Business Maverick

Opinionista

Introducing Qwili — a spaza shop in your pocket and an accelerator of youth employment

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Youth Month in June is when we celebrate the potential and resilience of our young people. This past Youth Month, we continued to beat the drum of inclusion while emphasising that inclusion and growth did not have to be at odds. In fact, all our experience and evidence suggest that inclusion makes business, economic and social sense.

Timothy Maluleke, a 29-year-old man from Pimville, Soweto, is a prime example of why betting on youth can have a multiplier impact and drive shared growth and prosperity. Malulek first joined the SA Youth Network to be a teaching assistant at the Katlehong Engineering School of Specialisation, which has a 99% pass rate and an applied curriculum that future proofs its students.  

Maluleke signed up to sayouth.mobi in the Department of Basic Education’s teaching assistant drive, part of the highly successful Presidential Employment Stimulus, which created more than one million opportunities for young and economically excluded people in South Africa, at the height of the pandemic and beyond.  

He was involved in the programme for 12 months after his initial six-month tenure was extended. After the programme ended, Maluleke discovered an opportunity to make his own money on sayouth.mobi by selling goods using a digital app called Qwili. The app provides young people with a “spaza shop on your mobile”, allowing them to sell goods and value-added services such as electricity and DStv subscriptions.

Maluleke quickly became a top earner, selling R55,000 worth of goods and services in three months. In addition to his sales on Qwili, he also started making achar, which he sells as an off-platform product to his Qwili customers, intuitively building his customer base with innovative tactics. But he didn’t stop there.

His teaching assistant colleague Charmaine, a 28-year-old mother, also needed the extra cash, so he introduced her to Qwili. With her baby, Charmaine came to Harambee’s offices for Qwili onboarding training. Charmaine perfectly illustrates the barriers many millions of young women face in finding work. Harambee’s team quickly ensured that she could take advantage of the opportunity and provided the first introduction to Qwili’s earning model.

Armed with some skills, the Qwili app, and instructions on how to sell products, Charmaine started her Qwili sales journey. Soon, like Maluleke, she earned upwards of R60,000 in sales in three months from her home, while caring for her young baby. And businesses like Qwili have benefited from their drive.

An exponential impact

Maluleke is now enrolled in a short-term certificate qualification course and renting a room in the township where most of his customers are based, both of which he pays for using the money he makes for himself. Charmaine supports her baby independently and plays a significant role in her community as a provider of affordable goods through her Qwili business. 

Maluleke and Charmaine demonstrate the power of first-work experiences and pathway management. If done right and coupled with skills, networks and ongoing support, the impact can be exponential. And it makes business sense.

We often encourage South Africa’s young people to become more entrepreneurial in the face of a shrinking job market. But the reality is a lot harder, and the barriers are immense. Young people have limited insight into market dynamics, not to mention a lack of start-up capital and affordable premises.

Harambee’s data from 2021-2022 suggest that self-employed people engage in innovative ways to make their own money, but are at the mercy of limited information about market dynamics. The result has been low incomes of R700 per month and significant variation between activities. Typically, the selling of goods is significantly less profitable than providing services. Women also typically earned substantially less than their male counterparts.

Organisations such as Qwili are great examples of partners that make it easier for young people to make money without taking unnecessary risks. Qwili enables the digitally excluded and unbanked to deliver goods with greater convenience, particularly in formerly offline communities. Since our partnership began, we have pathwayed nearly 250 young people into this type of earning opportunity, with combined sales made in excess of R1.2-million. Qwili has more than 220,000 customers in South Africa, processes more than 6,600 daily transactions, and has more than 4,800 sales agents in many of South Africa’s townships.

And finally, work experience in a job-poor economy is too important to leave to the private sector alone. In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis and the pandemic, inclusive job-search platforms, public employment programmes and well-implemented social protection programmes serve a very clear purpose.

If well run, these programmes can support job-seeking and stimulate engagement even when there are not enough jobs to go round, particularly for the most excluded. Our own data suggest higher engagement during the job search itself is half the battle won and can dramatically improve placement success.

These programmes can reduce the risks and costs of job-searching, provide young people with something purposeful to do, and keep them engaged and networked in a labour market that doesn’t otherwise hold promise. We’ve seen that effective use of public funds in this way can actually stimulate job search and enterprise activity — just as in the case of Maluleke and Charmaine.

Young people need neither our praise nor our sympathy for their resilience. And we must not continue to demand more resilience from our young people than we do from the systems that fail them. Rather, we need more organisations, institutions and collectives to make systemic bets on their inclusion, for they are already the agents of change that our society and economy need. DM

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