Zivanai Manatsa shares his experiences and motivations of setting up a plumbing business as well as his experiences as a self-employed plumber in Cape Town

Self-Employment do create opportunities and benefits

You can achieve your dreams irrespective of your circumstances. Valuable practical lessons

“The will to win, the desire to succeed, the urge to reach your full potential… these are the keys that will unlock the door to personal excellence”.  Confucius

How the Self-Employed plumber Cape Town overcome poverty: He shares his experiences and motivations. In 2005, Zivanai Manatsa immigrated to South Africa (Cape Town) to escape Zimbabwe’s crippling economic crisis.

Over the next five years, Manatsa was forced to accept a string of menial and short-term plumbing jobs despite being a highly qualified and experienced artisan. The frustration of failing to get a permanent and well-paying formal job and the attendant risk of sinking deeper into a life of poverty eventually forced Manatsa to set-up his own informal domestic plumbing business in 2010. Through this personal testimony, Manatsa shares his experiences and motivations of setting up a plumbing business as well as his experiences as a self-employed migrant.

Self-Employed plumber Cape Town bounces back: how and why I

established my business

[/title]Before immigrating to South Africa in 2005, Manatsa had worked for over a decade in the corporate world as a qualified plumber. He therefore was highly confident of quickly securing a permanent and well-paying job in his adopted homeland. However, he soon found out that his hopes were rather too lofty as jobs were hard to come by, especially for migrants without appropriate work permits. Indeed, Manatsa contends that his early years in South Africa were largely spent unproductively and in dire circumstances since formal professional jobs were scarce:

“I came to South Africa at a time when the economy back home had totally collapsed –there were no jobs and the money was virtually useless. So like other migrants, my primary goal was to find employment and improve my living conditions. Unfortunately, without a work permit, it was impossible to penetrate the corporate world which required such permits. I was therefore forced to work as labourer for a host of small companies out of desperation. More painfully, some plumbing companies employed me as a general hand even though I would still perform the duties of a qualified artisan”. 

The Economy had totally collapsed

I was desperate I had to find employment the circumstances was depressing. I had to find a way to support my family

For a highly qualified and experienced artisan, being forced by economic necessity to accept highly exploitative and insecure menial jobs which hardly helped to improve my financial and livelihood situation was profoundly degrading and traumatic. He recollects that:

“It hurt me so much that I could not adequately support my family back home and  save money as much as I would have loved simply because I could not afford it from my meagre earnings. As my desperate situation continued, I even contemplated going back home at one stage…”

Practical lessons from Zivanai:

The Self-Employed Plumber

Your circumstance must not kill your dreams

Keep on looking for Self-Employment opportunities

Grab your opportunities with both hands

Develop specialized knowledge and know-how

Promote your business

Keep on promoting your own personal development

Despite being hugely disappointed at having to live in abject poverty, going back home was not a viable option either because the economic situation was still dire. As a result Manatsa persevered  and continued to save what little he could from his meagre earnings while, at the same time, searching for better job opportunities. His breakthrough came in 2008 when he secured employment with a small individually-owned company that installed water and drainage systems in newly constructed RDP houses. Working for this company was a critical turning point for him because:

“For the first since my arrival in South Africa I had a long-term job and I was specialising in my trade –plumbing. Secondly, working for an individually-owned small company made me realise the possibility of being securely self-employed in the sector… so even if my wages improved slightly, working for this company motivated me to progressively start preparing to set-up my own plumbing business by buying basic plumbing tools and equipment”.

Thus, when he eventually secured a work permit in late 2010, Manatsa resigned from his job and established his own informal plumbing business which specialises in the installation, maintenance and repair of domestic / residential water supply and drainage systems.


Clearly then, Manatsa’s transition to self-employment was motivated by a number of factors. First and foremost, he “just grew tired of being exploited by companies who paid very little and hardly cared for my well-being, security or growth.” Thus, the quest to create secure self-employment opportunities for himself –which he rightly saw as the only option for promoting personal development, increasing his income streams and improving his livelihood situation –was a critical factor which compelled him to set-up his own business.


Other motivating factors included his professional skills and experience which made it easy for me to easily continue in the same field” as well as the low start-up and operating cost requirements. Indeed, Manatsa contends that the cost of procuring basic plumbing tools and equipment such as wrenches, drain snakes, flashlights, plumbing pump, and vacuum drainer was relatively low because, I bought them from the second-hand market and I did not feel the financial pain very much because I did not buy everything all at once.” Furthermore, he also does not need to rent out commercial office space “since I have to travel to the customers as and when service is needed.” This means that his overhead costs for operating the business are very low.

From the foregoing, it can therefore be discerned that Manatsa’s decision to start his own informal plumbing business and become full-time self-employed was motivated by a host of push-pull factors, all which were linked to his negative experiences as a migrant worker as well as his quest for a secure livelihood. These included:

  • Job creation and financial security
  • Poverty alleviation
  • Exclusion from formal job market
  • Job insecurity and exploitation
  • Low entry barriers into the sector
  • Low operating costs 
  • Having specialised professional skills and experience

Benefits and Challenges of operating a plumbing business

1. Benefits

Running a small-scale plumbing business has many benefits for entrepreneurs. In general, running a business in a foreign country helps the entrepreneurs to integrate into society because they provide much needed services (often at cheaper rates) and create job for locals. At a personal level, benefits of running a plumbing business include: increased and secure income streams, personal development, flexible working hours, job and financial security.

running a plumbing business creates secure employment opportunities for the entrepreneur and the locals. Manatsa says he has been self-employed since setting-up his business” which indicates high levels of job security and satisfaction. Furthermore, he also employs local youths to assist in his work. Besides the money they earn from so being employed, the youths also get invaluable free training which may help them to be self-employed in future. Essentially therefore, Manatsa empowers disadvantaged and often marginalized youths through employment generation which prevents them from adopting destructive anti-social behaviours.
demand for plumbing services in the sprawling high density suburbs where Manatsa largely operates is always high. Besides undertaking new water supply and drainage systems installations in the booming RDP house construction sector, Manatsa is also repairs domestic leaks or blockages which occur frequently. The diversified nature of his operations increases his income streams and, most importantly, brings about financial stability because hardly a day passes without being called repair a leak or blockage. This means I earn money almost daily.” Low operating (overhead) costs have also helped him to increase his margins of profit
one of the main reasons most people set up small business is because it gives them greater autonomy over every aspect of the business including working hours, decision making and control over business revenues. This autonomy is not only gratifying and fulfilling but also promotes personal growth and development. Manatsa concurs thus, “since starting out on my own, I have now mastered the art of contract negotiation, budgeting and bookkeeping –I never used to do these things as an employee.”
Manatsa, who describes himself as a typical rural boy who grew up herding cattle and tilling the land to finance his education” says he is humbled that he has become a role model to his fellow Zimbabwean migrants who now look up to him for inspiration and guidance in starting their enterprises.

2. Challenges

Running a small-scale plumbing business has many challenges. Beyond the long working hours (most plumbers operate on a 24-hour standby basis since leakages and / or blockages can occur any time) which often impacts on family life, Manatsa says that his business is negatively affected by

Lack of credit financing for business expansion
Lack of economies of scale. Because I don’t buy my materials in bulky, most retailers refuse to give huge discounts –this affects my profit margins.
Competition. “apart from the normal competition posed by big companies, I also face stiff completion from formally employed plumbers who freelance during their spare times”  
Fluctuating income streams. No certainty of income.
Negative public perceptions: Manatsa says that negative public perceptions in his abilities and work ethic is perhaps one of his greatest challenges: some people believe that that as simple self-employed plumber I am are unreliable and prone to provide poor service”
Lack of insurance: Manatsa believes his inability to get liability insurance which enables clients to claim in the event of property damage has often costed him projects from more affluent customers who feel comfortable dealing with bonded and insured plumbers.
Limited marketing strategies. “Most of my customers are through word of mouth referrals from satisfied customers but there is need to adopt other strategies like internet advertising”.

As Self-Employed it is important to:

Understand these benefits.

Be willing to face these challenges

Achieve your dreams
Self-Employed plumber Cape Town achieve his dreams


In a world characterized by economic uncertainty, people can no longer afford to expect the government and / or large corporations to provide them with satisfying jobs. This is particularly so for migrants who have to compete for limited job openings with citizens who normally get preferential treatment. Thus, as Manatsa has experienced, it is vitally important for migrants to exploit opportunities for self-employment in order to penetrate the formal economy and earn enough to uplift their living standards. However, to be a successfully self-employed plumber, Manatsa contends that one must strive to provide excellent services and forge good personal relationships with customers.

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Don't quit. Never give up trying to build the world you can see, even if others can't see it. Listen to your drum and your drum only. It's the one that makes the sweetest sound. Simon Sinek

“Never give up on what you really want to do. The person with big dreams is more powerful than the one with all the facts”.  H. Jackson Brown, Jr.

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