Breaking entrepreneurial ground – Zoezie’s Weigh & Pay, a grocer for the people

After being wiped out by the March 2020 COVID lockdown, serial entrepreneur Zuziwe Maphalala dusted herself off and started again with a grubstake of R2 000. The ’Kasipreneur listened closely to customers in her modest grocery – and the result is an innovative, successful and scalable concept she has branded as Zoezie’s Weigh & Pay. She explains how it happened, with gaps filled in by informal sector guru GG Alcock. They spoke to BizNews editor Alec Hogg.

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Relevant timestamps from the interview

  • 00:00 – Introductions
  • 03:06 – GG Alcock on how he came across Zuzi
  • 06:29 – Zuziwe Maphalala on what drew her to entrepreneurship
  • 08:46 – Maphalala on her first business
  • 10:40 – Maphalala on why she moved on from that business
  • 11:18 – Maphalala on working in corporate as someone with an entrepreneurial spirit
  • 15:52 – Maphalala on Zoezie’s Weigh and Pay suppliers
  • 19:57 – What next for Zuziwe Maphalala?
  • 26:38 – Concludes

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An edited transcript of the interview by Alec Hogg with Zuziwe Maphalala and GG Alcock

Alec Hogg: GG Alcock has a significant reputation, and more people are reaching out to me to find the white Zulu boy who understands the township economy. He appears to be the only person with a real grasp on what’s happening in South African economies. Many who meet GG, including myself, become fans. He’s scheduled to speak at the business conference in March next year as one of our keynote speakers. Today, we’re meeting one of the entrepreneurs GG wants the world to know more about. Zuzi Maphalala, with her innovative company, Zoezie’s Weigh and Pay.

Before we delve into that, let’s rewind 150 years to Omaha, where Warren Buffett’s ancestor, Sydney, started a grocery store. At a recent Berkshire Hathaway AGM, I bought a book on this store, and it’s fascinating to see how grocery store operations have evolved. Zuzi has taken it to a new level, allowing customers to buy even a spoon of sugar.

Warren Buffett’s store in 1869 sold jackrabbits for 10 cents, eggs for 10 cents a dozen, butter at 15 cents a pound, and prairie chickens for 25 cents for two. We’ve come a long way, even in America with relatively low inflation.

GG Alcock: Let’s discuss the spaza sector, often overlooked in favour of formal supermarkets like Shoprite and Pick n Pay. Recent reports by Nielsen and Trade Intelligence reveal that the spaza sector is now a 187 billion rand per year industry, growing at 23% compared to formal retail’s 14%. People are shifting to shopping closer to home, and the spaza, often a one-stop grocery shop in townships, is gaining significance. There’s also a surge in the fast-food sector, a 90 billion rand per year industry. Load shedding and the rise of single home units contribute to the growing importance of this space, accelerating a revolution in both fast food and dry FMCG goods.

Zuzi had an extraordinary insight into consumers and developed the Zuzi Way and Pay concept, which I believe is highly scalable. She has targeted Mamphara week, that last week of the month when your budget falls short. But Zuzi will share her story.

Alec Hogg: Fantastic, Mamphara week. It’s so descriptive, and South Africans would understand that. Zuzi, you’re a serial entrepreneur. What drew you into creating your own business and shaping your own future?

Zuziwe Maphalala: Hi, Alec. I’ll share a story about growing up. My dad, a truck driver, sold cold drinks when he didn’t have employment. I saw how business united family, creating a relationship despite my mom’s long hours. My love for business grew from there. From a young age, I was identified as an entrepreneur, organising the first entrepreneur workshop during tertiary. It comes from growing up with an entrepreneurial parent.

Alec Hogg: Interesting, the connection between family and business. Now, let’s fast forward to your first business.

Zuziwe Maphalala: To be honest, I don’t remember my first business. In tertiary, my dad passed away, affecting my school budget. I teamed up with a friend to sell sandwiches on the train. We woke up at 4 a.m., sold out by the time we reached school. I also sold makeup and learned to print T-shirts. The first brick-and-mortar business was a restaurant called Pusa Place in Spreadview around 2012-2013. I’ve had various ventures, including selling beef, making invitation cards with pressed flowers, and corporate roles in between.

So, I never really moved on; opportunities opened and closed. I’ve been in entrepreneurship for 20 years, alongside 15 years in the corporate world. The stronger love has always been entrepreneurship.

Alec Hogg: How does someone entrepreneurial feel about working in a corporate?

Zuziwe Maphalal: It’s challenging and also a matter of love for what you do. I’m more of a salesperson, a face-to-face marketer. Most of my corporate ventures involved client interactions, meetings, and presentations. Even when working for a company in Denmark, I was based in South Africa and operated from home, allowing me the freedom to be an entrepreneur. I choose jobs aligned with my entrepreneurial journey. For instance, working for a wholesale distributor for laptops, I was also selling laptops on the side.

Alec Hogg: And now, let’s dive into the story of Zoezie’s Weigh and Pay.

Zuziwe Maphala: I lost everything after COVID, from an internet cafe to importing businesses. I went from having a salary to relying on SASSA grants for my two kids. Facing this limitation sparked the idea for Weigh and Pay. I called my niece to share a bag of maize meal, realising I didn’t need to buy a full bag and could split the cost. Weigh and Pay is a grocery store where everything can be weighed, starting from a minimum of five rand, except for sugar, which can be weighed from a minimum of three rand.

This concept empowers customers to buy what they need at that moment, addressing issues of limited space in townships and promoting sustainability. For example, students in residence halls can weigh what they need rather than relying solely on instant noodles, using their money wisely for better alternatives. The concept extends beyond Mamphara week, emphasising the importance of sustainability and reducing food waste.

Alec Hogg: Where do you buy from? Because if you’re selling three rands worth of sugar, you don’t want to be buying retail yourself.

Zuziwe Maphalala: Let me explain from the beginning. When I started the shop, I had saved up 2000 rand, and a friend Nhlanhla wanted to buy my shop. She had a string of internet cafes but saw potential in my space. I declined the internet cafe idea, shared my vision, and she offered to help. I needed a small amount, so I said 2000 rand would suffice. Having limited funds turned out to be a blessing. I bought small quantities based on customer feedback.

If I had more money, I might have stocked items that customers didn’t want. To answer your question about where I buy, here’s a short story. Initially, I bought from the wrong channel, and when I realized it wasn’t sustainable, I approached wholesalers, millers, and product manufacturers. They were reluctant at first, but a senior sales manager at one of the millers gave me a chance, providing a cash account with no terms. I had to drive long distances to collect the goods, but it became my fastest-selling product.

Today, they deliver to me because I’ve achieved their targets. The experience of being among big trucks at the millers made me confident I was on the right path. So, that’s where I buy to answer your question.

Alec Hogg: The next step, and we’ve had many of these conversations, GG, where we’ve heard inspiring stories like Zuzi’s with fantastic business ideas, but scalability is missing due to the need for capital. So where does Zuzi go from here to become a competitor to the Shoprites of the world?

GG Alcock: That is the big question and limitation for many businesses in the informal economy. The challenge is not starting businesses but scaling them. Transforming the economy and businesses like Zuzi’s requires finding ways to scale, be it growing a specific store or expanding into franchises. Initiatives like mentorship programs can be transformative, as seen in Zuzi’s experience with the Amstel entrepreneur program.

Zuziwe Maphalala: Before I touch on Amstel, let me go back to how scaling happens in our township model. We need to scale almost every day, pivoting to address challenges. I had a mentor, Neil Davids, who encouraged me to corporatise and helped me establish structures. The failures during COVID taught me the importance of compliance. When Amstel came in, we were ready internally, but externally, we were not showcasing our identity. The competition and mentorship brought a shift in mindset.

We repainted the shop, improved our market visibility, and engaged in marketing activities. Another mentor, Lebohang “Sugar Snacks”, focused on internal improvements before expanding externally. We opened a second store in April, leveraging our ecosystem. For example, if you buy maize meal, it’s from our weigh and pay next door. Our ecosystem retains money within, creating programs that suit our customers and environment.

GG Alcock: The challenge lies in getting assistance for capital to scale outside the township. With the proven business model of Zoezie’s Weigh and Pay, they are ready to expand into any township, offering a convenient shopping experience for local residents without the need to travel to a shopping centre. The corporate world has an opportunity to support and grow this sector.

Zuziwe Maphalala: We have put in place a business model that works in any township, but the lack of assistance in terms of capital hinders our growth. Imagine Weigh and Pay in any mall, townhouse, or mid-rent area, providing a local shopping container where residents can walk and weigh what they need.

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