Two sisters battling the odds

Kitso, Chinna and an associate at their stall
Kitso, Chinna and an associate at their stall

As local women mark Women’s Month, Mmegi’s Gantsi Correspondent, LEINANYANA TSIANE, reports on the lives of two sisters who pioneered the street vendor business in the remote village 20 years ago. Today, the two are reaping the fruits of their efforts

Patience pays and the two women from Tutume in the North East are testimony to that. Kitso and Chinna Phale were among the pioneers of the street vendor business in Gantsi, setting up a stall under a tree near the Post Office in 1995. The duo decided to move from Francistown and settle in Gantsi due to the ‘dog-eat-dog’ competition among vendors in the second city.

Gantsi presented a land of promise in a world devoid of formal employment. “By then Gantsi was not as developed as you see today. There were no taxis to carry our goods from home and it was a real struggle,” recalls Kitso.

In the first years, the duo bought and re-sold sweets, cigarettes, dried morogo, fruit, body lotions and perfumes. Later, as the business caught on, the sisters expanded to clothing items such as shoes and jackets.

By the time the cellphone revolution of the late 1990s reached Gantsi, the Phale’s were well-positioned to tap into the opportunities brought by the new technology. The sisters began selling airtime and discovered the joys that the new business brings in terms of increasing customer traffic.

Over the years, the business has grown in leaps and bounds and the two sisters have been able to build themselves houses in Tutume. Chinna has bought herself a car and the duo uses it in the business.

The sisters have also separated their business, each selling different goods, but operating from the same stall at the Old Mall in Gantsi.

A typical business day for the pair begins at 8am and depending on the season, the sisters trade until 6pm.  The sisters encounter all types of characters during the workday, accentuating both the joys and difficulties of dealing with members of the public.

There is the irate customer who entered the wrong number of the ‘nzamela’ service and wants either their money back or more airtime sent to the correct number. At month-end, intoxicated customers who take items and refuse to pay are common.

“When they refuse to pay, we leave them because we don’t want any trouble,” says Chinna, with a shrug.

Month-end is also the duo’s busiest period as their clients are mostly out of town students and people from rural areas who do their shopping on a monthly basis.  But there are also the troublesome debtors. The Phale sisters buy the clothes they sell from Johannesburg while the leteisi print clothing is purchased and designed in Francistown. The sisters also sell school uniforms, school jerseys and shoes.

“We sometimes take orders from customers but our worst enemy is those debtors who take time to pay and those who refuse to pay for the goods they have taken on credit,” Kitso explains.

The time spent with both Kitso and Chinna was a marvel just to observe what really happens at the stall on a day-to-day basis.

The years in Gantsi have been good to the Phales but not everything in the future is rosy.

The village has witnessed an influx of vendors in recent years and margins are becoming tighter and tighter with the increased competition.

“We are way too many in this business and we no longer make as much money as we used to. It’s all about struggling and perseverance.

“Last month was a really bad one for us. The Presidents’ Day holidays and the Gantsi Show drained people’s pockets,” Chinna says.

A possible profit avenue for the future could lie in purchasing a sewing machine and increasing the clothing side of the business. The sisters are appealing for government assistance in this regard.

“Right now we want to start our sewing business, but we do not have enough money and we are appealing to our government to assist us,” Kitso says.

Asking for government help indicates the sisters’ concerns about the future, as their general credo is that Batswana should wean themselves off the state and stand for themselves.

As the day winds down, the sisters become philosophical and share their most treasured advice.

They both echo that patience is a virtue.

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