Quality education enabled the driven and creative Thuleka Duze to develop the craftmanship and business skills she needed to quit her job and successfully pursue her dream of establishing the uniquely South African handbag lable ATG Ekasi. Thuleka shared her entrepreneurial story and her dreams of empowering others through skill building and education with Tjlevva.
When Thuleka and her business partner Abass Maazu decided they wanted to create a handbag label, neither of them knew anything much about design or manufacturing and both had permanent jobs and families to care for. One thing they did have was determination and natural desire to solve problems. Thanks to detailed research, clever time management and aggressive saving, they managed to put together enough money for Abass to fly to Ghana for an intense course on handbag making. Abass brought home his skills to pass them on to Thuleka.
I was still a flight attendant at the time. I would come back from overseas and utilize my 3 off days learning the skill and neglect my kids for those days. As I am a single parent to 2 boys, it wasn’t easy juggling work, business, and my parental duties. It took me 2 years to work on my exit plan.
In the early days of figuring out how to build a business, time was not the only scarce resource. There was also the problem of cash flow and finding a suitable manufacturing space. Like most entrepreneurs, Thuleka and Abass employed bootstrapping techniques to get their business through its initial stages of development. Informal training of new artisans, storage of raw materials, and actual production of merchandise, and also sales, were all confined to the humblest of locations.
All of this was happening at Abass’s backroom where he was renting in Gugulethu. Even this day, that’s where we are doing our production as we don’t have a workshop.
Even though Thuleka and Abass had a natural intuition for business building and were willing to make sacrifices to get through the bootstrapping phase, there was a shortage of fundamental business administration skills in their operation.
In 2016 a close friend of Thuleka’s brought her an application form for a course at the USB Small Business Academy. The course was aimed at empowering small business owners with the skills needed to grow their companies and achieve financial success.
Before her acquaintance with the academy, Thuleka explains, she had been making and selling handbags best she could, but was oblivious to many of the soft and the hard skills required to do business.
Through learning about business skills, financials, branding etc., I have added value to the business. I have developed in many areas as a business person. I’m taken out of my comfort zone. I never saw the need of networking and attending events but learnt that is vital in the business world if you want growth.
In 2016, after Thuleka completed her course, ATG Ekasi won the Distell prize for the Business with the Most Potential. However, worth more than prizes on the wall, are the valuable business connections she made, and clients she secured, by practicing the skills she learnt at business school.
There’s been lot of transformation from when we started. Our quality has improved a lot, thanks to Cape Craft Design Institute and Cape Town Fashion Council for ensuring we produce quality not quantity through their quality check before we can take our products to our customers.
…The Small Enterprise Development Agency has helped us a lot with our marketing tools including a website.
…After exhibiting at Design Indaba we secured international clients from Spain. They fell in love with our bespoke handstiched bags made from African prints, sourced in SA and Ghana.
Today, Thuleka dreams of providing formal training in both craft and business skills to youngsters who wish to learn to make bags to support themselves.
I am so passionate about empowering others through the little knowledge I have. We have been knocking at doors crying for help for space to open a skills centre. We have so many people coming to us thirsty to learn the skill of making handbags because they believe in our brand. They see us as their role models. We wouldn’t want to disappoint them. Maybe from reading this article someone will come to our rescue and see the benefit of empowering the nation to reduce unemployment rate.
Thuleka’s skills centre promises to empower youngsters with basic handbag manufacturing techniques (which she has already passed on informally to the 9 people currently employed by ATG Ekasi) and basic entrepreneurial business skills. If you are, or know of, an investor with the resources that can help Thuleka plough back her skills and knowledge into the South African economy, feel free to contact her on email, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, or via the ATG Ekasi website.
If you are a fashion enthusiast keen on supporting local talent, you can get your hands on one of Thuleka’s creations at ATG EKASI Craft Market in Longstreet, Cape Town. Thuleka’s bags will also be showcased at Experience Lifestyle Fashion Show at Kenilworth Racecourse on the 29th of April.
Lastly, if like Thuleka, you have an existing business, but feel you lack the skills (and the finances to acquire them) to truly turn your dream into a going concern, contact the University of Stellenbosch Business School’s Small Business Academy to see if you qualify for their NQF level 5 program.