FOR years, an elderly Agnes Bonzo was forced to spend hours waiting at a local clinic for her medication, wasting valuable time away from her sewing and street-trading stall. But an innovative idea by a 21-year-old fellow Khayelitsha resident to deliver medication to community members by bicycle has changed all that. Now Bonzo can carry on working and making an income uninterrupted.
The young man behind it all is Sizwe Nzima, who earlier this year was named by US business magazine Forbes as one of 30 Africans — including seven South Africans — younger than 30 who are having an effect across the continent. Nzima started Iyeza Express in October last year, after attending a six-month entrepreneurship course with the Raymond Ackerman Academy in Cape Town.
It is an apt name for his business — in Xhosa, Iyeza translates to both "it is coming", as well as "medication". He delivers to more than 200 clients across the township, performing a valuable service to many such as Bonzo.
Just two years ago, Nzima had his sights set on a legal career. After doing a legal assistance course at a Boston City college in Cape Town, he began looking for work. During this time, while waiting tables, he heard about the academy from a friend. His initial application was unsuccessful, but he applied again and entered at the beginning of last year.
The idea of delivering medication by bike came to him during an innovation lecture, when he and classmates were asked to generate ideas from newspaper stories to solve everyday problems. One particular story got him thinking. It detailed how the large increase of chronic patients at hospitals in the country had led to long queues. Nzima knew all about waiting long hours in queues. For a number of years, he had been getting up early to collect medication for his grandparents from a nearby clinic.
An academy lecturer encouraged him come up with a solution to the problem and that is when he hit on the idea of using bicycles to deliver medication to community members. But in the beginning, when he would arrive to collect medication for five or more people, clinic officials were suspicious, believing he was taking it to sell somewhere.
They made him produce customers’ identity numbers and names to prove that he was delivering and not selling their medication.
"Sometimes I got chased out of the hospital because I didn’t have the permission," Sizwe says. But word of mouth quickly spread about his service and clinic officials were approached by people inquiring about a young man delivering medication. When his name began appearing in newspaper stories, the clinic officials began to take him more seriously.
Nzima says the medication is packed by the clinic but he and his co-workers still double-check packages to ensure they go to the right customer.
Along the way, Nzima was encouraged by the experiences of fellow Khayelitsha entrepreneur Luvuyo Rani, who he spent time with as part of the academy course. Rani runs Silulo Ulutho, a successful internet café and computer training company and Nzima still recalls some of the advice he gave him. "The first thing he always said was wherever you come from does not actually determine where you go."
Rani also warned him that many might shake their heads at his idea to deliver medication in the township; the former teacher himself had to overcome suspicions from community members, who believed he was stealing computers when they saw him unloading second-hand PCs from his car boot.
Today Nzima has a team of five on bikes. He works with two clinics, but is in talks with the district health department in a bid to expand the system in all three hospitals and six clinics in Khayelitsha.
He says he wants to start delivering antiretrovirals but acknowledges there may be issues of confidentiality attached to this. He is also looking at upgrading his bicycles to electric bikes or mopeds. If business takes off, he will need to hire plenty of cyclists to deliver medication.
"We’re trying to employ young people within the Khayelitsha area to deliver within their areas. They know the addresses, they know the streets names, the people in the area. Employment-wise, it’s very big, it could employ loads of people."
Though he is yet to turn a profit — he reckons he needs more than 1,500 clients before he can do that — Nzima is holding out, with the service gaining in popularity.
Surprisingly for the township entrepreneur, money has never been a problem — after all, he started off with nothing, most of the funds he needed to start up came to him through prize money or through large companies approaching him to pledge support: "One of the things that Mr (Raymond) Ackerman teaches us is that if you do good, money will be attracted to you."
Last year, Nzima used the R10,000 prize money he won from the academy as the best entrepreneurial student, to buy two bicycles. A further grant of R100,000 last year — from South African Breweries — helped him to buy a further five bicycles, as well as pay for branded uniforms, a laptop and cellphones and cover some repair costs.
He is using the remainder of the grant to develop a mass SMS system so his company can communicate with clients and also remind them of doctor’s appointments and deliveries.
He has also allocated some of the money to do surveys at hospitals and clinics in the area as a way to increase the business’s client base.
He has been able to benefit from a year’s free office space at Hubspace in the Harare area of Khayelitsha provided through an enterprise development initiative run by Cell C.
Along the way, luck has also gone his way. His grandmother worked as a maid for a doctor, who paid for his schooling, ensuring that he was able to go to a relatively good school — Harold Cressy High — the alma mater of Planning Minister Trevor Manuel. Despite this, it was not easy being a young entrepreneur, because business is often associated with older, rather than younger people.
"Especially in our culture, business is quite new. We’re used to the normal — you go to school, you go to university, you study and you work for somebody" — even his parents were at first sceptical when he told them he was starting his own business.
Nzima admits that reports about his wins and new venture have put him under pressure to ensure he grows his business, but he says this is a good thing.
"The pressure is really big, it’s on my shoulders, but I can manage it, because what I like is that it gives me that push."
The real test now for Nzima is whether he can develop what looks to be a life-saving shot in the arm for community health, into a profitable business.
This feature appeared in Business Day on 12 August 2013: http://www.bdlive.co.za/business/management/2013/08/12/cycling-to-ensure-a-communitys-health
Stephen Timm is a