My guests in the office on a warm weekday afternoon in Johannesburg are two sisters, two entrepreneurs from Pretoria, bonded by business and blood.
As we settle for the interview, Zahra Rawjee, the older sister, speaks with a firm voice while Nadia comes across as more bubbly.
The two were raised in a business family, but are now CEOs of a company they both created ground-up. In 1937, their grandfather had set up a food distribution business, a small shop called Hoxies in Marabastad in South Africa’s capital city Pretoria, then passed on to their father, Karim Rawjee.
As young girls, during school vacations, Zahra and Nadia spent most of their time at the shop packing and selling goods, even fish. It was expected of them to be fully involved in the business.
In their growing years, they would prepare weekly reports for their father on where the markets were sitting, and what was happening in the food business internationally.
“Every single Monday, we had a report that had to go into the executive meeting at my dad’s distribution company. Come hell or high water, that report was put in. Through that we learned business development, market research and international markets,” says Nadia.
While at varsity, the pair decided to venture into business and met their first business partners; they were friends, Siphokazi Majola and Mantsadi Mokoane.
The four started SAMAZANA in 2008 developing products and mobile applications for the 2010 World Cup aiming to help people get around using Unstructured Supplementary Service Data (USSD) because apps were not around at the time. Due to differences, the business dissolved.
After varsity, Zahra headed to Portugal, the country of her birth, while Nadia stayed on to look after the family business full-time. Zahra searched for business opportunities in Portugal but it was 2008, and the global financial crisis was just unraveling.
She spent two years there, returned to South Africa and immersed herself in the family business again looking to expand and diversify. The two sisters took over sales and procurement.
“We started identifying that there were issues with the family business because it had been passed on to management. We saw that things weren’t going well, people were taking liberties. We had to get involved to try turn the business around. We weren’t able to, we got involved too late, and end of 2012, unfortunately, we had to close the business,” say the sisters, who were in their mid-20s and couldn’t turn around the 75-year-old company.
“We were too young and too female, our gender did play against us,” says Nadia.
The sisters had to think of something else, and look into possible sources of funding. That is how they got to understanding the landscape around business development in South Africa through such institutions as the Department of Trade and Industry and Industrial Development Corporation.
With the experience the two gained from SAMAZANA, Hoxies and armed with their passion for small businesses, they decided to create a niche firm focusing on helping businesses access developmental finance. Uzenzele Holdings was born.
“We facilitate access to funding. We help businesses understand what they need funding for. We analyze needs of the business and match that with funding available,” says Nadia.
The sisters had failed to resurrect their family business, but didn’t let setbacks get in the way of their resolve to help small and medium enterprises move on – just like they did.