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Heels On Wheels

Published 1 year ago
By Motlabana Monnakgotla

The freight and logistics sector is changing face. More women are at the helm – and speeding ahead.

For many years, the logistics and trucking industry in South Africa was dominated by men until a young woman from Durban saw a gap in the market and took the opportunity to overtake them. They didn’t see her in their rear-view mirrors, speeding ahead.

Nicci Scott

Nicci Scott is today the founder of Commercial Transport Academy (CTA), a program designed to help students enter the trucking industry. In an industry where there are few women even now, she is a formidable force.  

In 1995, at the age of 21, Scott started Siyaduma Auto Ferriers, which she says was the first female-owned logistics company in South Africa. This was soon after the country had gained democracy and women were unheard of in the industry. But she had been an entrepreneur long before that. At the age of 18, Scott started a business and sold it for just enough to go to work in the United States where she spent two years.

“While I was there, during the sanctions that South Africa was exposed to, I got to experience services that I had never seen before, like delivery services. These were services we never saw in the country, especially where I grew up,” says Scott.  She returned home, worked for a car rental company for three months, and during that time, saw a gap in the market. The company she worked for moved cars based on bookings, so she saw that as an opportunity to provide these companies with drivers.

That epiphany marked her entry into the industry.

These rental companies would either use labor brokers, who would just drop-off the cars, or use big car carriers which would load the cars on to trailers restricted to 80kmph, and there was nothing in between, she says.

She started her own car delivery service and her list of clients kept increasing.

Her clients didn’t want to work with labor brokers anymore because there was no screening process – drivers with licences who were barely vetted for their criminal records were allowed to drive.

Scott offered a 90-minute turnaround time and that grew the business immensely.

“The big organizations at the time were running like a cartel and they were ignoring me until they couldn’t anymore and these were men, it didn’t matter to them that I was a woman. There was no charter to develop women back in 1998; no one was doing anything to help women in the business,” she says. 

What was key to her was that she was only as good as her last delivery. Every damaged vehicle was an absolute personal failure, so she had to make sure that all was perfect.

However, while the technology on passenger vehicles was improving, she had to find a new market and the technology on trucks hadn’t evolved as much.

“From around 1999, I moved on to the trucking side and offered the very same service solutions to deliver trucks and the industry had never ever seen such a turnaround time,” she says.

Her first customer was MAN Truck & Bus.

She then started phasing out the passenger vehicle market, sold the various regions that came under her purview to the young entrepreneurs and branch managers she had being working with for long.

For her, the commercial trucking industry was far more engaging and stimulating because her services were new to them and Siyaduma Auto Ferriers was innovative.

“In 2008, there was the recession, and by 2009, my business lost 54% market share within three months, not to somebody else, but because trucks were not sold. There were more trucks parked in South Africa than trucks on the road,” she says. 

Again, the company had to look at how they were going to reinvent themselves to survive the recession. There was a lot of innovation from the industry during that time to try and cut costs, recalls Scott.

In 2011, the industry started revving up again and business was doing well. But by then, it came to a point where she was totally exhausted as an individual.

“I had made the worst mistake any entrepreneur could make; I had worked myself to the point where I was sick, I then decided to sell,” she says.

The business was making a turnover of R100 million ($6.7 million), employing 280 people in 2018 and Scott sold the 23-year-old business to One Logix and became part of a big organization.

She now truly wanted to develop young startups and wanted to give back the opportunity that was given to her in 1995.

The CTA became her new focus; she left the organization to focus on the academy. She started with Volvo with the very first program training 20 men, but at the same time, she knew she wanted to be a catalyst for change.

Her goal was to curate an academy focused on the development of men and women, with a special focus on women in the transport sector, offering bespoke training.

“We are currently running a program with Volvo called Iron Women, it takes women with a Code 10 driver’s license and then a Code 14; they then do theory about operating a combination vehicle successfully and safely,” she says.

Then, they are incorporated into the workplace and train for three months, driving all kinds of trucks. “I then go into the market and find them jobs and at this point, there has been 80% employment,” says Scott.

Ntombizodwa Khumalo

Ntombizodwa Khumalo from Sebokeng, a township in the south of Johannesburg, is one of the 80% women now employed as drivers.

Before that, Khumalo worked in a hotel, booking in drivers from parts of southern Africa. The inquisitive Khumalo would page through some of the truck manuals that she would find in their rooms.

About two years later, she heard from a friend that a mining company was looking to employ women. Out of the eight women that were interviewed and tested, she was one of four that got an opportunity to work for the firm in 2007.

Khumalo had never driven a truck in her life and received her Code 14 driver’s licence and a certificate to operate a truck. 

“It was a success because they found that women drivers were better than male drivers, we were reliable, we were not involved in accidents, barely take sick leave or come to work with a hangover,” says Khumalo.

The 36-year-old was operating a dump truck in and around the mine.

In 2012, the contract ended and she was left unemployed. It was not easy gaining employment with logistics companies because she was a woman.

“This was until I met Nicci Scott, she made it easier for companies to trust that as women, the job can be done. Today, I am driving all industrial trucks all around South Africa for an international soft drink manufacturing company.

“Safety-wise on the road, you always have to be alert of your surroundings, and now, we have drivecams (cameras), but we also have convoys, we are never alone. So I feel safe on the road,” she says.

Khumalo is working towards getting her own fleet and becoming an entrepreneur. 

The transport industry has seen drastic changes over the last few decades and thankfully, there are women in leadership positions too, specifically in road freight.

Matlhodi Senyatsi, Director: Logistics Infrastructure, of the National Department of Transport (DoT) in South Africa, has a commerce background and has been in the industry 10 years now.

Her work focuses on policy and regulations in the transport industry. Her portfolio revolves around freight, the movement of goods and services, and coming up with new policies or reviewing existing ones.

“We engage the industry and stakeholders to reach a consensus and after that, we take the processes to cabinet and portfolio committee to say this is what we think needs to happen in the industry from the policy point of view,” says Senyatsi.

That being said, going back to 2008, former transport minister Jeff Radebe had stated the sector would change the face of transport. The South African Network for Women in Transport (SANWIT) was established the same year.

“This umbrella body was established as a strategic vehicle to engage business and government on issues that impact on women in the transport sector, including entrepreneurship,” said Radebe in a statement.

Indeed, this has happened and Lebo Letsoalo is a perfect case in point.

Lebo Letsoalo

Letsoalo is a supply chain coach, a thought leader in the sector, from procurement all the way to transportation and the logistics subdivision.

She currently runs her own organization; Sincpoint, founded in 2016.

The company offers integrated supply chain solutions in the industry. It also enables knowledge, skills and experience to assist in the development of procurement, logistics, information systems and distribution among other fundamentals.

A few months after Sincpoint was founded, she also founded AWISCA (African Women in Supply Chain Association), a non-profit organization, with the focus of building technical capacity and skills through mentorship.

“Part of what I do as a mentor and coach is focus on skills development; we develop capacity around the supply chain sector. I am passionate about supply chain and have being in the industry for 18 years. I started my career doing media studies and after the first year, I dropped it because it wasn’t in sync with what I wanted,” says Letsoalo.

She, therefore, researched the future around certain careers, and the one that caught her attention was the supply chain sector. Her focus was always logistics, she says.

“During my third year, I was recruited into the industry and worked for my first big corporate company as a procurement officer. Over the years, I was moving companies and getting promotions and eventually worked as a senior manager at a mining company. The last organization I worked for was a petroleum company as a general manager for one of their business units, was then promoted  to vice-president for supply chain running the logistics of the chemical sector which was about 60% of the organization’s income.”

She learned as an employee that the industry is male-dominated and realized there was a bigger gap in upskilling, especially around logistics and procurement; she built relationships and currently contributes to upskilling in the sector.

Today, she employs six permanent staff and works with about 10 associate companies, including freelancers.

The name, Sincpoint, came about synchronizing all the subsectors in the supply chain industry which are driving the GDP, and AWISCA was created for students, women, entrepreneurs and professionals.

“With the student chapter, we have partnered with universities that drive the transport economy, logistics, supply chain, and we have a memorandum of understanding with these institutes. We prepare them [the students] for the workplace and also show how you can be an entrepreneur in this sector, like owning a truck in road freight and going into the clearing and forwarding business,” she says.

Letsoalo goes on to add the issue with women driving trucks are the safety measures. “If you are a woman and you have to drive from Johannesburg to Cape Town, you are not allowed to drive non-stop, they need to rest. So the concern of having women on the road has always been a challenge. There is the issue of rape or cargo getting stolen while they are resting, but now the landscape is changing. There are a whole lot of young women that are looking to driving, and trucks have cameras now so that drivers can be monitored. Technology has played a major role in terms of safety for women,” says Letsoalo.

However, in the number of years that she has worked and managed in this sector, she has never met a female truck driver moving freight, although, there are a number of female truck owners.

“It’s an entrepreneur’s space,” she says.

The issue of women empowerment has brought a lot of opportunities for women and Senyatsi testifies to that.

“In the late 1980s, there was a deregulation of the law that trucks were not allowed to move certain commodities, and out of that, we saw a lot of trucking businesses mushrooming,” says Senyatsi.

She says anyone can get into the business; it just depends on which type of business you are interested in. What the DoT finds is that it is easy to get into the industry and people want to own trucks without looking at factors like maintenance and management.

As government, they are looking at making sure there are quality regulations in the industry.

The Road Freight Strategy document will regulate that everybody competes on an equal footing, be it male and female, and this will highlight that owners are properly operating, the truck is serviced regularly, the driver is competent, trained, and also have a person who manages the business for the owner if the owner has other priorities. 

“We find a lot of women in the clearing and forwarding business because you don’t have to have a lot of money to start, you must just understand the trade. In the value chain, there is insurance, maintenance and not just owning a truck, people seem to think that those trucking industries are not as important,” says Senyatsi.

The journey for women in this space has just begun, and they are here to stay.

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