The historic Vilakazi Street in South Africa is now eerily quiet. With the lockdown, small entrepreneurs here like Sifiso Moyo are pondering new ways to resuscitate life into the precinct.
Sifiso Moyo is the co-founder of The Box Shop in one of South Africa’s most historic tourist hubs.
The lifestyle and retail outlet he founded with his business partner, Bernard Msimango, is on Vilakazi Street, known for being the only street that has famously housed two Nobel Peace Prize winners, Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, in South Africa’s township of Soweto in Johannesburg.
Even before South Africa’s president Cyril Ramaphosa announced the national lockdown from March 27, Moyo says he had been seeing dwindling visitors to the street and The Box Shop.
South Africa had confirmed its first Covid-19 case on March 5.
“The street is literally on lockdown. All businesses, especially formal establishments, have ceased operations, however, businesses that will survive on Vilakazi Street post the pandemic are those that didn’t invest [much] in attracting and appealing to international tourists,” says Moyo.
The Box Shop will need to start dropping prices, he adds, to attract more locals to the outlet.
“We need to position the street as a destination that is futuristic, cutting-edge and tourism-friendly, especially to the locals. So we are strategizing, decreasing our prices, marketing ourselves aggressively to the locals and addressing ourselves as a destination of choice.”
Moyo predicts it will take four months for global tourism to return to normal, but will South Africa be one of the preferred destinations?
“We at The Box Shop and some operations on Vilakazi have positioned ourselves so well that we appeal to the locals too, but looking at the economic impact of the virus, we have less cash circulating in the market and that affects all of us. So as a precinct, we have to start thinking differently,” he says.
The Box Shop has taken the lead in integrating technology into its operations, developing an app for the upcoming Youth Day; a South African public holiday in June. The app shares the Vilakazi Street experience and allows people to book tables and make advance payments for the event.
All this, only if the coronavirus has been brought under control by then.
For the period of the lockdown, the shop is not trading, and Moyo says they too are applying for a relief fund from the government.
“We are feeling the effects, we really need subsidy from government, otherwise there is a threat that the entire precinct might shut down and it will need to be resuscitated and re-established which will mean all the 20 years of effort that has been put in to develop the street will go down the drain,” he laments.
For now, responding to the situation using technology and some clever marketing seems to be the only way forward for most small businesses like The Box Shop.