Akona Gwele is a small-towner from South Africa who designs and supplies personal protective gear to workers in the macho engineering, construction and mining industries.
She came all the way for gold.
Akona Gwele, from a rural village named Qumbu in the sleepy innards of the Eastern Cape, a province in South Africa, arrived in Johannesburg, the city of gold, seeking opportunities she would have never found in her hometown.
Qumbu, formerly Transkei, is literally no man’s land. Young people, especially women, migrate to the cities looking for professional prospects other than nursing and teaching.
“I decided to come to Gauteng [South African province] because as the name says, it is known for being a place of gold; hence, I wanted to be closer to that gold. It promised more job opportunities and access to better education,” says Gwele.
The girl who, growing up, would fetch pails of water from the river for her household chores, went on to study electrical engineering at the Vaal University of Technology; and is today the owner of Westrand Safety, a supplier of personal protective equipment (PPE) gear to companies in South Africa.
She even imparts her signature, introducing color and style for the protective gear she designs for women in the male-dominated industries of construction, mining and engineering.
“More people are now asking for comfortable styles that will not look like work gear and we are open to creating this and making sure we set trends,” she says.
She founded the company in 2015 and is a finalist in the Eskom Business Investment Competition, which provides a platform for South African owners of small and medium enterprises (SMEs) to become part of a community of like-minded entrepreneurs as they look to build their businesses.
She is also a finalist for the South African Breweries Foundation awards via Fetola, a development agency focusing on igniting a culture of entrepreneurship in South Africa with an impetus on women, youth, people with disabilities and those in rural areas.
Her clientele is mostly companies that have workers on the field, and in such industries as construction, education, engineering, mining as well as municipalities. Some of her clients include Anglo American, Sun Time Square, City Power, FET colleges, to name a few.
Gwele started Westrand in her bedroom with a laptop and her own savings. Prior to that, she was a salaried employee struggling to eke out a living.
After working in the engineering field for five years, Gwele could not see herself progressing in the male-dominated sector. The ‘glass ceiling’ compelled the mother of one to quit her job as an engineering technician and join a packaging company as a marketing executive but that didn’t last long, as here too, the entrepreneur in her was wanting to break out. She resigned yet again and that’s when she founded Westrand.
Her exposure to unsafe working conditions in different industries within the engineering field is what inspired it.
“I had visited many engineering plants and heard about all the fatalities and incidents that happen to staff and most of them are due to not wearing protective gear for the right exposure,” she says.
Her seven-year experience in the corporate world trying to establish herself as a businesswoman prepared and strengthened her for her own venture.
This small-towner is now looking to establish a state-of-the-art factory manufacturing PPE safety wear and hoping to own one that also provides school uniforms for children in the Eastern Cape.
She will create job opportunities for her people, so hopefully one day they don’t ever have to leave Qumbu looking for them elsewhere. – Written by Nomsa Legodi