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Containers boost Soweto's economy
Thomas Thale

30 August 2004

When Matshidiso Dlepu was retrenched from her job as a nurse in 1997 and her husband, Themba, was fired shortly thereafter, the future looked bleak for the Dobsonville family.

Desperate, the family looked for ways to contain their grief, and, seven years later, as thriving entrepreneurs, they have plenty of proud products from the container which did allay their bad fortune.

The Dlepu family now operates a popular restaurant from a modified ship container on their premises in Dobsonville.

What makes a container such a convenient business site, says Matshidiso, is that it cuts overheads. "There is no need to get land, all you need is a convenient space. It is difficult to find a business site here. The container is secure, portable and can easily be modified."

Ship containers have become part of the Soweto landscape, spawning specialised companies like Containerworld, TD Nixon, Container Conversions, Container Deals and many more. Many of these companies provide customised conversions, turning containers into office space, banks, clinics, accommodation, kitchens, storage, transport space, classrooms, ablution facilities, refrigerators and, of course, retail outlets.

"I regret ever working as a nurse," says Matshidiso, whose grocery and food business now generates a turnover of between R50 000 and R60 000 per month, enough for the family to subsist on, even helping take her daughter to medical school. "We live decently. Our children go to schools in Florida and my daughter is pursuing her studies at Medunsa."

Besides the success contributed by the container, what sets Matshidiso's restaurant apart, she says, is her special bread roll menu. "I don't use your regular hot dog roll," she explains. "I worked with the baker on my foot-long roll for over three months and it has become popular with patrons."

Indeed, Matshidiso's chip roll has become a subject of township legend in Dobsonville. Much longer than normal and served with foodstuff that add flavour, the roll is the cash cow of the business.

Now, following on the success of her chip roll, she has invented other culinary delights, such as the popular Russian Delight, "a toasted roll served with russian, cheese, lettuce, bacon and sauces", she explains, and a dagwood, "a beef burger with bacon, chips, egg, double cheese, inside four slices of bread".

She also serves chicken, fish and steak rolls. "Everything you get in a restaurant or hotel," she adds. With prices ranging from R8 to R11, Matshidiso's rolls are targeted at the upper end of the township food market, where the average meal costs an average of R4.

Matshidiso's container business is just one of the many such enterprises that have mushroomed around Soweto in recent years. In Soweto, other businesses which are run from containers include tuck shops, tyre repair centres, public telephones and fast-food chicken outlets.

In fact, containers have become so popular that even major corporates now use them to reach clients in outlying areas. First National Bank is currently working on plans to extend banking to under-serviced parts of the country using containers.

Oscar Zomero, project manager of ID technologies which has been contracted to design container banks by the bank, says eight of these have already been installed around the country. "The containers are specially designed for people who do not have access to banking facilities in their areas. They have two ATM machines inside, counters for two tellers and space for two help desks."

All three South African cellphone companies, Cell C, MTN and Vodacom, rent out containers to public phone operators. Carioca, the spiced chicken franchise, has also become a popular container brand.

To cite just one example, under its Community Service Telephones scheme launched in 1995, Vodacom has distributed 3 787 containers nationally, 1 000 of which are in Gauteng, says Mthobi Tyamzashe, Vodacom's group executive for corporate affairs.

"The containers remain the property of Vodacom and are lent to community phone operators who have bought at least five phone lines for purposes of doing business," explains Tyamzashe. These phones have not only increased access to telecommunications services in townships and in rural areas, but they have also created jobs, adds Tyamzashe.

According to Tyamzashe, Vodacom settled for containers because they are accessible, secure and can easily be modified. "We strive to brand these containers to add some flavour and increase the visibility of the phone centres," says Tyamzashe.

In an area with a high rate of unemployment, containers have come as a welcome relief for budding entrepreneurs - but the Dlepu family were beginning to feel contained by limited success. They recently opened a second operation in a different part of Dobsonville, and their business continues its phenomenal growth. "I need a bigger place. This container is very small now," says Matshidiso.

Source: City of Johannesburg website

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