By Pamina Mullins
Entrepreneurship for Bongani Huni came later in life and was born out of frustration and a desire for a more holistic approach to education in her native Zimbabwe. The French-teacher-turned-entrepreneur launched a destination management company – Vertex International Tours with two goals: to boost tourism in Southern Africa and enhance the quality of learning in Zimbabwean schools through educational tours to Europe for teachers and students alike.
“Although I hold a Bachelors in French and had been teaching the language in private schools for many years, I had never had the opportunity to visit the country. It really bothered me. I guess you could say it became my mission to give teachers and their students the chance to travel, and definitely there was a gap in the market so the idea for Vertex was born.”
If Bongani’s career was a play in two parts, the first half of her trajectory was heavily influenced by family and early life experiences. She grew up in a middle-class family of five girls. Both parents were academics and had a profound influence on her.
“My mother was a teacher for 45 years and started studying for a degree in theology in her sixties. Watching our father get a Bachelor’s the year my sister was born and then go on to earn a PhD, all via distance learning, has been inspirational. We are an unusual family in this part of the world as all five girls are degreed,” explains Bongani who credits a supportive family with making her confident and driven. “We were all raised with love and encouragement. Even though I was the dark-skinned girl in a family of lighter-skinned siblings, I grew up complex-free thanks to my mother who made us all feel beautiful, regardless of socially accepted good looks.”
And this kind of support and unconditional love has continued in her married life, with an encouraging husband, Rodney, who is her partner in both life and business.
“I resigned after 16 years of teaching to focus 100% on growing my business. I felt something of a hypocrite as our tag line at Vertex is ‘live your dream!’ and there I was crippled by fear of not having enough financial security to be a full-time entrepreneur.”
In 2009, Bongani harnessed her frustration at not having visited France into an opportunity. After a student she had been teaching went on tour of France with a South African tour operator, she decided to start a local company doing the same for Zimbabweans. She and Rodney, who has a degree in transport and logistics, began the quest to find a French agent with whom they could collaborate. After nearly two years of planning they were ready with their first cohort of 24 students.
As is so often the case in Africa, raising the capital for a start-up can be problematic so it comes as no surprise that Vertex International is self-funded. “Lack of adequate financial and investment knowledge is a big hindrance in our country,” Bongani states unequivocally. “Although a lot is being done to improve this, we have a long way to go.”
Being a female entrepreneur in Zimbabwe can be doubly daunting. Women business owners miss out on loans due to lack of collateral and sound business and legal advice. Bongani, however, has had firsthand experience that there are advantages to being educated. “People take you more seriously if you have attained a certain level of education. Education and leadership must be intentional and not accidental. Dissemination of information is always a problem; women have to be more proactive and find ways to access information and diversify in challenging times,” Bongani argues.
Interestingly, she explains how being part of the middle class has been her biggest challenge in business. She is perceived to be too “rich” to qualify for some grants and funding opportunities and too “poor” to be considered for others. Inevitably she opted to remain in full-time employment to ensure a steady income to develop the business. Even with energy levels like Bongani’s, this doesn’t leave much time to invest in the business, but nevertheless it continues to grow with three full- and five part-time employees and a turnover of USD $185,000 in 2016. In addition to outbound travel to Europe, today Vertex offers tours of Zimbabwe and Southern Africa and will be embarking on new tours that will boost tourism on the continent as a whole.
When asked what she’s most proud of Bongani doesn’t hesitate: “The biggest moment in my life was in October 2015 when, at the age of 38 with two sons aged 15 and 12, I graduated with a degree in French and Psychology from the University of South Africa. The previous year had been a very difficult one as my sister Nobuhle battled and conquered breast cancer,” she says adding: “There were times when I had to dig deep – especially when my mother and siblings went to be with Nobuhle in the UK and I couldn’t travel. But her victory over cancer motivated me even more to achieve my dreams.”
She’s also justifiably proud of having juggled full-time employment, with university, motherhood, and getting a start-up off the ground. In 2016, this determined woman started her Masters at Cape Town University and still managed to receive 1st runner-up in the tourism category for the Women in Enterprise Awards (WECA). She does admit though that all this juggling of priorities has kept her awake at night. This led to a recent momentous decision: “I have resigned after 16 years of teaching to focus 100% on growing my business,” Bongani exclaims triumphantly. “I felt something of a hypocrite as our tag line at Vertex is ‘live your dream!’ and there I was crippled by fear of not having enough financial security to be a full-time entrepreneur.”
Facing down that fear, the newly minted full-time business owner bubbles with enthusiasm.
“My business is going to thrive. As we get better control over pricing and expand our product offerings, Vertex will become a household name and preferred tour operator for foreigners visiting Zimbabwe and Zimbabweans going abroad.”
With that kind of confidence, the former French teacher’s success is undoubtedly a fait accompli.
Pamina Mullins is based in Zimbabwe. Learn about her Career and Life Coaching business, Break Free and Reclaim Your Life.
- Go the extra mile to inject your personality into your brand and market as aggressively as possible
- Never underestimate the power of networking. Visibility helps to win over customer confidence.
- Look after clients and potential clients and get comfortable taking calculated risks.
- Don’t give up on your dreams. If it was easy, everybody would do it! Organize your life in such a way that you can juggle your responsibilities.