Gritty Rural Entrepreneurship

Over the past few days I’ve had the privilege of sitting in on an interview process where we interviewed about 35 South African entrepreneurs who applied to attend one of En-novate’s global immersion trips to Berlin later this year.  The entrepreneurs were all affiliated to the built environment industry, ranging across construction, property development and management, sustainability, renewable energy and the like.  As I will be leading the trip in Berlin, I was keenly observing to see what patterns and insights I could gain while they vied for the limited spots on the trip.

Normally, sitting in 2 full days of back to back interviews is gruelling, mind-numbing work and everything tends to blur together as you have see so many different people with so many different contexts and backgrounds.  You tend to rely on the notes you made in each interview to inform the final decision because simply relying on memory is not sufficient.  However, I found this process was exactly the opposite.  I was completely energised by the whole thing and walked away feeling incredibly positive about South Africa.  So I thought I’d share my thoughts.

My positivity was engendered by story after story about entrepreneurs from rural backgrounds who saw real, tangible problems in their communities and bootstrapped their way to building a business to tackle them.  Often growing up in townships outside of the major cities, these entrepreneurs defied the odds and created a serious business that, in turn, employs unskilled and semi-skilled young people.

The stories that I heard are not the ones that make it to the mass media.  You won’t hear them on Business Day or in Entrepreneur magazine.  And so I was incredibly embarrassed to be so surprised by the stories.  I had considered myself relatively in touch with the South African entrepreneurial ecosystem - but of course I was completely ignorant to what was happening outside of my own demographic bubble.  Coming from an incredibly privileged background myself and having never spent any time in a rural setting - my impression of entrepreneurship is incredibly technology-focused and is heavily influenced by the Silicon Valley mindset.  This is natural because that’s the kind of stuff that I read and the journalism that I consume - on top of the fact that the business networks I interact with are really isolated from the real problems faced on the ground by ordinary South Africans outside of the main metropolitan areas.  I have a serious blindspot.

I was inspired by how practical and pragmatic these entrepreneurs were in setting up solutions that solve basic problems for ordinary people.  In these stories there is no need for fancy business plans or complicated business structures.  The need is staring you right there in the face, if you care to look.  But it takes the grit and determination to decide that you want to do something about it, that you want to solve that problem.  And then, despite lacking any resources or means of support, you have to actually build it.  This could be a waste management company collecting trash from shopping centres on the back of a bakkie, or a property development company that’s building container houses for those that don’t have a roof over their heads.  These kinds of examples are super special and they implore me to spend more of my time trying to understand the real South Africa, outside of the bubble that I have always lived in.

This is the kind of entrepreneurship that can actually move the needle when it comes to closing the inequality gap.  This type of gritty, rural problem-solving on the ground is what can move South Africa forward, in my opinion.  And I think someone needs to be telling these stories in the mass media.  I’m not convinced that I am the right voice for something like this - but I hope that someone truly suitable sees the potential in bringing the inspiration and motivation that I experienced in that interview room and shares it with those of us living in major cities.  That would be marvellous.