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Swim or Sink: Experiences of a self-employed Zimbabwean migrant in South Africa  

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DSTv installation Cape Town by Levy Foya a self-employed Zimbabwean migrant that emigrated to South Africa to develop his career as a Self Employed.

As Zimbabwe’s economy imploded, Levy was forced to emigrate to South Africa in 2000 in search of greener pastures. Armed with a Diploma in Public Relations, he was confident of getting a secure and well-paying job. However, like many other Zimbabwean migrants, Levy failed to get a formal job in his trade and was initially forced to do menial jobs and eventually, to set-up his own company, ComSys, which installs domestic satellite TV systems (DSTV). Through this personal testimony, Levy shares his experiences and motivations of setting up Comsys as well as his experiences as a self-employed migrant

The saying that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step holds true for most successfully self-employed entrepreneurs but moreso for self-employed migrants as Levy’s case vividly illustrates. After graduating from college 1998, Levy was forced by the lack of job opportunities to emigrate to South Africa (Cape Town) in 2000. However, having settled in South Africa, Levy faced huge challenges in getting a formal job:


“…when I came to South Africa, I had high hopes of getting a formal job since I am professionally well qualified. My hopes were, however, dashed because jobs were hard to find and almost all big companies asked for a work permit –which I did not have at the time –before they could engage me.”


As a result, Levy was forced to accept any menial jobs:


…I had no choice but to accept any job for survival – I worked in restaurants and construction; I cleaned homes as a gardener and I drove taxis. Because these jobs paid very little, my financial situation and livelihood situation remained dire. It was also very degrading and traumatising to accept menial jobs especially in view of my professional qualifications…”


Nonetheless, Levy persevered  and, as he said “…never allowed myself to let my failure to get a proper job kill my burning ambition to secure a sustainable livelihood …”  Indeed, his breakthrough came in 2005 when he secured employment with a company that installed domestic satellite TV (DSTV) systems. Although there was a marked improvement in his wages, Levy was still disillusioned:

“… the wages were still very low to allow me to drastically change my lifestyle and save for the future. There was also no job security because I was not employed on the basis of my qualifications as it was a job that anybody could do… because of this I resigned after five year.”


Having resigned from his work, Levy registered his own company: “I invested all my meagre savings into Comsys and became permanently self-employed … I now have three employees who assist me.”

Levy contends that his decision to become self-employed is a product of several push-pull factors. While the quest for personal development, job satisfaction and security as well as long-term financial security are critical factors that motivates most individuals to become self-employed, there are other unique factors that drive migrants like Levy to set up their own businesses. The most critical of these include:
According to Levy, his primary motivation for opting for self-employment as a career path was to create employment for himself in order to earn more money and rescue himself from drowning deeper into the poverty he thought he had escaped by emigrating. Through a powerful analogy, he states that:


“because most of the jobs I got ever since coming to South Africa paid very little to enable me to improve my lifestyle, I came to view myself as a sailor caught up in rough seas, I had to adapt, innovate and swim to safety or idly accept the situation and sink…I choose to create my own company and become self-employed in order to rescue myself from the poverty I faced as a migrant.”    


Thus, the creation of Comsys and becoming self-employed was an innovative strategy for sustainable employment creation and livelihood generation in an environment that lacked formal job opportunities.

Levy believes that the aberrant exploitation and lack of job security as a migrant worker drove him to become self-employed:


“…I used to believe that being employed means working for a big company. But that all changed when I started working here because most of the jobs that I did paid very little and even that little was not guaranteed as employers took advantage of our desperation. I was also paid considerably less than my South African workmates but I could not even dare to complain for fear of being fired … so without doubt these experiences of exploitation, discrimination and insecurity played a critical role in pushing me towards self-employment.”


Levy therefore views self-employment as a sustainable solution to job insecurity and labour exploitation and thus as a viable strategy of generating secure livelihoods and long-term financial security.

Like other migrants, Levy had limited formal job opportunities. As a result, he was forced to survive on the periphery of the mainstream economy. Accordingly, “being self-employed was the only feasible avenue for me to enter the formal economy and, by extension, earn enough money to transform my lifestyle.” 
In light of the fact that most of his jobs brought poor earnings, Levy argues that his choice of setting up a satellite TV installation company was also motivated by the low start-up and operation costs that the business entails:

“I started this company with about R50 000 because I only had to buy a small car, compound toolbox, ladder, wall scanner and satellite metre –all second-hand –while other items such as satellite dishes, cables and decoders, were supplied by the companies (Multichoice, Ellies/Elsat and OnAir TV) which sub-contracted me to do the installations…so it is important for migrants aspiring to be self-employed to choose a business with low start-up capital requirements as well as low operating costs since they cannot access bank loans and have to use their own savings.”    


From the foregoing, it is therefore clear that Levy’s decision to become self-employed is a product of a complex combination of factors which are all tied-up with his quest for personal development and long-term financial security

As an own boss, Levy contends that he has greater freedom and flexibility to work for multiple customers. This enables him to earn more and, by extension, to improve his livelihood situation. However, his experiences as a self-employed migrant were also clouded with huge challenges, chief among them being
Although the start-up capital and operating costs for a satellite TV installation business are low, entrepreneurs still encounter severe financial challenges in trying to develop and grow their businesses: “… I have failed to grow my business to the extent I really want to because of financial challenges.  Banks that I have approached for financial assistance argue that I do not qualify for such a facility not only because I do not have collateral security but also because there is a higher risk that I can return back to Zimbabwe without paying back the money…”
According to Levy, “…the market is now very congested and highly competitive because the business has low entry barriers. An individual can run this business on his own. I also face stiff competition from bigger companies who still dominate the market since they are able to reduce prices and offer other post-installation packages.”
In an industry where services are provided within customers’ home, racial prejudices always feature prominently. Levy has experienced that, “it is always difficult to get work in bigger gated complexes (like flats) in the more affluent suburbs, most of which are managed by big real estate companies …we suspect that people believe that as a black-owned company our services are poor or that we are a big security risk…”
Experience has taught Levy that the business of installing DSTVs is highly ‘seasonal’ “… for instance, we get high volumes of work towards the festive season and during the period of major sporting events such as the football world cup as people will be preparing to watch the games… so our income streams also fluctuates accordingly…” The fluctuation of earnings engenders other related challenges such problems in paying wages, goods and services, all of which negatively affects business growth.
Generally, small business concerns face stiff challenges in attracting and retaining labour. Levy has observed a systematic trend, “where employees use us as a training ground only to join bigger companies after we have trained them.” The poaching of employees by bigger companies inevitably hinders the growth of the company as more and more resources are wasted in training stuff.

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Lessons Learnt in establishing DSTv installation Cape Town

According to Levy, being a self-employed migrant is as exciting as it is challenging because it is, on the one hand, a measure of one’s resilience and will-power to succeed and, on the other, a huge financial risk. Hence, he contends that in order to succeed, one must:    

  • Have high levels of dedication, discipline and commitment,
  • Be prepared and willing to make socio-financial sacrifices (“I am on call every time which means I work long hours most of the time, nonetheless, if the cash stream becomes a trickle, I comfortably take a pay cut),
  • Gain practical experience in the business he/she aspires to invest in (he believes that “without the requisite knowledge and experience peculiar to a particular business one invests in, failure is almost certain”),
  • Have high level skills of managing relationships with clients, contractors and employees (“although I have failed to get the formal job that I had envisaged, my training in public relations is now handy because in enables me to handle and manage relationships, which is a critical element of business operations”),
  • Be highly innovative and adaptive, and
  • Be prepared to keep on learning, “by attending relevant workshops and conferences.”

Dream Believe Achieve Quotes

  • “The secret of getting ahead is getting started.” – Mark Twain
  • “Don’t wait. The time will never be just right. “ – Napoleon Hill
  • “True happiness involves the full use of one’s power and talents.” – John W. Gardner
  • “Build your own dreams, or someone else will hire you to build theirs.” – Farrah Gray
  • “There is no elevator to success. You have to take the stairs. Unknown author
  • “History has demonstrated that the most notable winners usually encountered heartbreaking obstacles before they triumphed. They won because they refused to become discouraged by their defeats. B. C. Forbes
  • “An entrepreneur tends to bite off a little more than he can chew hoping he’ll quickly learn how to chew it. ~ Roy Ash

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