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From poverty to prosperity: Free State ‘Chicken Lady’ defies the odds

As unemployment in South Africa soars to record highs, government is encouraging school leavers to be entrepreneurial.

After years of struggling for work, Ntombizonke Radebe came to the same conclusion, and she’s never been happier, writes Rebekah Funk.

It took Ntombizonke Radebe 15 years to find full-time employment after she matriculated in the Free State in 2000. Her secret to finally finding work? Starting her own business.

“Life in our community was very difficult. I came from a very poor family. I couldn’t get a job in domestic work or at the shops, and neither of my parents worked,” Radebe says.

“I used to blame my parents for my life because I wanted to go to college so badly and they didn’t have the money, but then I realised my life was in my hands.”

Radebe is far from alone. Close to seven million people are unemployed across the country, according to the official count from Statistics SA in July 2019. That’s 29% of working-age South Africans, marking the highest rate of unemployment in over a decade.

Commentators say the picture is likely a lot worse, since these numbers don’t take into account people who have stopped hunting for work but would still like to be employed.

“By the expanded definition, more than 10 million people are unemployed, or 38,5% of people who could be working,” reports The Mail & Guardian.

Black South Africans are hit the hardest: 46% are unemployed, in comparison to only 9,8% of white populations.

The same goes for rural populations, still suffering from apartheid’s “Bantustan” policies: more than 46% of those living in the North West and Eastern Cape provinces are unemployed, in contrast to the urban provinces of Gauteng and the Western Cape (where unemployment is below 40%).

These inequalities continue across gender lines: 43,5% of women are out of a job versus 35% of men.

From hopelessness to hope

These are the statistics that once caused Radebe to feel discouraged — until she realised she could make a change in her own and others’ lives with the little she had.

“Everyone must not be afraid to start small. They must not be ashamed. Business is the only opportunity we have to make a living and create employment,” she says. “Government is busy. It’s up to us.”

In 2015, Radebe scratched together enough money to buy 20 chickens by informally selling atchar and taking a loan, and started her business, My Chicken for Ntombi. It took another year to turn a profit she could live on, yet she persisted, fuelled by what she describes as her “inner passion” to change her destiny.

“I encourage young people not to sit down and fold their hands, or wait for someone to employ them. They can create their own jobs,” Radebe explains. “My business already has an impact — it employs three people.”

Ntombi turned to the SAB Foundation Tholoana Programme for support to grow her business and, after a rigorous selection process, she was chosen to take part in their two-year business support programme.

Today, My Chicken for Ntombi specialises in producing fresh and healthy poultry and eggs — products in hot demand in her community. She believes this is because local shops only sell chicken from wholesalers that have been frozen; a tactic that makes the meat last longer, but leaves much to be desired in terms of flavour and appearance.

“People buy from me because they say my chicken tastes better,” the 38-year-old explains. “I typically buy my chicken from the abattoirs and sell it within one or two days.”

As her profits grow, she says she hopes to one day buy a farm, hire people with disabilities who might not be able to find work elsewhere, and cover school fees for children to ensure they can pursue a higher education.

“I might be slow but I’m very patient. Even if I fail, I will keep on going. Business is my calling.”

Source: Bonzai media

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