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"I'm not asking for someone to let me win, I'm just asking for someone to let me in and give me a fair chance for people to decide who goes and who stays," says Mzuzukile Soni who is the founder of one of South Africa's largest networking communities for black entrepreneurs - BrownSense. Some may be familiar with the name through their monthly buy-black markets held in Cape Town and Johannesburg, however this is only the tip of the iceberg.  What started out as a Facebook group a year ago is today a network of over 100,000 black entrepreneurs and business owners. 

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"Sometimes you might not even need funding, but you just need customers," says Soni, which is why he created the business directory and networking platform (which includes a website, app, social media and their markets) with the aim to empower black entrepreneurs. The platform provides much-needed access to markets, information and advice, networking opportunities as well as promoting black businesses by providing an easily accessible database of black-owned businesses.

An example of this in action is their recent partnership with one of South Africa's most successful startups, Yoco, a point-of-sale service which will see entrepreneurs on the BrownSense database receive discounts on Yoco's payment services. Two of the startup's co-founders, Katlego Maphai and Lungisa Matshoba, are also members of BrownSense.

The ultimate goal is to empower black entrepreneurs to participate more meaningfully in the country's economy, says Soni.  Increasing black economic participation has been the focus of various government and private sector efforts. Rather than wait on outside intervention, Soni says he made the decision to take matters into his own hands.  "Instead of complaining I thought what is it I can contribute that is more solution-orientated," says Soni. 

We spoke to founder, Soni, about the gap BrownSense is filling and what's next for the platform. 

Q: What is the goal of BrownSense?
It's an ecosystem where as I'm building my business I empower someone else in the startup phase to also grow. 

Q: Why did you feel South Africa needed a platform like BrownSense?
Twenty three years since democracy, traction has been slow in terms of getting [black] people included into the economy. 

So it is necessary to have these kinds of spaces that would play, kind of, a stakeholder role and [help] get small black enterprises to be heard and for more of them to gain access to the markets.

Q: Much is said about BrownSense's 'exclusivity'. What is the criteria for becoming a member?
If skin colour was the only criteria, everyone would be in there doing their thing so there has to be requirements that [entrepreneurs] have to meet.

There are people that I've had to remove from the group on Facebook because their mindset and vision didn't resonate with the intention of the group. There are people who are disrespectful, crude and start cyber bullying people on the group. We also don't approve every business, for example, businesses that use network marketing we don't approve.

Anything that can easily cause emotive arguments like religion and party politics is not allowed. The space needs to be purely business and knowledge-centred.

Q: How wide is BrownSense's reach?
Obviously, the majority is South African, the last time I checked the second country was the US, with just under 500 people part of the group, and third is Nigeria.

The outlook from the beginning has always been pan-African, where black pain is felt, whether it's in Barbados or the US.

 Q: What gap are you closing that government and the private sector are not?
[Those schemes] play a great role, but [there are] some instances where entrepreneurs may not know about them, and in other cases it might be that the processes to access those funds might be intensive. 

When you're a startup you're most likely wearing all the caps in your business, and now you must also go to all these places where the [application] process may not even be automated.

Q: What other avenues are you exploring next?
We receive a lot of feedback from our database about the kind of service they have received from various businesses. So that data is there. Because of the rich data, we want to grow a business where we can mine and analyse the data and produce consumer reports.

There are big companies who don't understand their black consumer. [Marketing] mistakes could come purely from someone not understanding and studying the target consumer.

We will be launching what we call the BrownSense Series in the coming year which will be your business development seminars held once every quarter. We will be getting different experts to tackle different issues that can empower businesses on the platform.

One of the seminars will be tech-based, but my thinking initially is to engage more with black women in that space, because they're an anomaly. It's usually a men's club in general so we want to get the women to come and talk about being a black woman executive in the tech space.

We want to also possibly have a hackathon of some sorts so we can encourage young black girls to learn how to code, and whatever else is in the tech space. We need things that are going to disrupt the way things are done and tech is a good space for that.

Source: SME South Africa