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Prof Linda De Vries & The Entrepreneurial Empowerment of Rural Women

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

She might be a celebrated professor at UWC’s School of Business and Finance, but that doesn’t mean Linda De Vries hides behind her books and doesn’t engage with the world. She’d rather travel the country empowering women - especially rural women - by teaching them financial literacy.

Prof De Vries and her team of 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 these communities, because they have a lot of indigenous knowledge to share. We just complement each other.”

Prof De Vries has run contract entrepreneurial training, using Lego blocks to illustrate ideas. It’s a rewarding experience.

“It’s fascinating to see these women play, while learning about costing and other aspects of financial literacy in a business,” she says. “The women don’t even know how to use Lego, but eventually they learn, and have fun as well.”

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.

“It’s wonderful to hear how the training has changed the women’s lives and their attitude towards education. There’s 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.”

Ngoqo and the Prof have even presented a paper at a health conference on the impact of food gardens on the health of TB patients. And Mpumi is always asked to come and train school children on eco-friendly food gardening, while the students teach entrepreneurship and financial literacy.

And there are several other related projects.

“Right now, we are working with several 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). One of them, Pheleza Nqulu, from Gugulethu, received the Trailblazer Award 2016, and continues to empower others with 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 rooste rkoekies during the conference tea time, and then to market it. “

The Langa 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.

In Lamberts Bay, Bird Island, for example, 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 held possibilities for establishing their own network of guesthouses.  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.

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

Working together makes things easier.

“Anybody can do it, but I won’t undervalue the risk attached to it. So 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, Prof De Vries has been supervising her student’s research projects in various aspects of small business. 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. “I think we haven’t utilised the skills of women and their effectiveness to work together as a group enough. When you do that, you find there is potential to unlock huge success.”

She speaks with pride and fondness of the University of the Western Cape.

“This University is a laboratory. I am fascinated with young people and women, and their potential and their ability to work together and within communities...because success is not just an individual thing.”