people were allowed to live in the cities, although non-white labour was still required in their factories and homes. Camps where black workers could spend the night began appearing on the peripheries of the cities.

Originally shanty towns, the townships gradually became more permanent, but were plagued by poor construction, crime and lack of access to basic amenities such as electricity, water and sanitation. Today, the word township no longer carries the racist connotations, but the problems associated with them remain. 

Nine townships

The first phase of Peers, which lasted three years, involved the South African Chamber of Commerce and Society (SACCI), the National African Federated Chamber of Commerce & Business (NAFCOC) and the Afrikaanse Handelsinstituut (AHI).

In the second phase, the three organisations have each recommended three local chambers of commerce. AHI selected chambers from the townships of Bothaville, George and Tsitsikamma; SACCI chose those in Alexandra, Diepsloot and Nongoma; and NAFCOC nominated its provincial branches in Eastern Cape, Western Cape and Kwa-Zulu Natal provinces.

“The nine local and provincial organisations are a diverse group that represent entrepreneurs from a wide range of townships, including established townships, newly constructed urban townships, semi-urban townships and rural townships,” reads the proposal submitted to the Flemish government. “This is to ensure that the lessons learned during this phase can be scaled up by the national partners at the end of the programme.”

Peers comes with certain diversity conditions. At least 50% of participants have to be young or female. At least 50 entrepreneurs in each township are to receive training each year, and at least 40% of the training participants should receive on-going mentoring and support.

From tech to hairdressers

“These are mostly micro-entrepreneurs,” Janssens says. “Diepsloot, for example, is quite a recent township, with a lot of small-business owners. You can have someone who runs an internet cafe, but, in the meantime, he’s also installing solar panels. One business doesn’t necessarily have to be related to the other.”

The businesses involved in the programme reflect this wide spectrum, from hairdressers to second-hand dealers to tech and B2B services. And the focus is on township entrepreneurs who live in impoverished areas. 

“SACCI has selected chambers located within townships,” says Sourour Nouho, programme officer for Trias in South Africa. “AHI, by contrast, have chosen chambers within established areas that are looking to increase their reach and create a more inclusive environment by bringing in entrepreneurs from remote areas.”

The businesses range from transport logistics to soap factories, cheesemakers and clothing. They cover all industries

- Nadia Carolissen of AHI

The three national organisations have slightly varying goals. “Our strength is the non-metropolitan areas right across the country, with many of them in the Western Cape,” explains Nadia Carolissen of AHI. “The businesses range all the way from transport logistics to soap factories, cheesemakers and clothing. They cover all industries.”

Most are small scale, she says, but some are in the process of expanding. “Many start off as single-person businesses, or a family business, but we encourage them to expand because job creation is one of our goals. Many of them do create jobs, even if it’s on a part-time basis.”

Janssens says the programme’s aim is to promote entrepreneurship. “We want to turn dreams into opportunities, so we start with small entrepreneurs who have a vision. And we think the best way to make their dreams come true is through associations, civil society and member-based organisations of small entrepreneurs and family farmers.” 

For now, the project focuses on entrepreneurs. “In the future, we will also work with small farmers,” says Janssens. “But we will only involve family farmers, because the big farming industry doesn’t need our support.”

A sense of solidarity

Homelands and rural areas are regions where Janssens thinks the programme can make the biggest difference. “Farming is also quite new to some of these people,” he adds. “They used to work on the big farms as employees, but being a farmer and owning land is quite a recent experience for them.”

The government of Flanders has provided €1 million to the Peers project, which goes some way towards its development policy goal of job creation. “The latest figures suggest that more than 750 people have been trained under the programme,” says Carolissen. “Quite a few of the businesses do very well, and we also found that, even though people did not stay in their jobs, they were better equipped to go out and find new work thanks to the additional skills they had acquired.”

What does Flanders get out of it? “A feeling of solidarity,” says Boulogne. There’s no direct economic gain, but Unizo is trying to find project ambassadors among Flemish entrepreneurs, who will support the work in South Africa, arrange visits and invite the entrepreneurs to share their experiences.

“But if you expect us to gain a lot of economic advantage from this project, then I’d say no,” Boulogne adds. “In Belgium, we are very conscious of the international situation and share a sense of solidarity, and that’s the meaning of the project. That’s the reason why we keep going.” 

Photos courtesy Trias