Gugs business owner goes international

Thuleka Duke with some of her designer bags.

The best advice Gugulethu entrepreneur Thuleka Duke can give anyone starting up is, “ if you don’t have a business that you can sell then you don’t have a business at all”.

The co-owner of ATG EKASI Handbags and Clothing, based at the Pan African Market in Cape Town’s trendy Long Street, recently exhibited at the Design Indaba where she managed to secure an international client for her bespoke hand-stitched handbags, shoes and clothing made from rich and colourful African print sourced from Ghana and South Africa.

Ms Duke is one of a group of township small business owners participating in the Small Business Academy (SBA) of the University of Stellenbosch Business School (USB). The SBA provides a platform for township small business owners to gain business, financial and operational knowledge to grow and strengthen their businesses, creates networking opportunities and offers a mentorship programme whereby each participant is matched with a USB MBA alumnus.

She recalls the early years of struggling to get the business off the ground with the major challenges which they had to overcome: not having enough machinery, space or cash flow. Today they employ five staff members and she works hard at building the visibility of her brand.

“It’s not an easy industry to work in and very difficult for designers to get noticed. But my selection to the SBA programme is an incredible opportunity for me to learn about areas of running a business I have never thought of. The knowledge that I’m gaining in marketing, funding and networking will certainly bring us closer to our ultimate goal of selling our products in leading boutiques countrywide and to put African designs at the forefront of international fashion.”

The mother of two boys started the fashion business two years ago from home with her partner Abass Maazu, who studied fashion design. Before that she worked as a flight attendant based at the OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg.

“I travelled quite extensively in West Africa and the countries there inspired the birth of our African print handbags and apparel. With the much needed assistance from the Cape Town Fashion Council and Cape Graft Design Institute, I was able to learn the skills to design and make my fashion items and to be exposed to the retail environment.”

Ms Duke’s biggest dream is to open a school where they can teach children how to make bags.

“There are so many young people who finish school but can’t afford to study further. If we can teach them a skill and help them to become entrepreneurs they will not lose hope. That way we can help them rise from unemployment and poverty.”

The participants in the SBA programme will complete the nine-month intensive development programme in November.