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.
Eastern Cape, South Africa – Thembisile 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 fledgeling botanical garden also provide 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 the 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 it’s 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 the 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 said the SBA programme had 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.
This was the third year of the JoGEDA partnership with the USB Small Business Academy to bring their development programme – specifically designed for historically disadvantaged entrepreneurs in low-income areas – to the district and sponsor participation by selected local entrepreneurs.
JoGEDA chief executive Ayanda Gqoboka said that results for the more than 60 businesses that have now been through the programme had been “outstanding” in enabling entrepreneurs to structure, focus and plan for their businesses.
He said that empowering small businesses to move out of survivalist mode and become sustainable engines of economic growth and employment creation was part of JoGEDA’S strategy to diversify economic activity in the district, unlock the potential for growth in sectors such as agro-processing and manufacturing, and create local employment opportunities that would retain young people in the district.
SBA head Dr Marietjie Theron-Wepener said the programme was developed, and first rolled out in the townships of Cape Town, in response to the high failure rate of small businesses, and she was delighted with the positive results seen in its extension to the Eastern Cape.
“Our vision is to make a difference in the lives and businesses of small business owners in low-income communities, building sustainability and eventually supporting them in such a way that they can play a vital role in alleviating poverty by creating employment,” she said.