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Meet Rita Zwane: Pioneering Business Woman behind Imbizo Shisanyama

08 March 2021

We recently had the privilege of interviewing a phenomenal woman who’s entrepreneurial spirit has impacted the South African restaurant industry and beyond. Rita Zwane, founder of Imbizo Shisanyama and author of Conquering the Poverty of the Mind.

You clearly have an entrepreneurial spirit - where does this come from and who/what inspired you?

This is something my mother instilled in me from a young age. At the time, she was a domestic worker who always looked for opportunities for side-jobs. After all, having seven mouths to feed requires more than a bit of creative thinking. To this day, I still turn to her for business advice, and she remains my biggest inspiration. When we spoke recently, at the time the continued ban on alcohol had hugely impacted on our industry and livelihoods, she said: “What will kill people more is not COVID, but the despair when they are faced with situations that seem difficult to overcome. It is fear of what the future holds for them. Please remember that the future is in God’s hands.” Sage advice indeed from a 91-year-old.

To start a business, you need to be good at managing money - where did this sense of discipline come from? How did you learn this skill?

Again, this is something that I got from my mother. One of my earliest memories is of her giving me a packet of sweets and telling me that it had to sustain me for months to come. Out of pure instinct, I sold each sweet to make money. Little did I know at the time that this would become one of my biggest lessons that has echoed throughout my journey.

Starting a business is a huge risk - how did you make the jump?

I had a clear vision of what I wanted to achieve, and this combined with the support of my friends, family and community gave me the strength and determination to take the necessary leap of faith.

The concept of commercialized Shisanyama is fantastic! How did you come up with this idea?

In the same way that Italy is famous for pizza and pasta and Japan is known for sushi, I was inspired to create a restaurant that would proudly celebrate the true African culture, lifestyle and heritage. In the past, not all people could enjoy a braai in a dignified way. I had a dream of establishing a place that would pay tribute to the true African lifestyle and culture where people could braai quality meat in a traditional style and receive excellent service in an environment that exudes style, class, and dignity. In 1997 Imbizo Shisanyama was established on a street corner in Ivory Park with only a single pot, gas grill, display fridge, gas paraffin stove, and two employees. Since then, it has taken Africa and the world by storm and successfully commercialised the Shisanyama concept to revolutionise the food, beverage, and hospitality industry. We have made the restaurant a home away from home for our fiercely loyal patrons. They easily identify with our brand values and how we celebrate the true African lifestyle and culture. The restaurant is a natural extension of who our patrons are – it is relevant, relatable, and authentically African.

What are some of the challenges you have faced along the way?

One of the most significant challenges was to convince financial institutions to fund the Shisanyama concept, something they were not aware of in the late 90s. For them, it was all about investing in well-known fast-food franchises. Of course, trying to get a liquor licence also had significant bureaucracy to overcome. More recently, we are faced with COVID-19 and the resultant lockdown restrictions imposed by the government. But visionaries like myself do not stop dreaming. In many ways, I found myself exactly where I was 20 years ago, trying to secure funding for future growth. We will persevere and overcome these challenges as well.

What keeps you inspired and motivated to continue on this path?

When you have dreams that are bigger than yourself it is only natural to get scared at times. But I remain focused on completing one project and then moving on to the next one as there are quite a few of them in the pipeline. More than anything, I keep asking myself what I will leave that future generations regardless of race will be proud of. It comes down to the new generation participating in the economic value chain to leave a meaningful legacy whilst we are still here to guide and mentor.

Imbizo Shisanyama can now be found at 3 different locations, Mall of Thembisa being the latest. Take us through the journey of establishing this spot.

Jason McCormick, the MD of McCormick Property Development, approached me at the end of 2019 regarding an opportunity at the Mall of Thembisa. My excitement was immeasurable as it was always my vision to see the Imbizo Shisanyama experience at a mall of that magnitude. The support I received from McCormick Property Development speaks directly to their ‘local-first’ principle. They assisted me with the architectural and interior design of the restaurant and project management right up until we were ready to open. This made me realise that they are not developing malls purely from a profit-making perspective, but invest in people, the community, and the economy of that township. These are sentiments that I share and passionately believe in as well – the values of Ubuntu.

How would you describe the decor/ambiance at this location?

When we say we have opened the Ultimate Expression of the Imbizo Shisanyama Experience, the design, décor, and ambiance really say it all. This magnificent venue boasts a dedicated glass lift for an exclusive parking area for executive Imbizo Shisanyama patrons and delivers an innovative rooftop experience that leaves one breathless. Celebrating the authentic African lifestyle and culture means that the restaurant is steeped in the rich history and heritage of the continent reflected in its diverse, traditional African menu. Together with its siblings, the new venue remains true to the brand promise of ensuring patrons enjoy Africa’s Ultimate Braai Experience remains unchallenged. Over time, this has earned Imbizo Shisanyama an enviable reputation for its delicious, authentic African cuisine, quality service, and a culture that emanates the true African identity and heritage.

How would you describe the concept of Shisanyama to an overseas guest?

Some might refer to Shisanyama as a barbeque, but the experience is not just about the food. It incorporates the African lifestyle, culture, and heritage. So, if you really want to experience Africa, then visit an Imbizo Shisanyama. It creates an authentic African experience from the design right through to the ambience and wonderful food, the same way when we experience the likes of Italian, Chinese, and other international restaurants.

What made you select Woodbdender as a furniture supplier?

Our Midrand venue uses Woodbender furniture and I have been impressed by its quality. Furthermore, our interior designer, Tanya Walker from MDS Architecture, notes that Woodbender furniture responded to the client’s brief in terms of the quality required, comfort and the look and feel of the furniture envisaged for the restaurant.

Tanya on selecting Woodbender:

The décor and furniture for the new Imbizo Shisanyama Restaurant was inspired by the original Imbizo Shisanyama restaurants. Inspiration was drawn from elements that form part of the brand identity which were used for the interior design of the new large Restaurant. The client, Rita Zwane, requested that the new Restaurant should feel as “homely” as the existing ones, and to maintain the authentic African style synonymous with Imbizo Shisanyama. This look and feel lead to the furniture selection from Woodbender. The solid timber, furniture style, comfort and quality were the main factors driving the selection, in addition to the furniture being a locally sourced and manufactured product.

What sets Imbizo Shisanyama apart from the competition?

Our brand promise of delivering Africa’s Ultimate Braai Experience is something we are passionate about and intimately believe in. We never rest on our achievements and keep identifying more innovative ways of exceeding our customers’ expectations.

What, would you say, has been the secret to your success?

As an individual, I run my own race, stay in my lane, compete with my own goals, and apply discipline in everything I do. Ultimately, nothing trumps passion because even in tough times such as the ones we are experiencing now, it will help keep the spark alive.

What's next for Rita Zwane? Do you have any other projects you're working on?

There is a Motor City property development that we are currently working on. However, my dream is to see homegrown township concepts like Shisanyama, and other similar businesses, recognised around the world. I particularly like to share my story, as published in my book Conquering the Poverty of the Mind, to inspire, educate, and empower young and upcoming entrepreneurs through channels such as the MaZwane Foundation. I hope that my journey from a shipping container to the Mall of Thembisa will not only inspire them to believe that anything is possible but also help them to understand that it takes dedication, hard work, perseverance and patience to realise your dreams.

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