Gone are the days when the mothers of newborn babies had to travel to the city to buy baby essentials. A savvy woman from Khayelitsha has launched the township’s first affordable baby clothing shop.
Zandile Tlhapi, 33, quit her job as a boilermaker at shipbuilder Nautic Africa in Paarden Eiland and opened Baby Friendly in June 2018. The retail outlet’s slogan is, “Your quality, affordable baby essential shop.”
Explaining how the slogan came about, Tlhapi says: “It means that even though we are poor, we deserve quality products. And that is where Baby Friendly comes in. Prices are affordable here.”
Tlhapi says the idea came to her when she was eight months pregnant with her second child in 2016. “I thought it would be nicer to buy baby clothes close by than having to go to town and big malls.”
Two years later, this effervescent woman who evidently possesses business acumen converted the family’s spare room in Makhaya, Khayelitsha, into a shop and started selling babygrows, vests, camp cots, blankets and walking rings.
Today, Baby Friendly has a range of baby clothes for ages 0 to 24 months and two to 12 years old hanging on makeshift rails in the spare room. It also sells toys and colouring books.
There are two sets of drawers in which Tlhapi keeps children’s clothes that she collects to donate when disaster strikes. “What I noticed is that no one thinks about children when there is a disaster. You often hear people asking, ‘How many blankets needed? How much food parcels should we bring?’ Bear in mind that there is no mention of baby food. It’s all about samp, rice, mielie meal, etc,” she says.
Tlhapi says the idea was to open a hiring business for the items. “I know these items are needed when the baby is still growing. But once the child is older, they become useless. My idea was to let parents hire them when they are needed and bring them back when the child is old enough to walk.”
Makhaya is sandwiched between Town Two and Makhaza at the edge of Khayelitsha, the second-biggest township in the country after Soweto.
Khayelitsha, named for the Xhosa word meaning “new home”, was established in 1983 to accommodate residents in shack settlements on the Cape Flats. The majority of its residents came from Old Crossroads to escape the violence wrought by the Witdoeke, a notorious vigilante group.
The township has an estimated population of more than one million. According to the 2011 census, it had about 400 000 residents, but the settlement is expanding and most of the residents live in poverty.
Before Tlhapi embarked on her entrepreneurship journey, she faced the challenge of knowing what kind of clothes mothers would buy. “I did a survey on Facebook. I also spoke to friends, and that was helpful,” she says.
The untapped market is significant as many living in the area have to travel to other areas to buy baby clothes. Not only are the clothes expensive but there is also the cost of public transport to factor in as well as the exposure to opportunistic criminals when carrying the items home.
Sandiswa Dumani, a customer and friend, says Tlhapi is a self-motivated go-getter who gets things done. She says Tlhapi’s shop is convenient for mothers who live in the area. “Even when people are planning baby showers for pregnant women, they come to Zandi. She organises whatever is needed. She knows what people want. Most mothers no longer go to towns for babies’ clothes. They are aware of Zandi’s shop.”
Setting up shop wasn’t all smooth sailing though. “I went to the National Youth Development Agency for support and to get help on how to register my idea in 2017. I went through a long registration process. I was told that the baby clothes shop could not work in Khayelitsha,” she says.
Tlhapi finally got a breakthrough in February 2018: “My business was registered.”
While researching her next steps, she found out about an organisation called Clothing Bank that supports women from disadvantaged backgrounds. “There [at Clothing Bank] they teach us bookkeeping, accounting and business administration. They also teach us how to draft a proposal.”
Small steps, big plans
Like a baby, Baby Friendly is still taking little steps. “I buy what I get, not what my customers want. That is the challenge. That is why I have limited stock,” says Tlhapi.
Now that she is a member of Clothing Bank, Tlhapi is determined that Baby Friendly will soon become a fully fledged business.
She continues to fine-tune her business skills in an effort to become a recognised entity in the baby clothes market. “I have just been recently enrolled with the Youth in Business. It is for the people who want to integrate business with technology. The knowledge I will gain there will come in handy. Social media is big these days. There is no way that your business can succeed if it has no social media visibility. People order online these days,” says Tlhapi.
She came out on top at the Engen Pitch and Polish entrepreneurship competition in August 2019, where she was crowned the provincial winner and went on to compete with other businesses from around the country in Johannesburg a month later. The competition is designed to help entrepreneurs learn to pitch their business ideas to potential funders.
“Winning the competition was the cherry on top, because I already learned a lot by just being part of it.”
Thlapi says Baby Friendly was an opportunity to do something different from the businesses you normally find in townships. She says if townships deserve good things that are different, it should start with residents. “The support I have been getting from the community has been amazing because people buy from my shop,” she says.
Tlhapi hopes to open her own factory soon. She wants to manufacture the clothes she sells in the area and create employment for others living in Khayelitsha.