Somalis keep it simple

2015-02-01 15:00

Small Business Development Minister Lindiwe Zulu came under fire this week for saying Somali traders cannot expect to coexist peacefully with local business owners unless they share their trade secrets with them.

She has a point, but the feisty young minister must learn the power of her words, especially at a time of rising and deadly xenophobia.

So what can local business leaders learn from foreign shop owners? A lot, as it turns out. Somalis have been successful traders over the centuries – their country was once the epicentre of a trade route.

When South Africa became a democracy, many Somalis identified the country as a haven and an escape from a homeland that has enormous potential, but has turned into a failed state.

Somali traders see South Africa as a land of milk and honey, something we often fail to see. Settling in Mayfair on the scruffy western edges of Joburg, the local Muslim community of fellow traders provided an easy landing.

From there, the highly organised community sent its trader troops into the hinterland, gradually monopolising township economies across South Africa.

How they did this is a fascinating story. The method can best be described as hub and spoke, where a trading hub provides support for new and often young owners. They get soft loans and, as a result, immediate access to buying goods wholesale.

Cars (and lately, bakkies, trucks and 4x4s) are pooled to serve as distribution points from wholesale centres to the spokes of spaza shops in most townships and a few towns across Mzansi.

The bulk buying keeps prices lower than those of locally owned shops, so the new traders quickly win over markets that run on price, not patriotism.

During last week’s looting, many local aunties came to the defence of their foreign-owned spaza shops.

The other lesson we can learn is that Somali traders get to know and trust their customers.

Packaging is small and affordable, credit is extended and communities are blanketed with stores to ensure convenience.Overheads are also kept low and many traders sleep in their shops to save on accommodation.

You don’t have to walk a mile or pay taxi fare to buy basic goods. None of this is rocket science, but are learnt smarts. Apartheid stripped the entrepreneurial zeal from us by design.

So Zulu might have worded it strongly, but she had a point. And before you shout “xenophobia” at her, it might be worth listening to the core of her message.

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