(Published - 2 September 2019)
“Nothing worth having is easy - so never let your circumstances determine your future; use them as stepping stones.”
That motto guided Laetitia Carmen Piers while she pursued her two passions: studying ecology and nature conservation and building a successful small business. And her hard work paid off - the 25-year-old recently received her MSc in Biodiversity and Conservation Biology (BCB) from the University of the Western Cape...and her small business, Shea By Design, received an Afrikinky Award in the category Best Natural Hair Brand in the South African division in July for 2019.
Her thesis, Assessing the relationship between functionality of communal rangelands and small mammal assemblages in the arid communal drylands of Steinkopf, Northern Cape, looked at the effects of land uses and desertification on biodiversity in an arid communal area.
She found evidence for desertification using a method that hasn’t been used in the arid zone before.
”Desertification is evident in relation to vegetation since the ecotone is closely related to the Desert Biome (dysfunctional), but when looking at the soil it is closely related to the Succulent Karoo (functional),” she explains. “Essentially, if land uses and desertification continue at their current rate the vegetation condition would translate to the soil speeding up the desertification process.”
“I love what I’m doing at the moment,” Laetitia comments. “At UWC I did site-based studies and conservation; at SANBI I do landscape/ecosystem-level conservation – and I’m learning so much.”
She launched her business last year, hand-making natural hair and skin products. It took a lot of time and effort - and most of her weekends - but it was worth it. Her brand, Shea by Design, won an Afrikinky Awards 2019, and is now in the running for funding from the African Women’s Development Fund in the US.
“We’re going up against big, well-established brands in the continent – one brand per qualifying country,” she says. “But I’m excited to see if my brand will win this fund.”
Laetitia By Design: Living, Learning and Launching
Born and bred in Ravensmead, Cape Town, Laetitia wasn’t always sure what she was really passionate about.
“I had a dependence on my loan from NSFAS for all my travelling expenses and to financially assist my mother and younger brother,” Laetitia says. “Many days I ended up not having travelling fare and walking to campus because I knew what my goal was, and I desperately needed to finish my degree.”
She started working as a cashier, and also doing some part-time work in the BCB department, helping with travel and other university expenses.
“I always had to ensure that my time management was good enough to allow me time to do everything and not slack on my tests, exams and assignments,” she says. “Turns out I wasn’t too bad at it - I was always on top of things. I had to be.”
She was one of the top BCB students in her first and final year, and is a member of the International Golden Key Honour Society. And tough as things may have been at home, her mom still encouraged her to pursue her postgrad studies.
She received NRF Funding for her Master’s - and decided to put it to good use.
“The NRF money was not going to last forever, so I decided to spend the money on building something that lasts - I decided to follow my dreams and start a small business.”
Now, when she’s not studying, Laetitia can be found making hair products, going to markets - or watching series on her laptop, reading or taking hikes and walks in Kirstenbosch gardens.
“Balancing a part-time job at university, completing my MSc, and growing my small business was not an easy task,” she says. “But I had to do it to ensure a better life for myself and my family - and I’d do it all over again if I had to.”