#10Q: Khethi Ngwenya on reinvention during crises

Khethi Ngwenya, CEO of SchoolMedia, explored other business ventures under lockdown after much of his business was unable to operate.

Khethi Ngwenya has been an entrepreneur since he was a teenager, becoming CEO of the Soweto Business Chamber’s Young Entrepreneurs of Soweto Organisation at the tender age of 17. He is best known as the CEO of SchoolMedia, a marketing agency established in 2010 to introduce brands to untapped markets and enhance learning for scholars. SchoolMedia has a database of schools with access to over 6.2 million learners and 190 000 teachers. While schools have been closed, most of Ngwenya’s business was unable to operate, leading him to explore other ventures under lockdown, including importing personal protection equipment (PPE). Most recently he launched GEZA, an elegant and functional sanitising station engineered and made in South Africa.

1. How has business changed for you post-Covid?

We have found ourselves diversifying as a business to accommodate the current situation with our skills and knowledge. When it comes to cutting costs in any negative situation, marketing can be one of the first things that organisations cut out: business has changed for us in the sense that schools have been closed and we had organised for advertisers to use schools as advertising platforms; so that business didn’t happen during this time. We also had to lay off over 30 employees in the distribution department.

2. As an entrepreneur, how have you operated under lockdown?

When COVID-19 started, I was in China looking into various developments within digital marketing and education. They announced a lockdown in the city that I was in and I took the first flight to Johannesburg the following day. When I got back to South Africa, things were normal. I kept in contact with my fellow global shapers, analysing the situation in both parts of the world. The first thing that I did when the lockdown was announced in South Africa, was to order surgical masks and thermometers from China. We then as a business, applied for a permit to operate.

3. Tell us more about your survival strategy?

I was out of masks and the borders had been closed so there was a struggle getting goods in South Africa. Things had changed drastically in a matter of days. I approached 50% of our clients to see if we could do any awareness marketing and they told us that it was not possible. Champion South Africa accepted our offer to brand and sell their winter clothes online. We managed to start an online pop up store for the brand, offering winter clothes and masks. I also approached a friend of mine to develop what we today call the GEZA (meaning ‘wash’ in Isizulu) sanitising station. This is a 4-litre foot pump sanitiser dispenser that does not use a sanitiser bottle. The liquid is dispensed directly into the unit, so there is no need for nozzles and spray bottle. The unit is free-standing, enabling flexibility and placement. It uses sanitisers or liquid soap of any brand and is perfect for corporates, schools, retail stores and public transport stations.

4. How do brands need to transform post-Covid to reach consumers?

The biggest thing is honesty and getting straight to the point. Consumers do not want to be bombarded with information; they want a brief story on what they are consuming. Brands can no longer use the same traditional ways of marketing with limited funds. Informing consumers also shows that brands care about them – which people want to feel when purchasing goods. Everyone thinks that online shopping is the only way to go, which is not necessarily true as some of the South African population still wants to purchase items physically.

5. How will your consumer base, scholars’, needs change?

They will have to prioritise health and personal self-development over entertainment. The current laws that we are living under really restrict young people from doing a lot, so they will have to start learning to adapt to the new ‘normal’ and maybe for the first time, enjoy reading books.

6. What can brands do to reach out to the most vulnerable?

Brands will also need to get out of their comfort zone, to accommodate the vulnerable. They can reach out by volunteering their services, products and solutions at discounted prices, if not for free. I believe that assisting and supporting their consumers now means you will have loyal consumers forever.

7. What is your key learning post-Covid?

Things can change overnight, so you always have to be ready to move with the current times. We have seen many organisations close during this time. Being proactive has saved our brand. Looking at new branding platforms and being ready in time, has and will enable us to survive the storm.

8. What has been your biggest challenge?

Getting goods into South Africa; accepting the current situation; starting a new service and product offering; and accessing the market.

9. How do you keep yourself motivated?

I am always looking at the bigger picture and not what I am affected by today. I have never failed since the day I left school; I have only learnt.

10. What is your superpower?

Being proactive, as I do not wait for the right time; I make things happen now! I may be someone that wants things to be done immediately, but I am also very patient.


– Receive the Retailing Africa newsletter every Monday and Thursday • Subscribe here

– Take advantage of Retailing Africa’s ‘Pay-what-you-can’ business support package • Read more