AS the Covid-19 pandemic tears through the country, multi-award-winning entrepreneur Roselyn Musarurwa-Charehwa (RMC), founder and managing director of Surdax Investments, has joined Zimbabweans from all spheres of life to serve the country through her detergent production business. Surdax’s detergents production operation has shipped more hand sanitisers into the market in the past few months, as Zimbabweans stock up to fight the pandemic. This week, our chief business writer, Taurai Mangudhla (TM), talks to Musarurwa-Charehwa, the IoDZ Woman Director of the Year 2020, about her journey into entrepreneurship.
TM: You started your company 11 years ago. Can you share your experiences so far?
RMC: Surdax was started in 2009 as a cleaning services company. As the company grew, our customers kept adding more responsibilities. We continued gaining market share and by the end of the same year, our staff complement hit 200. This exponential growth also scared us. It made us realise that we had to run the company professionally. I got into business out of a necessity, not out of inspiration, I was out of work and I needed income to take care of my family. I only started looking up to fellow businesswomen for inspiration after a couple of years. I have received a lot of support from several women, who have made my journey bearable.
TM: What is your production capacity now, compared to when you started?
RMC: We only started production of detergents in 2018. We started with hand sanitisers after identifying an opportunity following a cholera outbreak. I remember retailers itching to stock our product, but consumers were not very keen. Now, it is a different ball game. Back in 2018 we would produce about 1 000 litres of hand sanitiser and we struggled to sell. We would manufacture once and it would take two months to finish the product. But this afforded us an opportunity to perfect our product. Today, we are producing about 12 000 litres per week. We are hoping to increase our output. I must say I am proud of Zimbabwean entrepreneurs for joining us as we need more companies to come on board in order to combat Covid-19. We have other household detergents like Sparkle dishwashing liquid and we are also disinfecting for Covid 19. Our alcohol-based disinfectant is a best seller. We are also launching the SURD-PURE range, which will hit the market soon. Our setback is that we are not mechanised. Our production is all manual and more expensive. But we are hopeful.
TM: Looking back, what have been your major lessons?
RMC: We have had a plethora of challenges including the unavailability of raw materials locally. When you decide to import, getting the raw materials here is difficult. You go through a lot, and you also pay a lot. The taxes and fees are beyond the purchase price of your raw materials at times. But that is our jungle and you just have to know how to juggle and make sure your product is affordable. Another challenge has been the influx of fake and substandard products. Many times, we have been left to pick up the pieces. Finding appropriately priced space to operate from has been another challenge. The rentals are too high. I have had many lessons over the years, but I will sum it up in one sentence: “just forge ahead”. no matter how many spanners have been thrown in, you pick up the pieces and get on with it.
TM: Being a smaller manufacturer, you are competing against the established brands and household names. How have you survived?
RMC: We have survived because of our superior product. Our product announces its arrival on its own. We do have other marketing strategies, but our competitive advantage has been the superior quality. We understand that our local market swears by the quality of imported products. So it is important to slowly penetrate and make sure people are well acquainted with our product. We know that there shall come a time where the market will also identify with our Sparkle. But for now, it is important to slowly speak to our target market. We understand all these big brands started from somewhere and we are willing to put in the hours so that one day we will stand head and shoulders ahead of them. We need to come up with another “Mazoe”, a product that is authentically Zimbabwean. Zimbabwe is a very unique market. There is no better time such as now to introduce new products.
TM: How many people do you employ now?
RMC: When we started there was a really rapid growth and at one time we had over 500 employees. However, this felt like we were running an agency of some sort. About 70% of our income went to salaries. We were left to make do with 30%, which was unsustainable. We have scaled down to about 200 after changing the business model. We are happy with the steady growth of both our services and products.
TM: How many people do you employ now?
RMC: Before the lockdown and Covid-19, we had opened in Zambia. We are hoping to resuscitate the dream once things settle. We have the AfCTA (African Continental Free Trade Area) to contend with and we are not sleeping on the job. It is our hope, working with ZimTrade and the Confederation of Zimbabwe Industries, to make sure our products are also in the region.
TM: Are you meeting demand in Zimbabwe? Is there scope for expansion?
RMC: We are meeting demand because we are being careful in our approach. But we do realise this will not be the case once the pandemic settles. It is our hope that we will get some space in the Economic Processing Zones for manufacturing. We are a home-grown company from very humble beginnings and it is our hope that we will also say one day that had it not been for the support we got from the government, we would not be here. We know also that once we mechanise, production costs will go down. We will be able to offer consumers a cheaper alternative.
TM: What has been your experience on access to and the cost of capital?
RMC: It has been very hard. Where in the world do you find interest rates of 60%-100%? It is not sustainable. It feels like you are giving up everything you have worked hard for as a guarantee to just get a loan or overdraft to capacitate the business. If only we could get cheaper finance, we are ready to do the work and mechanise.
TM: You have been in the game long before Covid-19 came. Tell us the impact of Covid-19 on your business.
RMC: Covid-19 has been both positive and negative. If you look at the service side, we lost almost 60% of business due to companies closing down. Some are pivoting and do not require the service any more. When organisations are scaling down they always think they can clean on their own so you become the first target — this, of course, is not true. We have also had instances where the bigger companies are not honouring invoices and making strategic delays, and expecting smaller organisations to carry their weight. This has been a problem in our industry.