Their future is plastic

2008-04-15 00:00

Armed with nothing more than an entrepreneurial spirit and a willingness to work hard, two women set off on separate paths to take advantage of what South Africa’s new democracy had to offer them in the world of business. Real success came when they joined forces and Friday saw the launch of their company L&S Packaging, one of the first black women-owned manufacturing businesses based in the city.

Londiwe Sigudu and Sibongile Mkhize established their company in 2006 after winning a tender to supply black plastic refuse bags to the Msunduzi Municipality. They initially had to buy bags from other suppliers and found that they were spending more than they were earning. This set them on a quest to manufacture their own bags. After months of research, learning all about the plastics industry and knocking on the doors of banks for funding, they ended up going on their first trip overseas to China to buy machinery.

Their machines were installed at their factory in Willowton late last year and they currently employ more than 15 people, manufacturing a variety of products from plastic bags to corrugated cartons, cling wrap and marking tapes. Finally, the women feel confident enough to claim that they’ve broken into the mainly male-dominated plastics industry. Their company launch was held at the city hall and was attended by the KwaZulu-Natal MEC for Finance and Economic Development, Dr Zweli Mkhize, and Msunduzi Mayor Zanele Hlatshwayo.

For both women it all began with the desire to do something different. Mkhize’s breakthrough came when she attended a Women in Business Conference organised by the mayor in August 2006. "I was involved in my own small vegetable business with my father, but I was looking for more. At the conference, I heard other women talk about their successes, but what really struck a chord was when the mayor said ‘women, let us think big’."

An inspired Mkhize made an appointment to see Sigudu who was running her own development facilitation business. "We discussed how most emerging businesswomen are doing the same thing. We decided that we wanted to try something unique and challenging."

Sigudu, who grew up in Imbali, says her father, Vusi, is her role model. Her mother died when she was three years old and he raised her and her three siblings on his own. She wanted to study medicine after school, but there was no money for that. She attended a career fair and collected pamphlets from all the stalls. Among the pamphlets was one from the University of the Western Cape which offered a bursary to study for a diploma in social development and facilitation. To apply she had to write an essay on "How I see South Africa after the first democratic election".

Sigudu won the bursary and went on to complete the diploma. Since then she has completed a number of other diplomas from human resources to financial management.

Sigudu recalls her first training project offered by the Independent Development Trust. "I had R176 in the bank and I had to travel and stay in Msinga for a week. I explained to the community that I had no car and that I needed accommodation for which I would only be able to pay once I received my first pay cheque."

A priest offered her a place to stay and the first thing she did when she received her money was to settle her accommodation bill.

When Mkhize and Sigudu met, Sigudu was running a small grass-cutting and cleaning contract for the Msunduzi Municipality, as well as her facilitation company. Three weeks later the women held their first meeting and decided to form a partnership. They saw a tender advertised by the municipality to supply it with refuse bags. They applied for and were awarded the tender.

When buying the bags from other suppliers became too costly they realised they had to set up their own manufacturing plant. They approached Ithala Bank with a business plan as well as letters of intent from the Umdoni and Ugu municipalities. The women did not sit back and wait for their loan application to be approved, but began to do intensive research into the plastics industry.

The loan came through but the supplier in Durban refused to let Mkhize and Sigudu see the machines before they bought them. Realising this was too risky, they went back to Ithala to say they would not be able to utilise the money in the short term. The bank put them in touch with an agent who sourced machines from China and the women told him they were not prepared to buy the machines without seeing them first. This led to their trip to China and a visit to five different factories before they were satisfied.

While the machines were being manufactured, the women returned to Pietermaritzburg to look for suitable premises that would have a big enough power supply to run the machines. They found the premises in Willowton. In the long term, the women want to build their own factory. They returned to China to ensure that the items they bought were in working order and fulfilled their specifications.

With their plant up and running, Mkhize and Sigudu are taking samples of their work to government departments, municipalities and businesses. Their next step is to set up a recycling unit and they have already carried out negotiations in China to acquire the type of machinery needed for this.

The women realise that they are entering a difficult phase as the prices of their raw materials as well as petrol are going up, but their path so far has taught them to deal with and not to feel overcome by challenges. They continue to think big and their ultimate goal is to keep focused on plastics and one day to have their company registered on the stock exchange.

The launch of their company on Friday was aimed at thanking the many people who have assisted them in achieving their dream —Hlatshwayo for her inspiration, the Msunduzi Municipality, Ithala Bank and the Pietermaritzburg Chamber of Business. They acknowledge that their greatest debt is to their families who have supported them.

Both women are single parents. Mkhize’s son is a mechanical engineer with Bison Board and he has helped them sort out mechanical snags. Sigudu has three children aged seven, two and one.

Their message to other women, is "if we can do it so can you". Their recipe for success is believing in yourself, learning about all the aspects of your product and field of business, hard work, sacrifice and good financial management.

Sigudu says: "I don’t think we will be buying big cars very soon; our priority is to grow our business."

Zweli Mkhize said his department is proud to be associated with the company as it plans to recycle material and intends paying communities for the plastic that will be collected from them.

"This shows that L&S Packaging is not only concerned about its business success, but also about contributing to the development of the communities around it," he said.

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