Janine Roberts: Packaged with Love

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Only 20 minutes from the magnificent Table Mountain and the lures of Cape Town’s tourist attractions, sits of one of the Western Cape’s poorest townships. Rife with violence and the hopelessness that comes with being out of work, Vrygrond is not a natural choice for many entrepreneurs to set up shop. But then Janine Roberts is not your average business owner. In an effort to address South Africa’s long-term unemployment problem, she launched a co-packing enterprise and incubation program that empowers micro-entrepreneurs from the area. Ukama Holdings is a successful social business model that supports not only those who work directly in the family but also more than 120 township children who benefit from the Ukama Community Foundation’s feeding program.

“Ukama is Shona for ‘we are family’. It’s a word that encompasses our inclusive philosophy and outlook,” Roberts explains. “This is my life’s purpose. I’ve been privileged to have so many wonderful moments – every day is new and interesting and we do a lot of laughing and learning – but the best thing is seeing people become who they should have been all along.”

One of three children, Roberts grew up in a traditional conservative family during South Africa’s apartheid era. Although she lived in an isolated environment, she was exposed to the country’s ugly reality through friends from other communities. The suffering she saw and her desire to help others led her to pursue a career in nursing straight after high school.

After almost a decade, she shifted gears in a big way, and did a course in packaging technology. She started a consulting business and then launched her own contract packing facility, Zimele Packaging Solutions. In line with her vision of supporting the disadvantaged, she established a training and employment program as part of the business and only hired youth or the long-term unemployed.

“I want to show other businesses that they can make an impact socially, that business can be used as a tool to empower people throughout Africa. I hope big businesses will eventually use their power for change as well as for profit and that this approach will even the societal inequalities throughout Africa.”

But running her own social impact business in a male-dominated industry while raising two kids on her own was tough and she closed shop after four years.

“Although institutions and government are becoming much more accepting of women entrepreneurs and woman-lead business, male-led sectors are slow to accept the changes. My approach was unique and came with some challenges all of which were compounded by other barriers I faced be they bureaucratic, financial, legal, or compliance-related. I went through a lot of stress and heartache when Zimele went insolvent and lost my personal assets.”

Not one to give up, Roberts was right back at it within a few months. After taking a Women in Leadership course at University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business, the then 40-year-old was inspired to launch another social enterprise, this time focused on black-owned micro-enterprises.

Ukama Group

“There was a gap in the market for co-packers and I was well connected in this area. I started Ukama Holdings, not only to offer a valuable service to other businesses, especially small enterprises seeking affordable packaging solutions, but also to train and empower previously unemployed people to run their own businesses and create jobs. We get packaging contracts from industry and work with micro-entrepreneurs to fill the order. I’ve dreamt a long time about making big inroads into upliftment and poverty alleviation and I really believe this model is a perfect solution. It’s repeatable and scalable and can be applied to many different businesses and industries.”

Robert’s co-packing business is a multi-stakeholder collaboration  – a bridge – between clients seeking packaging services and micro-entrepreneurs providing the labor. In addition to the platform, premises and required certification, Ukama provides training, mentorship and support – such as bookkeeping assistance and business workshops – to the micro-enterprises, which in turn hires on average four people from their local community. Roberts also offers employment to people working from home, mostly women, who look after disabled or sick family members and wouldn’t otherwise be able to work.

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“Increasingly medium-to-large South African businesses want to support black-owned micro-enterprises but are unable to access them due to the required processes not being in place. We ensure that each micro-enterprise is fully compliant with all the regulations and our incubation program enables these emerging businesses to become independent, viable employers. My goal is to transform the economy by linking big business to smaller suppliers and increasing the economic opportunities that result from enterprise development.”

In addition to the packaging business, Roberts established the Ukama Community Foundation, an NGO linked to the company that feeds around 120 children every day from Vrygrond. For her social work and innovative business model, Roberts has won several accolades including Tony Elumelu Foundation’s Top 1000 African Entrepreneurs and Spark International Changemaker award in 2015.

Despite its bootstrapped launch, supported by a few small loans, Ukama broke even in its first year of operation. Less than two years in operation, the company has employed and trained 60 people from the poorest township in the Western Cape. And although the numbers may be small considering that over 40,000 people live in Vrygrond, Roberts believes her real legacy is the model for social change that she’s creating.

“I want to show other businesses that they can make an impact socially, that business can be used as a tool to empower people throughout Africa. I hope big businesses will eventually use their power for change as well as for profit and that this approach will even the societal inequalities throughout Africa.”

Roberts’ long-term goal is create an organization – built on the sturdy shoulders of self-sustaining micro-entrepreneurs –  that can run on its own so she can spend more time supporting small businesses and mentoring women entrepreneurs around Africa.

“I feel that my life has been a journey leading to where I am now … every single thing in my personal and business life has made me who I am, nothing was wasted. Serving is my biggest blessing!”

Janine’s startup tips:
  • Whatever the decision you want to make ask yourself- will it make sense in 10 minutes, 10 months and 10 years from now.
  • Find support in your industry and use all the resources available to you.
  • Never be afraid to ask for help and support, never give up in the incredibly hard journey that lies ahead.
  • Learn as much as you can, get involved in institutions and discussions and industry events.
  • Never say you can’t do something, find out how to do it, and just do it!
  • Make sure you pass on your knowledge to others where you can.
  • No matter how éasy’ it looks, when you see successful people know that there was always a process of getting there that involved challenges, difficult decisions and hard work.

You can follow Ukama Holdings on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/Ukama-Holdings-269007873307258) and Twitter: @ukamaholdings.

If you would like to support Vrygrond children, please send an email to donate@ukama.co.za for details.

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