Call it social empowerment, call it ‘spreading the love’, call it what you will – there is no doubt that what we are doing is changing lives

An article that appeared in Homecoming Revolution a while back.

Nicci Annette Yoga With Nicci (1)

Name: Nicci Cloete Annette

Age: 39

Home Country: South Africa

Country returned from: UK and USA

Years lived abroad: 10

Occupation: Marketing & Operations Manager for TRADE-MARK (www.trade-mark.co.za), a non-profit organisation that supports township tradesmen build up their own businesses and break through the barriers to financial independence; Owner and Yoga Instructor at Yoga With Nicci, a private yoga studio in Stellenbosch.

What made you decide to return home and start a business?

I only ever intended to leave South Africa for 2 years and so didn’t even bother applying for the ancestral visa that I qualified for, instead going straight for the working holiday visa. At the end of the two years however I wasn’t quite ready to go home yet as I realised there was so much more I wanted to see and do – plus the small matter of having met my now-husband from Northern Ireland. We got married a few years later and after 8 years in London, moved to the west coast of America where he had the opportunity to open an office for the UK-based software company he worked for.

By this time I was already yearning to return home but it seemed like too good an opportunity to miss out on and we spent two wonderful years out there, however when we were told by two independent medical specialists that we would never be able to have children on our own, we decided to try the IVF route and that South Africa was the right place to do it – from a financial perspective but more specifically because of the support back here from my family and our mutual friends. My husband had fallen in love with SA during our many trips back home and so it was with great excitement and a fair amount of trepidation that we returned early in 2008. As it turned out (and it seems like it often does work out this way), the moment we stopped focusing on me falling pregnant, it just happened naturally and so when we touched down at Cape Town International, I was almost 3 months pregnant, and we had not a job between us, no place to live, but a firm belief that we were in the right place, and that as uncertain as the future seemed, we trusted the process to unfold just as it should.

Another thing that appealed to both of us hugely and made us choose to settle in SA rather than return to the UK – aside from the obvious like the weather, lifestyle, social networks that we’d both built up here – is the way in which we’d seen our friends carve out real niches for themselves in the business world and seeing how they seemed to be managing to find a balance between work and play.  Unlike London where it seemed like almost everyone was ‘working for the man’, in South Africa we had friends who were doing their own thing – one running a successful flower export business, another his own design agency, another a play group for small kids and new mums, another her own architectural landscape company, and so on. There were others in more conventional jobs too of course, but these people also seemed to be finding a way to make a comfortable living whilst taking advantage of all that our incredible country has to offer.

Having spent hours commuting to and from work each day and knowing how ludicrously expensive childcare is the UK was also a major factor in our decision – we hoped that South Africa would offer us an opportunity to spend as much time as possible with our little ones, rather than having to work every hour of the day in order to finance a crèche for them to grow up in.

What company do you work for and what do you do there? If you are an entrepreneur, tell us about your business.

I have two part-time jobs: first and foremost, I work for a brilliant non-profit organisation called TRADE-MARK (www.trade-mark.co.za) which supports township tradesmen by helping them to market their businesses and ultimately to break through the barriers to financial independence.  As I currently only work part-time, this allows me to keep teaching yoga on the side at my yoga studio in Stellenbosch (my second job), but we are confident that we will shortly be receiving some more funding that will enable me and the founding director, Josh Cox, to both work fulltime for TRADE-MARK. The concept is Josh’s brainchild – his friend Simon, from the township of Diepsloot, was struggling to secure regular work despite being an expert tiler. By providing Simon with business cards and a written reference, he was suddenly able to secure contracts of up to R30 000. It became clear that with added credibility and a few marketing resources, high-quality tradesmen from the townships were able to secure significantly more business.  I met Josh when I worked at WWF South Africa when I first arrived back in SA, and from the first day he told me about what he envisaged for TRADE-MARK, I was hooked. He went about making it a reality and after having my two (miracle) children and qualifying as a yoga teacher, when Josh approached me to come on board I leapt at the opportunity.

My job entails helping to hand-pick the best township tradesmen: individuals with initiative and drive, who communicate well and already have experience in dealing with customers, and then helping them to market themselves sufficiently to secure on-going work and to keep growing their businesses.

In terms of setting up my own yoga business, I was extremely fortunate in that my parents allowed me to use a space at their home which lent itself perfectly to being transformed into a yoga studio, which meant that I didn’t have the burden of paying rent when first starting out as a teacher. Initial outlays financially included transforming the space into a studio and paying for a website, and it was slow going at the beginning to get people through the studio doors, but what with regular blogging and use of social media to get my website picked up by the search engines, I now have a regular stream of students and as of a year ago, have a second teacher offering classes at the studio. You’ll never get rich as a yoga teacher, but it’s hugely rewarding, I love what I do, and it’s something that I hope to continue doing on the side line for as many years as I’m able, as we continue to grow TRADE-MARK.

What’s the hardest bit about doing business in SA?

I found it quite an adjustment initially upon returning in terms of the speed at which things happen. I used to work in the murky world of recruitment in London where it was 1000km an hour, with very little pause for breath. I used to find it frustrating (and still do sometimes) at how much slower things can seem to happen here, not just in terms of the pace at which things get turned around but also technically and logistically: the comparatively slow speed of the Internet and even the erratic electricity supply when we first arrived back could really make it challenging to get a full day’s work done at times.

Another thing that I find very hard is to be confronted on a daily basis with the shocking prejudices that still exist in South Africa, and the stark disparity between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have not’s’.

What’s the easiest bit?

Switching off the computer, stepping outside into the magnificent Africa sunshine, taking a deep breath and giving thanks for being able to call such a stunning part of the world ‘home’. I also love the fact that it’s a lot less formal than the UK dress-wise – what a pleasure to be able to work in an office where people are wearing plakkies and jeans rather than the obligatory black suit! 

What advice would you give someone who is thinking of returning home and starting a business / finding work?

Do your homework – research what business opportunities exist in your area of expertise, chat to people here who are doing something similar about what they have learnt, what they’ve done right and wrong, and what they’d do differently.  Also, really check out the cost of living here – we did our homework in this regard and even so have found that it’s significantly more expensive than we anticipated. It’s also worth bearing in mind that the turn-around in securing a job is possibly going to be slower than you may envisage, and if your partner isn’t from here, make sure you’ve got all their paperwork in order before you come back – and pay for professional help with anything bureaucratic if you can afford it – tax, immigration etc.

How are you making a difference back in your home country?

At the risk of sounding clichéd and twee, it’s an absolute privilege to be back in South Africa, using the skills I’ve gained along the way to help to uplift people from my community who’ve not had the same opportunities granted to me. It’s not rocket science and I am so aware that what we are doing is just a drop in the ocean, but basic things like using my experience of sales and marketing to help to pull jobs for our tradesmen, or like simply having access to the Internet, a printer and a car to help the guys put together and deliver professional quotes – these things are making a massive and tangible difference to the small group of tradesmen that we work with, as well as their extended families.  Call it social empowerment, call it ‘spreading the love’, call it what you will – there is no doubt that what we are doing is not only improving the individual tradesmen’s financial situations, but giving them hope for the future. We are so excited about what lies ahead for the organisation and about our imminent funding coming through – and this all feeds into the communities that the guys come from, creating ripples of hope, positivity and garnering a can-do attitude.

What is your opinion on what the Homecoming Revolution is doing?

Helping to reverse the brain drain by encouraging South Africans to tell their stories about coming home in an honest and non-biased way – although if you are truly and proudly South African, you will always be a little bit biased about all that this beautiful country has to offer.

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