Business Maverick: Defying the lockdown blues to give small businesses a voice

Journalist Moipone Malefane has taken the plunge to launch a website for SMMEs.

First published in Daily Maverick 168.

For news that a small business can use: A new business website, aimed at small, medium and micro enterprises, has been launched to give an underserved market a voice.

Vutivi Business News, under the stewardship of veteran journalist Moipone Malefane, focuses on the agricultural and tourism sectors, while providing advice to those hoping to start new businesses.

For Malefane, the increase in media consumption during lockdown, when most people stayed home, meant it was time to take the plunge to start a venture that has been percolating in her mind for four years.

“Around 2016 I started thinking about other things I could do besides writing about politics and what I can do that will make a difference,” she explained.

Since Malefane started to think seriously about starting a business, and because her heart has “always been in the media space”, a business website felt like a natural fit. She has served as general secretary of the South African National Editors’ Forum (Sanef) and worked as a political journalist on a number of newspapers.

On 1 October 2020, she launched a news website aimed at small businesses. Vutivi Business News features local small businesses and reports on how policies such as the Gauteng Township Economic Development Bill will affect them. Explaining how she came up with the website’s name, Malefane said she wanted it to convey her intentions for the platform: information-sharing.

“I’m Sotho, so I was looking for words in different languages until a friend helped me,” said Malefane.

A friend “pointed out that this business is about giving small business owners knowledge, it’s about teaching them what’s possible and what they can do”, Malefane explained.

When someone suggested Vutivi, which means knowledge in Xitsonga, she liked the way it sounded. Malefane wanted to create a platform that focuses on small, medium and micro enterprises (SMMEs) because she believed many of these operations suffered from a dearth of easily accessible information.

“There are some cool businesses in rural and urban areas but there aren’t enough places for them to access this kind of information,” she said.

In 2018 the Small Business Institute said there were 250,000 registered small businesses in the country, and the Small Enterprise Development Agency reported that about six million people work for SMMEs.

The Vutivi site, which provides free content and employs two journalists, aims to tell impactful stories for small businesses.

Despite Covid-related job losses and a recessionary economy, Malefane is not deterred because she believes the pandemic means online media will thrive. “Not many people are going out to buy newspapers.”

A research report from Sanef on Covid-19’s impact on the media found that traffic to South African news websites increased 72% in March, the month when the lockdown began. Many websites saw double-digit growth in audience numbers as people were hungry for credible news, the report said.

Vutivi Business News couldn’t have come at a better time. The hard lockdown forced many businesses to fold, and a survey by 22 on Sloane, Africa’s largest startup campus, estimated that 55,000 SMMEs would not survive the pandemic.

Malefane, who’s been a journalist for two decades, said one of the challenges of switching from being a journalist to being the founder of a business is that you need to pick up other skills such as administration. “I’m happy and I’m learning every day.”

Her project is still in its infancy, but Malefane is pleased with the progress.  “The platform has been welcomed quite well by people in the industry. It also feels good that business leaders have been affirming me and the work that I’m doing.”

The website, which Malefane has funded herself, is yet to attract advertising, but she is working on that. She is also applying for grants and is optimistic about getting funding.

Including multimedia content such as podcasts is her next goal: “People who I’ve featured come back and tell me that the website was able to get them more customers or help them get in touch with the relevant stakeholders,” she says. DM168

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By Business Maverick –

Karabo Mafolo