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Survivors & Thrivers: Small Businesses That Persevered During the Pandemic




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COVID-19 MAY HAVE taken a toll on the economy but some entrepreneurs sought to see the silver lining in dark clouds, turning ideas into viable businesses with small teams and bigger dreams. They are local and proud, creating products relevant for today. In one of the most disruptive times in history, they chose risky paths and pandemic-proof products that will possibly outlive Covid-19.

Launch: June 2020

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Touching on a childhood spent traveling with her father, the Nigerian-born, 31-year-old founder of KYALLI SKIN, Charis Udeh, tells the story of how she was inspired by the luminosity of the Hausa-Fulani women of sub-Saharan Africa. Based in London, Udeh makes skin products mostly consisting of the West African Yakuwa plant extract known as an anti-ageing potion.

“I spent my childhood in Lagos and moved to London when I was 16. When I moved here, that was my proper first experience with different types of weather conditions. I grew up with bad acne,” Udeh begins. “It became worse when I moved because I started getting itchy skin [and] dry patches. But as usual, when I had an issue, I would go to the shops, buy whatever fixes the problem and that was it.”

When nothing seemed to work, Udeh came up with the idea of creating a product that could help all people with skin problems. At the time, Udeh was a consultant at Ernst & Young. It was in the kitchen of her home in London where her mother introduced her to a recipe created and used by both her and her mother.

“She showed me what to do, I used it. And it was a miracle.” With Covid-19, business suffered a slow start but Udeh was determined that there was nothing else she would rather be doing than creating products beneficial for the skin and that do not contain harmful ingredients.

“Now we’re in a bear market but that doesn’t mean we’re never going to recover. So you can’t plan to expect to not recover, the economy will still boost itself, we’re laying our foundations… As we grow, we will be evolving…” Udeh says with utmost hope.

Launch: October 2020

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One of the biggest knocks of Covid-19 has been on education. Schools and colleges were forced to shut temporarily and eventually move classes online.

Some schools will only reopen now, as in Kenya where institutions have been shut since March last year. It was in these turbulent times that ConnectED was born, with independent Johannesburg school, Bridge House, and ed-tech company, Digemy, joining forces.

As Kobus Louw, CEO of Digemy, explains: “The adaptive learning approach provided by Digemy and utilized by ConnectEd addresses both of these issues. The ConnectEd platform is powered by neuroscientific algorithms that identify each student’s knowledge gaps and adapt the repetition of questions and content accordingly, providing a tailored and effective personalized learning plan.

The result: a decrease in time spent learning and an increase in retention.”

Passionate about education, Louw says that Covid-19 has presented an opportunity, especially in Africa, to transform education so that it is more accessible to people even in remote parts of the world. “

The biggest issue we have currently in education is that there’s a lot of content out there. If you have four math classes that are matric, I have to be in the same classroom over and over and over again, right? And that’s not the optimal use of time. So the teachers are spending time on things they shouldn’t be spending on because now, they’re not automating that process,” Louw states, hoping there will be plentiful innovations in the world of education.

The Complexion Company
Launch: March 2020

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The Complexion Company, an “eco-luxury African wellness and clean beauty solutions company”, was founded by South African-born Nomshado Michelle Baca. Heavily influenced by her childhood in Johannesburg, the London-based Baca’s brand is inspired by African-native historical and cultural rituals, paired with the use of indigenous ingredients to enhance wellness.

“In my opinion, African heritage beauty is not a sort of an isolated experience, it’s a shared experience. Bringing that element of community back to beauty was important. And that was the part which would help people connect and feel recognized and not tokenized or fetishized, or abused in any way, but deserve to be genuinely seen,” Baca says.

Starting a business at the start of a global pandemic proved to be very “quiet and difficult”, as Baca did not have much of a budget, to begin with.

“Having to go to a predominantly white male financial world and ask for money for black female-owned business was impossible,” Baca says. “I sat in 60 meetings and kept being told no. And to be honest, I do feel like we are measured more harshly…”

But due to her emphasis on being black-owned during the time of movements such as #BlackLivesMatter, her business model attracted influencers, customers, and funders.

“There just seems to be what I say a black woman-shaped space within premium beauty, which has not been filled. I am glad to play a part in filling it,” Baca says.

Launch: September 2020

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ReOS is a South African prop-tech startup with a management platform for rental professionals to help ease the hassles of their work. Harnessing the latest technologies, reOS automates two-thirds of monthly tasks, including invoicing, collections, payments, communications, reporting, and asset performance updates, amongst others.

This is all done securely with banking grade encryption and a comprehensive audit trail, supported by a robust private blockchain. Founder Craig Buckley further explains that though intermediaries have an essential role to play, the technology available to them hasn’t fundamentally evolved over the past decade to accommodate that role, even with the major leaps in fintech capabilities across other industries.

“This has resulted in professional rental companies tending to reach a ‘growth ceiling’, constraining the experience of their customers and the prospects for their business,” Buckley explains. “With the reOS solution, we’re looking to truly break the shackles and shift the professionally managed market share from 30% to upwards of 50%.”

Grandeur Barbers
Launch: September 2020

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Ever since the advent of Covid-19, the idea of visiting your local salon has not been as compelling or appealing as before. But what if the salon came to you at home? Enter Grandeur Barbers, a mobile barber shop, designed for that very purpose. A risky move, but one that made the cut.

Its founder, Johannesburg-based Iviwe Dabula, says: “We knew that Covid was going to be around for a while. And on top of that, it is changing people behavior. So even when things settle down, we will still be providing a service that people want because a lot of people are going to be concerned about hygiene and will be placing a lot of emphasis on that.”

What started as a conversation between a man and his favorite barber, Adam Shabangu, turned into a business model that they say could even outlast Covid-19.

“We spoke about it for about three to four years every time I went for a haircut,” Dabula adds. “Then, when the lockdown started, we started, we tried it out with friends and family. And yes, it took time, energy, and my capital. But I have always believed in what we’re trying to do.”

Launch: February 2020

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Did you know that 77% of South Africans are struggling financially due to the impact of the Covid-19 crisis?” says FloatPays founder Simon Ward.

Ward adds that 86% of consumers are concerned about their ability to pay their current bills and loans. From that percentage, 21% are planning to borrow the money from family and friends, 8% opting to take out a personal loan, and 19% have no idea how they will pay.

“Ninety-nine percent of the people we were speaking to through our research, were saying they were struggling with things as simple as putting food on the table or paying for unexpected school fees. Education was a big thing within that or paying for transport to get to work. So really, basic life essentials. And so very sad stories coming out,” Ward says.

Enter FloatPays, which he says is an all-in-one solution for employees’ financial wellbeing and inclusion. Through early access to earned wages, financial literacy training, and budget planning tools, employees gain control of their finances, learn how to plan for expenses, and get bills paid on time.

The app is also available on Apple and Android cellphones. “While employers might consider providing financial assistance to help their employees climb out of the debt hole, this can lead to harming employee relations and have potential cost ramifications should the employee be unreliable with repayments, or worse, disappear with the money,” Ward explains.

“We aim to create positive change by lifting individuals from their current debt spirals toward better financial solutions and ultimately the freedom to build a wealthier, healthier future.

LBK Collections
Launch: August 2020

Though social media has always been a powerful tool for promoting businesses and products, the year of the pandemic also paved the way for online retail riches. This led to software changes to applications to make them more convenient for consumers to access products. In May 2020, Instagram launched Instagram Shops on its platform as a way of helping businesses shift their models during the Covid-19 crisis.

Many entrepreneurs were using Instagram Shops to allow their businesses and products to thrive. One of them was LBK Collections, which sells magnetic eye-lashes and eyeliners.

Its Diepkloof-based founder Khwezi Bovula says that using social media to sell her products has proven to be most effective, especially during the lockdown.

“I’m currently the only team I have and social media, together with the online store, have allowed me to do so. I am the marketer, the distributor, the social media manager, I am essentially everything. It’s overwhelming, yes, but the tools Facebook/Instagram Shops offer are so helpful for businesses that I highly recommend using them,” she says.

Using the social media shops during lockdown was helpful especially since Bovula needed another stream of income and saw a gap in the market for easy application eye-lashes.

“These lashes are very popular in the UK and USA but they’re not attainable in South Africa,” Bovula says. “These lashes go for almost R500 ($33) and that doesn’t even include shipping. So I wanted people to have access to them for a more affordable price. And I feel like here in South Africa, the beauty industry is continuously growing and now especially, is the perfect time to be part of that growth.”

LBB Skin
First big sale: July 2020

Born in Nigeria, Nnenna Onuba spent 16 years as an investment banker before deciding to embark on a journey of entrepreneurship just before the Covid-19 pandemic took over the world.

“LBB [was born] during the time I was a banker. I had the hobby of recreating spas [at home] for myself using products with African ingredients to [help me] relax,” Onuba says.

LBB Skin, meaning ‘Life is Beautiful in Balance’, was designed to help women on-the-go, consisting of portable products, prebiotic wipes, and a moisturizing stick to hydrate and illuminate dry skin. This was created for travelers who couldn’t access sinks or even a bathroom. However, when Covid struck, there was apprehension the brand would not do well as traveling was either limited or banned globally.

“March, in particular, was supposed to be a significant moment for us,” Onuba says. “My products are meant for people who live their lives to the fullest and are out and about. But what we saw was this was not just about traveling, it was about products that fit easily into your life, even during a stressful time.”

The black-owned “holistic” business found that people used the product more from home as it had ingredients that could relieve stress and anxiety.

“When lockdown happened, more than anything, the importance of beauty and self-care came up and people were using things like an oil, which is indulgent, and we’re all washing our hands a lot more,” she adds


It’s not always a company chooses happiness as a currency. When a young couple had their wedding canceled due to the pandemic, to cheer them up, myFanPark garnered together local celebrities such as singer Kurt Darren and rugby players Bryan Habana and Jean de Villiers, to send them celebratory messages. myFanPark is a platform that allows people to connect with those they admire, like sports stars, singers, actors, or influencers, through personalized video messages. Launched in 2019, Covid allowed this platform to “put smiles on people’s faces” in a different way.

“With Covid, it has made physical interaction almost illegal,” says Joy Des Fountain, co-CEO and founder of myFanPark to FORBES AFRICA. “We’ve allowed people to connect with talent in a real way. But more so, with Covid, the digital era has really opened up the world.”