A passion for the environment and a desire to promote agro-tourism in the rural Eastern Cape has seen ex-schoolteacher Thembisile Ralarala, 55, take on the challenge of developing a sustainable “green economy” and tackling poverty in the small town of Mount Fletcher – one tree at a time.
Ms Ralarala’s company INCREW (Innovators Create Wealth) is a retail nursery also offering florist, landscaping and garden services to homes, businesses and schools in the area, and is now establishing a botanical garden as a tourism destination and events venue.
She said she was inspired to change the face of Mount Fletcher – “where nothing catches the visitor’s eye or makes them want to stop” – and at the same time develop a profitable business and eco-tourism attraction that would make “maximum use of the local assets” of land and people, to create employment and economic development.
Her innovative approach and growth in her business skills earned Ms Ralarala the Top Student award in the Small Business Academy (SBA) programme presented by the University of Stellenbosch Business School (USB) in partnership with the Joe Gqabi Economic Development Agency (JoGEDA) in the Eastern Cape.
She was one of 20 small business owners who recently completed the annual programme, which provides sponsored business tuition and mentorship from USB academic staff and alumni to empower entrepreneurs to grow sustainable businesses in the Eastern Cape’s northernmost district. The mostly rural Joe Gqabi district includes Aliwal North, Barkly East, Burgersdorp, Maclear, Steynsburg and Ugie.
Ms Ralarala runs the only retail nursery in her area, based in the Ezingonyameni Village of Mount Fletcher, with a second outlet in Maclear as she serves many clients there and in nearby Ugie.
The nursery and fledgling botanical garden also provides education for local schools in environmental appreciation and conservation, and the importance of greening public spaces and homes.
Describing her long-term vision, she said: “Building up our nursery into a botanical garden will become a unique tourism destination in this poor rural community and create a venue for weddings, festivals and conferences.
“We will also enter agro-processing and produce added-value products such as perfumes, soaps, oils, fruit juice and dried fruit, thereby creating employment and enabling people to be active participants in sustainable economic development of this area.”
Although Mount Fletcher is in one of the most remote, rural and poverty-affected areas of the country, she said the business had a strategic advantage in being located on the R56, the shortest route between the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal, and hence its potential to attract tourism and other business.
Her love of nature and passion for protecting the environment grew out of her role as a teacher at Nolufefe Primary School, where the school’s greening efforts won numerous environmental awards.
Ms Ralarala said her proudest moments in her business had been winning contracts to supply plants to retailers such as Build-It and Spar, as well as local guesthouses and schools. She credits the SBA programme for having been especially beneficial in helping her to formulate a business plan.
“The SBA opened my eyes, and I see it as the key that will open doors to greater business opportunities. I know that in starting a business you need to be a lifetime learner, to grow your business network, and to access mentorship, and the SBA programme provided all of that,” she said.
The Small Business Academy (SBA) of the University of Stellenbosch Business School (USB) was launched in 2012 in Cape Town with the aim to meaningfully engage with society by empowering small business owners in low-income communities with business education and mentorship. The programme initially only served the township areas of Greater Cape Town and in 2016 branched out to the Eastern Cape.
With more than 35% of the region unemployed, the partnership in the Eastern Cape between the SBA and Joe Gqabi Economic Development Agency now offers small businesses in the area formal business training to strengthen their initiatives. Almost all historically disadvantaged entrepreneurs in the region are survivalist businesses with little knowledge as to how to grow their businesses or how to leverage resources to grow.
Participants are admitted after a strict selection process, including an aptitude test and an interview. The duration of the course is 9 months and apart from a minimal commitment fee, the programme is fully sponsored by JoGEDA and USB.