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Keeping Them Safe And Stylish




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.

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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.

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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 


IN PICTURES | Truck Entrepreneur Drives Style Movement




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On a busy road in Soweto, in the southwest of Johannesburg, taxis go about their daily drill, stopping to pick up passengers outside the apartment-tenements of Chiawelo. Here, a truck of a different kind is stationed next to an old container and a car wash.

It’s owned by Siyabulela Ndzonga, a small entrepreneur dabbling in fashion, who has turned it into a concept store, on wheels.

Ndzonga,who brands himself Siya Fonds (S/F) – after a nickname his mother gave him as a baby, has been associated with the South African Fashion Week and with reputed designers such as Ole Ledimo, the founder of House of Olé, and stylist and fashion guru Felipe Mazibuko.

I didn’t even study fashion but it’s interesting how I’m actually making an impact and contributing a lot in the fashion industry, says Ndzonga. 

It was around 2011, when he sold second-hand clothes on the trendy streets of Braamfontein in Johannesburg, where only the cool kids would hang out.

“I was big on thrifting; selling second-hand clothes. I would thrift, resell,thrift, resell.”

His hard work earned him a stall at one of the flea markets in Johannesburg. At this point, Ndzonga was still employed at a retail store. After work and on weekends, he would be hustling on Johannesburg’s streets, all for the love of fashion and because people loved his work.

Ndzonga saw a business opportunity, quit his retail job and registered his brand in 2013. Later that year, Toe Porn socks contacted him and requested he consult for them.

“Brand consulting means that I come in and take their clothes and use them to translate the current fashion trends, translate them to how I think [people]should be dressing in terms of fashion. I actually became a designer because I set trends before they would trend. I would set the tone, narrative and navigate where fashion should go in the whole world, not just in South Africa,” he says.

His fame slowly grew and he started making clothes for others, traveling by taxi to CMT (cut, make and trim) factories in Germiston, 42kms from his hometown. 

“In 2015, that’s when I really saw that I am growing as a brand and that’s when I started consulting for international brands like Palladium Shoes, Fila and Ben Sherman.”

The business grew but he had to travel to others parts of country and that exercise was taxing.

He stopped making clothes and paused his business.

“The whole of 2016, I focused on consulting and saved money to set up a truck. I needed a store so people could come in and purchase Siya Fonds from the truck. This whole thing of delivering is not me, I can’t do it,” says Ndzonga.

“I initially wanted a container, but the truck was a better, fresher alternative. I’m not the first to do it, but I’m the first in Soweto. I set it up and people love it because it’s bringing popular culture to Soweto. I had to trust myself that’s it’s going to work and it did.”

The truck had been lying unused when Ndzonga purchased it, and he overhauled it with a lick of paint and an infusion of color and character.

I got another truck to pick it up and bring it to the current location in 2016.

In March 2017, the truck was launched as a concept store and he called it Block 88, as it encompasses other brands as well.

“Business was not so great after the launch. It only picked up after a few months of selling a few international brands that I consult for. We had seven brands in the store.”

He sells t-shirts, caps, jackets and jumpsuits. A two-piece suit sells for R1,400 ($97).

The next step for Ndzonga is to have stores in all the neighborhoods in Soweto and major South African cities.

Since the inception of his truck, he has also injected some vibrancy into the community.

He organizes art development programs and conversations around social issues on Fridays outside the truck, gathering youth and children.

“Conversation Fridays is like TED-talks. It’s bringing conversations to the township instead of having them in the city or suburbs and speak about what creatives are facing in the creative space and industry,” he says.

Now, he works as a consultant with a consumer agency and collaborates on a number of brands, also doing research for them. As the hustle and bustle quietens down at sunset in Soweto, Ndzonga’s trendy truck shuts shop. Tomorrow will be another day as a beacon of hope and vibrancy on a Soweto street.

Siyabulela Ndzonga of Siya Fonds. Picture: 
Motlabana Monnakgotla

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