Helping Rural Women Do It For Themselves: Financial and Entrepreneurial Training from the School of Business and Finance

She might be a celebrated professor, but that doesn’t mean Linda De Vries would hide behind her books and not engage with the world. Instead, she’d rather travel the country empowering women - especially rural women - by teaching them financial literacy.

Prof De Vries and her team of research students teach rural women how to start and successfully run a business - moving all the way from the Khayelitsha, Langa and greater Cape Flats areas to Garies and Lambert’s Bay to do just that.

“Sometimes I learn more from the communities because they have a lot of indigenous knowledge to share. We just complement each other.”

It’s a rewarding experience.

“I really have a heart for women in the rural community. It’s fascinating to see these women play, while learning about costing and other aspects of financial literacy in a business,” she says. “I ran contract entrepreneurial training, using Lego blocks to illustrate ideas.

“The women don’t even know how to use Lego, but eventually they play and they learn. Sceptical teachers would tell you the women can’t do maths and that teaching financial literacy would never work, because every business idea will have a financial component, but these women have successfully proved the contrary.”

Prof De Vries’s greatest reward comes when her women reach a point with her women where they are able to create an income for themselves. That’s when she feels most inspired.

The same women often commit themselves to sending their children to university to further their studies - yet another rewarding experience for De Vries.

“It’s wonderful to hear how the training has changed the women’s lives and their attitude towards education. There is really nothing as satisfying as this.”

Community Projects: Feeding Minds, Bodies and Wallets

With one project in Langa, they have had huge success for the past 15 years.

“Mpumi Ngoqo from Langa is one of my favourite case studies - who has now become a good friend,” De Vries says with pride. “She’s been an exceptional project leader, running food gardens, supplying food to TB patients so they can take their medication daily. They work food gardens and get a bowl of soup from the spinach and beetroot, celery and veggies they produced in the garden every day.”

In addition to this, Mpumi is always asked to come and train school children on eco-friendly food gardening.

“It became a community project for my students too,” says De Vries. “While Mpumi would be teaching food cultivation, we would teach entrepreneurship and financial literacy. In the end, we took them to California - and they ended up being runners-up in 2005 in an international entrepreneurship competition.”

“Mpumi is the best social entrepreneur you can find. We have even presented a paper at a health conference on the impact of food gardens on the health of TB patients, which was a great accomplishment for her.”

And there are several other related projects.

“Right now, we are working with more than five female entrepreneurs as part of the direct marketing association, and we hope to garner support from the Department of Small Business Development (DSBD) as well, as a few of them are either advisors for the Small Enterprise Development Agency (SEDA) or members of the South African Women Entrepreneurs Network (SAWEN), previously under the Department of Trade and Industry. One of them, Pheleza Nqulu, from Gugulethu, has just received the Trailblazer Award 2016, and she continues to empower others with her business and marketing skills.”

Another entrepreneur from Langa has run a successful roosterkoekies business for the past seven years. She does the baking herself, employs a number of people, and is currently operating on a large scale.

“It all started with a Women’s Day celebration when we used smaller versions of her roosterkoekies during the conference tea time, and then to market it. “

The Langa project of Community Food Gardens are now registered and accredited and get funding from the Independent Development Trust (IDT) for their cooks in the ‘popular kitchen’ and for their food garden workers.

Teaching Tourism for Rural Entrepreneurs

Rural communities in the tourism industry have seen some great success because of De Vries and her student’s efforts.  

The Project in Lamberts Bay, Bird Island, for example, is running successfully today. De Vries trained the community in becoming tour guides, helped them set up and run a restaurant, and educated them in security services.

“For this particular community, it was all about understanding what it means to be a community and taking ownership of the town,” De Vries notes.

Their involvement in Garies, under the leadership of community facilitator Pottie Toontjies, saw entrepreneurship workshops being offered to more than 100 women from across the broader region, inclusive of Springbok, Leliefontein, Bitterfontein, Bulletrap and all the surrounding areas.

The women in these communities realised that their own homes hold possibilities for establishing their own network of guesthouses.

“I see potential in rural communities - but South Africa’s past has instilled a sense of inferiority in people’s minds,” she says. “They may all work in the restaurants and hotels and make the scones and vetkoek according to their mother’s recipes, but they struggle to accept that their home is good enough to run as a guesthouse and able to do business in the tourism industry.”

It took some convincing, but Prof De Vries and crew helped them to cost, and explained that having a guesthouse would require buying a good bed and mattress, pillowcases, towels and sheets - and that would require money. Working together, she explained, would make things easier.

“They started understanding that foreign tourists want the authentic experience of the smoorpotkos they make and the ‘Nama’ home-baked bread, and that it requires that you talk and interact with people,” she remarks.

“Anybody can do it, but I won’t undervalue the risk attached to it. Garies in the flower season shows it is risky, but there are ways to manage the risk. You want to go into flower season, but when there’s no rain, the flowers are early and you can’t bank on a long flower season.”

“Don’t be starry-eyed, be realistic,” Prof De Vries concludes. “It’s not easy, but it can be done - and it can be fun.”

UWC: A Laboratory for Entrepreneurs

For years at the School of Business and Finance at UWC, Prof De Vries has been supervising her student’s research projects in various aspects of small business - especially female entrepreneurship support. Her students  travel around the country, helping her do research and training.

I can only be as strong as the students I work with, says Prof De Vries. “Women are excellent at teamwork and I think we haven’t utilised the skills of women and their effectiveness to work together as a group enough for it to make entrepreneurial sense. When you do that, you find there is a potential to unlock huge success.”

Prof De Vries speaks with pride and fondness of the University of the Western Cape.

“This University is a laboratory. Students at universities - and especially women - are my best learners. I am fascinated with young people and women, and their potential and their ability to work together and within communities, so that success is not just an individual thing.”

Ten Top Tips for Entrepreneurial Success for Entrepreneurs

Prof De Vries, who is originally from Beaufort-West and one of ten children, was raised in a family which offered her basic, practical entrepreneurship lessons. Over the years, and with a great deal of experience, she’s refined them into a recipe for success.

  1. Believe in your potential.

  2. Be disciplined and carefully plan what you want to do.

  3. Be financially smart - separate business money from household money.

  4. Save and invest back into your business.

  5. Learn how to market your business and build your own brand.

  6. Be part of a small business and/or entrepreneurial network.

  7. Know your own strengths.

  8. You don’t need to know or do everything - some skills can be outsourced.

  9. Continue to learn as much as possible.

  10. Don’t quit.

Useful contact details for women with their own registered start-up businesses: