There are networks springing up within entrepreneurial communities at grassroots level in South Africa where entrepreneurs are organising themselves into peer-to-peer learning groups, mobilising for resources and opportunities to learn.

Mr Louis Janse van Rensburg, an Entrepreneur Development Specialist, was sharing this insight into what he refers to as “disconnected entrepreneurs” at the annual Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education (EDHE) Lekgotla 2022. Hosted by Nelson Mandela University, the event was held in Gqeberha, Eastern Cape from 19 to 21 July.

“We would go into Diepsloot (a densely populated township on the northern edge of Johannesburg with a large informal settlement section) and we would see groups of entrepreneurs huddled around a cellphone watching videos of Elon Musk or other entrepreneurs telling their stories, and then having conversations around that,” said Janse van Rensburg.

“We would go to Gugulethu (a Cape Town township) and meet with groups of entrepreneurs who host their own events. And those networking opportunities are then seen as learning opportunities.”

Janse van Rensburg (left), who presented his talk virtually, is CEO of Heavy Chef Foundation, the non-profit arm of the entrepreneur learning platform, Heavy Chef, and he regards it as “part of our mission to see how we can empower and improve those grassroots learning networks”. The foundation’s mission is “to research and connect entrepreneurs with programmes of social impact designed around the learning bites, partnerships and resources at our disposal”.

One of the EDHE Lekgotla’s roles is to showcase entrepreneurial best practices such as the foundation’s. Janse van Rensburg spoke about their entrepreneurial activities at grassroots level, and the insights they have gained into their development needs and challenges, which is all part of the organisation’s mission — to make entrepreneurship education accessible.

Why the name “Heavy Chef”?

Heavy Chef was started about 14 years ago. It comes from the saying “never trust a skinny chef”. The choice of the name was inspired from its acknowledged weakness at a time when they tried to sell a client something they didn’t apply in their own business, and he responded: “You’re not eating your own food. I never trust a skinny chef”.

From a small initiative, Heavy Chef has “grown into one of the most trusted education brands within the entrepreneurial community”, he said. All the company’s learning resources on its platform are available for free to individuals they refer to as “disconnected entrepreneurs”. They just must apply but, as the foundation’s website states: “All applications are approved. No questions asked”.

What are disconnected entrepreneurs?

He said Heavy Chef describes entrepreneurs as “disconnected” more than “disadvantaged” because “disconnected for us sharpens the problem that needs to be solved: there’s a disconnect in terms of access to resources, there’s a disconnect in terms of the perceptions that entrepreneurs have, there’s a disconnect in terms of actual support they get, there’s a disconnect in terms of so many aspects of entrepreneur life”.

He said the foundation, which has the tagline We connect disconnected entrepreneurs, has surveyed about 6000 entrepreneurs and interviewed about 400. “And we sit on a dataset of topics around entrepreneur development that is currently the largest in South Africa,” he said.

Using role models to inspire

The organisation has interviewed what it refers to as “heavy chefs”. They are “not entrepreneurs in the strictest definition of things but can speak about grit and motivation and leadership,” said Janse van Rensburg. They include sports stars such as cricketer Francois “Faf” du Plessis and rugby player Siya Kolisi.

They invite them into their studio for about three hours, ask them lots of questions about topics of interest to entrepreneurs, and edit their responses into two-to-three-minute videos of learning bites on specific questions. These “recipes”, as they refer to them, are available on their platforms as learning content.

The entrepreneurial community is diverse in unexpected ways

Janse van Rensburg said they have interacted with about 40 000 entrepreneurs across all sectors, and one of the things they have come to know about the entrepreneurial community in South Africa is that it is very diverse.

“And I don’t mean in terms of race and gender. What I mean is, if you go to, say Polokwane (in Limpopo) or Khayelitsha (in the Western Cape), the idiosyncrasies, the needs, the cultures, the language, the values, all of them are vastly different. Although they share a lot of common challenges, that’s only one part of the story,” he said.

What people gain from entrepreneurship even if they fail

He said they believe grassroots entrepreneurial communities “are the facilitators of bottom-up change in the country.” He said “going through the toughest process of your life to build something from scratch and try and make it successful though that’s hardly guaranteed”, was a source of dignity and meaning for many people, even if the failure rates are high.

Heavy Chef’s insights

Janse van Rensburg then shared what Heavy Chef had learnt from entrepreneurs about their development needs, learning habits and challenges. These insights included:

  • The entrepreneur journey is quite lonely; there is a desperate need for connection and for networking;
  • 78% of entrepreneurs in South Africa say they were self-taught, by reading books, watching videos, and observing their environments;
  • 64% say other entrepreneurs contributed the most to their development, so peer-to-peer learning is their preferred method of learning;
  • 71% say they engage better with small formats of information such as bite-sized video content, something relevant to all ages and not only the perceived young Instagram and TikTok generation, because entrepreneurs want to spend most of their time on their business;
  • The aesthetics of the educational content being presented is important – otherwise they feel it doesn’t make sense and they cannot connect to it;
  • Entrepreneurs have minimal and erratic time available for learning, so they want to do it in gaps – between meetings or lying in bed at 2am when they don’t have emails to answer – rather than in daily or week-long programmes that take them away from generating revenue;
  • 76% of entrepreneurs nationwide say there are no entrepreneurial programmes in their community, and this improves only slightly in urban areas;
  • 79% say they have no entrepreneurial mentor; and
  • Entrepreneurs are looking for content that connects with them and is relevant to their lived experiences – they say they don’t want to watch videos and read books by the likes of Patrice Motsepe (leading South African businessman and President of the Confederation of African Football), Elon Musk (South African-born American business owner of companies such as Tesla and SpaceX) or Jeff Bezos (former president of Amazon) but would prefer stories from people within their community such as the small shop owner they have known for 20 years.

Learning from higher education institutions

The Heavy Chef Foundation aims to increase the quality and depth of the data on entrepreneurial development needs. A big part of that is being “privy to the data that’s already out there but is not necessarily communicated back to the community in compelling ways”, said Janse van Rensburg.

Professor Natanya Meyer of the University of Johannesburg had mentioned at the EDHE Lekgotla 2022 that universities are a treasure trove of insights and research about entrepreneurship. It is not being communicated to entrepreneurs at grassroots and his organisation needed to look at these academic papers and take some of their learnings back to communities.

They could also learn from formal education institutions how to validate and incentivise learning.

We all need to empower local entrepreneurs

His foundation had designed an ambassador programme in the Lesedi municipality in Heidelberg. They had identified leaders in Ratanda township and empowered them with the tools to go back to their communities and organise learning opportunities and host events, using Heavy Chef’s platform but also accessing resources outside of its network.

“The goal and the action we all need to take and focus on, is to empower local entrepreneurs and leaders to activate development support for their own communities,” said Janse van Rensburg.

Gillian Anstey is a contract writer for Universities South Africa

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