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Molemo Kgomo Of Ntombenhledolls Turns Business Into Child’s Play

When Molemo Kgomo of Ntombenhledolls struggled to find an African doll for her daughter, she created her own. It seemed as if there was a business idea there, but business was slow… at first.

Monique Verduyn

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Ntombenhledolls

Vital Stats

Back in 2005, Molemo Kgomo wanted to buy her toddler a doll. She was emphatic about giving her black child a black doll that would reflect who she is. This was no easy task.

“I wanted an African doll that would help my daughter embrace her heritage and skin colour, but I could not find anything suitable,” Kgomo recalls. “There were a couple available, but none that I wanted her to wake up to every day in her young, impressionable years. They were simply not true representations of black people.”

On their travels, Kgomo and her mother found a few that they liked in the US and Germany, but that was not good enough for her. “What about people back home, and on the rest of the continent?” she says. “That was when I made a commitment to creating my own range of African dolls for Africans.”

Related: Sonia Booth Wants You To Reinvent Yourself

A clever business idea

Kgomo designed the dolls using herself as a model. Her search for a manufacturer that understood her vision and goals led her to China. “The company I found was open to experimenting until we came up with the right product,” she says.

“I also left them with Peter Magubane’s book, Vanishing Cultures of South Africa as reference material. Getting the skin tones, the hair and the curves just right was a challenge, but they did it.”

The shipment arrived and she was ready for business. What she hadn’t counted on, however, was a poor response from retailers who felt there was no demand for them. Kgomo’s only route to market was via word-of-mouth, the mothers at her child’s playschool, and her own mother’s gift store.

“I had no real marketing strategy, which meant I sold around ten dolls a month,” she says.

Going online changed everything

Ntombentle-Dolls

Fast forward to early 2015, when a call from a friend changed everything. In March, with the help of Mpumi Motsabi, who became a reseller, she relaunched Ntombentle Dolls and discovered that this time round, the market was ready for her beautiful, full-bodied dolls with eyes that open and close, and short, natural African hair.

But she also did things differently. “We established a digital footprint for the business, creating a presence on social media networks like Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. Customers also contact me on WhatsApp and via email.

Creating an ecommerce-enabled website was the clincher that changed the business’s future. Coupled with digital word-of-mouth, the online store has boosted sales in a way Kgomo had never imagined. Great media coverage has also helped to drive sales.

Interviews with personalities like Siki Mgabadeli and Khuli Roberts generated interest and sales almost overnight. Marketing the dolls at expos and neighbourhood markets all around the country has been a big plus, too. Her concern now is making sure she has enough stock to fulfil the growing demand.

Related: Quick Shift Deva Kate Emmerson On Crowdfunding

Staying in the game

Having funded the business herself, with the support of her husband, the one thing she has learnt over the past decade is the value of patience.

“Success does not happen overnight, and you have to be aware of how receptive your audience might be to your product. I believed in the dolls, but I had to wait for the market to be ready. That’s why passion for what you are doing is critical.”

Networking in the real world and online has been invaluable. “To new entrepreneurs, I say get out there and tell people what you are doing. You will be amazed at the number of contacts who can set up the right introductions.”

What she finds most inspiring today, is how attitudes towards African dolls have changed. “Skinny, ‘Barbie’-type dolls are not representative of our young girls,” she says. “As adults, we can choose to wear weaves, but our children should grow up with a love for their thick African hair.

It’s great to see parents are more aware than ever of how we need to teach our children to love themselves by providing them with positive images that represent the various ethnic, cultural and racial groups in South Africa. And this is not just about catering to the black market – many South Africans of all races are eager to expose their children to different races and cultures from when they are little.”

Looking ahead, Kgomo is keen to have the dolls manufactured locally and is keeping an eye out for a suitable company. The fabrics used to clothe the dolls in traditional outfits are sourced in South Africa, and local women are contracted to do the intricate beadwork required for the accessories worn by the Zulu and Ndebele dolls.

She is in the process of developing a new range that will be launched soon, including a doll for boys and an Indian doll. Comic books featuring heroes with whom South African children can identify with are also in the pipeline.

Monique Verduyn is a freelance writer. She has more than 12 years’ experience in writing for the corporate, SME, IT and entertainment sectors, and has interviewed many of South Africa’s most prominent business leaders and thinkers. Find her on Google+.

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Watch List: 50 Top SA Small Businesses To Watch

Keep your finger on the pulse of the start-up space by using our comprehensive list of SA small business to watch.

Nicole Crampton

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Entrepreneurship in South Africa is at an all-time high. According to Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM), total early-stage entrepreneurial activity has increased by 4.1% to 11% in 2017/2018. This means numerous new, exciting and promising small businesses are launching and growing.

To ensure you know who the innovative trailblazers are in the start-up and small business space, here are 50 of South Africa’s top establishing companies to watch, in no particular order:

  1. Livestock Wealth
  2. The Lazy Makoti
  3. Aerobuddies
  4. Mimi Women
  5. i-Pay
  6. AfriTorch Digital
  7. Akili Labs
  8. Native Décor
  9. Aerobotics
  10. Quality Solutions
  11. EM Guidance
  12. Kahvé Road
  13. HSE Matters
  14. VA Virtual Assistant
  15. Famram Solutions and Famram Foundation
  16. BioTech Africa
  17. Brand LAIKI
  18. Plus Fab
  19. LifeQ
  20. Organico
  21. 10dot
  22. Lenoma Legal
  23. Nkukhu-Box
  24. Benji + Moon
  25. Beonics
  26. Brett Naicker Wines
  27. Khalala
  28. Legal Legends
  29. The Power Woman Project
  30. Aviro Health
  31. AnaStellar Brands
  32. Data Innovator
  33. Fo-Sho
  34. Oolala Collection Club
  35. Recomed
  36. VoiceMap
  37. ClockWork
  38. Empty Trips
  39. Vula Mobile
  40. SwiitchBeauty
  41. Pineapple
  42. The Katy Valentine Collection
  43. OfferZen
  44. KHULA
  45. Incitech
  46. Pimp my Book
  47. ART Technologies and ART Call Management
  48. Prosperiprop
  49. WAXIT
  50. The Sun Exchange
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How 28-Year Old Entrepreneur Adam Fine Is Leveraging The Global Phenomenon Of Five-A-Side Football

Adam Fine of Fives Futbol discusses how he leverage a global phenomenon and the value of strategic partnerships in business.

Monique Verduyn

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Vital Stats

Nothing about Adam Fine is by-the-book. The 28-year-old entrepreneur describes himself as a slightly big child. He’s the CEO of one of the most exciting start-ups in South Africa, having leveraged the global phenomenon of five-a-side football to start a business that has grown almost as fast as the game itself. Not bad for a venture that was launched with the princely sum of R85 000 — Fine’s life savings at the time.

He started it in 2011, with a strong focus on corporate social investment and making a positive social impact. It was by forming strategic partnerships that Adam really managed to grow Fives Futbol. He’s opened pitches in prime locations that serve both the school and corporate markets, while still being accessible for social impact interventions in local communities.

Related: 3 Local Entrepreneurs Share Their Business Challenges And How They Overcame Them

Pivoting at the right time is key to growth

The challenge:

In the last 18 months, Fives Futbol has trebled in size, and achieved some amazing milestones — it now employs 50 full-time staff, and 80 part-timers. It’s one of the factors that drives Adam, as many of his employees support up to eight family members. It’s now also represented in four provinces and 15 locations around the country. By September, there will be 18.

Quick growth means you have to be able to pivot quickly when things do not go according to plan, and mostly they don’t, Adam says. “If things are not working you should be able to ‘pivot’, to shift your focus. And do it fast. It’s not a sign that things have gone wrong by any means, on the contrary, it means you have the insight to recognise that there is a problem with the assumptions on which you have built your business model. The decision to pivot is a big one, and not something to be taken lightly. It requires you to take a hard look at your reallocation of resources, and to do it with an open mind.”

The solution:

In Adam’s case, construction delays, councils taking their time to approve, or having to put money into rolling out sites as opposed to marketing, means the promotion of a new site will slow down, for example, because the business does not yet have a large marketing budget.

“When we run behind on the construction of a new site, R40 000 can suddenly become R100 000 — but here’s the thing: If a deal comes along that will probably harm your business in the short-term but enable significant long-term growth, sometimes you have to juggle what you have so you can make it work.”

The Lesson: Choose your investors carefully

Fine says he’s lucky to have a solid group of investors that he has cultivated over six years. “Their input is invaluable. They’ll say, ‘slow down’ or ‘have you thought of this?’, ‘have you factored in that?’ The ability to develop a good relationship with our investors has had a significant impact on the success of the company. Over and above money, they provide wisdom, guidance and connections.”

His relationship with his investors is key. While many entrepreneurs make it just about the money, Adam understood something else — he has a pretty cool brand with a great cause behind it. So, while investors are asked for money all the time, he was able to offer something more than just a business idea — alignment. He generated enthusiasm for the ‘why,’ behind the business. Like most of us, it makes investors happy to know that they are helping to make a positive difference.

And while it’s easy to bandy about the word ‘partnership’, Adam has worked hard to make that a reality. He set out to find like-minded people who are passionate about the business and the cause, which is why they are able to serve as great resources for advice and insight.

Related: Richard Branson’s ABCs Of Business

“The best way to ensure that you and your investors have a valuable and lengthy partnership is to make sure that everyone is aligned on the vision.”

This includes Adam’s team. The internal culture of an organisation is vital to its strength and growth. “Without our team we don’t have a business for investors to support — our people are critical to our success. They’re the executors of the vision at the end of the day.”


The Lesson:  The value of strategic partnerships

Much of the growth of Fives Futbol has been fuelled by finding the right sponsorship partners in key industries. To overcome the challenge of a limited marketing budget, Adam has secured sponsorships with big brands like Adidas, Total Sports, Debonairs, and Klipdrift, allowing Fives Futbol to use their access to communities as a marketing platform to derive income as well as scale. And it works both ways.

“Because we have a national footprint and a team of people, we run activations for our partners, which also provides us with an ancillary revenue stream,” he says. “Knowing how to join forces with other businesses has been a key factor in making the business successful. Our strategic partners have enabled the business to leverage their brand to give us more exposure. When it works well, a strategic partnership can be just what you need to speed up the growth of your business.”

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Watch List: 15 SA eCommerce Entrepreneurs Who Have Built Successful Online Businesses

The advent and advancement of the online marketplace has led these entrepreneurs to successfully build and grow their ecommerce empires.

Diana Albertyn

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South Africa’s ecommerce market is worth R10 billion per year. By 2021, the number of online shoppers is expected to have reached 24.79 million.

“Our recent research on SA shows people are browsing three hours or more on their mobile phones and 25% shop online. They trust local brands,” says Geraldine Mitchley, Visa senior director for digital solutions in sub-Sahara Africa.

These entrepreneurs have cashed in on ecommerce and launched successful online stores that have either established their dominance in the market, or are taking the e-tailing world by storm.

Here’s how these 15 ecommerce capitalists are making money using the Internet:

  1. Aisha Pandor
  2. Andrew Higgins
  3. Kerryn Tremearne
  4. David Davies
  5. Andrew Smith, Paul Galatsis and Shane Dryden
  6. Trevor Gosling
  7. Nicholas Haralambous
  8. Justin Drennan
  9. Neo Lekgabo
  10. Ryan Bacher
  11. Tracy Kruger
  12. Luke Jedeikin
  13. Tarryn Abrahams
  14. Sascha Breuss
  15. Antonio Bruni
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