He is a community activist, transformational speaker and a social entrepreneur, all this stemming from his squalor and poverty stricken background and the harsh reality that confronted his childhood on the dusty streets of Soweto. Raised and nurtured by two loving self-employed street vendors namely his grandmother and grandfather who from a young age inculcated the culture of entrepreneurship in him by depriving him of all teenage pleasures and luxuries and, at the time what seemed like subjecting him to operating a family business. The family business sold sweets, fruits and vegetable to members of the community to a bid to sustain our livelihood. Sethu Sidzamba is a Black Diamond because in keeping with all our subjects, in nature, the black diamond is the toughest form of natural diamond. We spoke to him:
BD: What was your upbringing like?
SS: I grew up in a community of few to no role models making it hard to project above the status quo and social ills that engulfed the informal settlement where I lived together with the members of my family. My background is one of poverty but my family rose to the occasion to ensure that we were afforded basic necessities that constitute a hospitable and dignified life. I grew up in conditions of squalor where we hard to draw water at a distance from the shack house and where sanitation facilities were not in close proximity to us as people.
BD: Were you able to go to school?
SS: I attended a government school in Eldorado Park as this was societally deemed a higher level than my peers who had township schools experience and attendance. My life was mainly characterized by active family business involvement and largely being in academic trouble as no one could help me with my school works and assignments due to the low level of literacy of my guardian.
BD: And yet, despite all that, you developed an eye for business.
SS: As I said, I was born into a family that was involved in the informal market space, although they ran a business on intuition base. I was at an early age immersed and made to swim in the pool of organic business knowledge. At a tender age I was fascinated by the nature of business and its inherent ability to connect people and deliver satisfaction on people. I was indeed exposed to a number of business operational functions from the small stall vending venture we had as a family. My love for business was further intensified by the injustice faced by informal traders in Kliptown square, the site where we ran our family business. The mere fact that those who fight the economic gains whilst in the informal side lines would receive draconian treatment from the same government who fails to employ or to empower them with basic business skills that will enable them to scale up and create employment and subsequently reduce the unemployment rate amongst the vulnerable groups in South Africa. This to me presented a counter approach to our strides as a nation and made me more determined to study business and the laws governing its operations.
BD: You have learned other things in the process, leadership for instance.
SS: I have been involved in the leadership space from my days at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. I had my share of submitting to leaders ahead of me and being mentored into leadership by those who I deemed influential to my desired immediate to near future. I learned quite a few things:
A servant attitude: A servant of the people and regards people’s aspirations, opinions and suggestions in decision making. In essence it’s never about me but largely about us.
Discipline- Being disciplined especially to pursue goals and mission regardless of the challenges or tribulations. A leader occupies a resemblance and mirror role that many would aspire for. Discipline talks largely about self and the ability to lead self. We can’t be publicly accepted as leaders yet we in our own conscious fail to hold the basic tenant of leadership namely discipline and ethical conduct in all dealings.
Practice self-leadership- this gives one an opportunity to distinguish between what is right and wrong. Before we can lead and be people of influence in our community there is a deep need for self-leadership.
Introspection- leaders have a strong deep conversation with themselves on the milestones achieved on the miss-opportunity presented and quickly formulates a strategy going forward to ensure they remain on par with your early stated goals
Learning and development is one fundamental pillar to any leader as we ought to be schooled in the university of life and graduate eventually though we might be scared and vulnerable but the learning process is phenomenal
BD: You are now immersed in fragrances. How did this idea come about?
SS: My mother is a lover and an admirer of perfumes I grew up being fascinated and interested in this liquid formed substance beautifully packaged in a bottle and box. Perfumes or fragrance have a sentimental value as they tie close to my confidence and pride namely my mother. At University level I was fortunate enough to come across an Egyptian company that operated in Durban who I later persuaded to enlist me as one of their sales agents. The business grew to a point where I bought my first stock which was my breakthrough to this exciting but challenging industry.
BD: Is it just selling perfumes? We see a lot of young people who walk around with samples. What makes you different?
SS: This business is more than just a fragrance selling concept but ties deeply with issues of emotions, feelings and mood enhancer as perfumes have a hidden and unknown ability to evoke a particular feel through a varied scent or fragrance. In essence our moods and feelings at times ties closely to how we smell. This business has evolved into a social entrepreneurship flagship program by being sympathetic to issues of youth unemployment and by largely encouraging others to have financial expression and gains through our sales agent program. We have informally created employment to over 15 young people and helped them improve themselves and their immediate family’s standard of living.
BD: Bravo. It is still fairly new, how has the public received it?
SS: We have built our company from the ground with people fueling us with ideas that we later adapt into our strategy and operational plan, Wa Azania Aroma is a peoples-centered approach company. We are for the people and never aloof of their aspirations and desire. This basic-narrative grants us support and enjoyment of the immediate communities we operate in. Wa Azania Aroma being a customer and people centered business we believe largely in benefiting our immediate people as opposed to exploiting them.
BD: Very noble and important. How are you achieving this?
SS: We have commissioned a program aimed at equipping people with basic business skills to carry the company and its products into their communities and in turn change their standard of living and quality of life through rewards, incentives and through commission payments. The public has fallen in love with our mission and vision statement and dearly subscribe to our narrative of black excellence.
BD: It is a very competitive business. Were there any barriers to entry? How did you cope with them? How long did it take for you to break through?
SS: Our business is extremely common especial in Durban. We compete at various levels from well established companies at Gateway Mall to a street vendor near Shoprite West street Durban CBD. The company’s unique selling point becomes a point of differentiation and separation from your competition. The battle field is open to all and the most innovative and critically conceived business idea will survive and occupy a larger market share. Our company tries to blend emerging and established trends and themes to ensure we remain relevant and up to date in the eyes of our customers. The biggest challenge in this industry is product education and awareness. Our black consumers are brand conscious and fast to stigmatize anything not from famous retail chain stores as primitive, foreign and artificial to their preference and taste. We still need to extensively educate the consumer that oil base perfumes have a stronger property to smell and last longer and the reasonable pricing is because we avoid shifting marketing, advertising cost to consumers as how big companies are doing. We offer value at a lower price because we are sympathetic to our people’s economic status.
BD: We see you had an initiative called “Celebrating Basadi”, what was the thought process behind this concept?
SS: As a society we have failed to crown Basadi (women) with their deserving crowns. We have categorically and generally classified them into all sorts of average to mediocre terms to dehumanise and demean their role within our society. As a company we saw it fit to assort a range that can bestow the dignity and honour that Basadi deserves, namely a head wrap neck-piece and ear-ring plus our signature perfume to compliment the pack.
The promo was a reminder that;
You descend from a line of woman with Strength,
You possess the strength to shine, even when enveloped with darkness and
You possess the strength to smile even when drowning with pain
BD: Why was it important that women be celebrated?
This was not a reactionary campaign to soothe women’s month but was an internalized program of the company that later constituted our boutique concept. Women deserve our adoration and respect and Wa Azania Aroma ensured that the audience actively participated on this campaign and project.
BD: What or who motivates you?
SS: I am motivated by the Pan Africanist Ideology, that African solutions for African problems. That Africa will rise to its original form and glory but once her sons are unchained from the perceived mental limitations and her daughters acknowledge their worth as nurturer and pillars to life. I am inspired by the prospect of Africa that is Awoke and working tirelessly to improve itself in relative obscurity.
BD: What has running your own business taught you, not just about yourself, but about the people in and around it?
SS: Running this business has taught me quite a lot about myself, that is how to cope under stress and how to tolerate stress as business has sporadic results per month. The business has taught me how to treat customers as king for without customers we are just another academic exercise. Personal finances are now well managed and I live on a set budget as the business does. The people that surround the business are as follows:
We have always arranged that our suppliers be our best mentors in the business. A healthy supply base means we get our inputs on time and subsequently deliver to our customers on the set time. We have learnt and continue to be shaped by our suppliers. Our supplier teaches us that unity in diverse goals or mission is still attainable provided there is mutual respect and tolerance to one another.
Our customers constantly have a way of humbling us, when we reach a stage of complacency they anchor with their constructive criticism. A bulk of our promotions is informed by them as we constantly consult with them to cover their needs in our workings. Our customer teaches us resilience, patience and steadfast love and support for one another.
A great deal of learning and development comes from this fraternity as they fresh with ideas, debate merits to points and at times defensive to their ideas and opinion. Our personal teaches us every day on who we are and what we stand for. They are research and innovation orientated which arms them with decisiveness and proper decision making. They teach us that as human we have an endless ability and the limitations are mentally conceived.
BD: Where do you see yourself and your business in the next 5 years?
SS: In the next five years I see myself still active within the social entrepreneurship space as the problems facing our community are not fading away but increasing, which then calls for people like myself to have concerted efforts in conceiving more pragmatic programs that will address the immediate suffering of our people. The next five years remains a mystery but I have the necessary drive and energy to see my plans to fruition and in turn strengthen Wa Azania Aroma as a pillar of strength and a home to dismount solutions to our deeply pained society.
BD: Inspiring, congratulations and best wishes
SS: Thank you.