Even though he’s an MBA graduate, Ajay Rambali, Project Implementation Manager at Nomanini, says he learnt the most valuable lessons about entrepreneurship inside his parents’ tuck shop.
Today Ajay is responsible for rolling out Nomanini’s fintech solutions to underserved communities in countries throughout Africa. His role involves supporting Nomanini’s business partners to empower retail merchants with access to mobile banking, selling electronic airtime and VAS products.
In 1994, when Ajay’s father retired, his family set up a small tuck shop in the garage of their home in Tongaat, which was situated in a rural area on the road between the nearby town and an informal settlement. They had the perfect location, right next to a bus stop, which made it convenient for commuters in search of essential items such as soap, candles, tinned food and airtime scratch cards on their way to and from work.
As a deeply religious family that followed a strict vegetarian diet, the Rambali’s didn’t sell meat, cigarettes or even eggs. This could have been a distinct disadvantage in a place where these products were in high demand, but Ajay’s father had an eye for opportunity.
“My parents had to make all sorts of compromises throughout their lives,” he says, “but they wouldn’t compromise on their values. Instead, they drew on their understanding of what the community really needed and set out to fill gaps unique to the informal settlement in which most of their customers lived.”
As the community didn’t have electricity in their homes, charging cell phones was a huge challenge. To overcome this, Ajay’s father began offering a charging service in his store. For the nominal cost of R2.00, people could leave their phones charging at the shop and collect them at the end of a long day. Marketing was by word of mouth, but soon demand for the service became astronomical and the entire house was festooned with charging cell phones.
His parents soon noticed that members of the community, who had to use car batteries to power their television sets, had to make an arduous trip to town every time these needed to be recharged. They invested in a battery charger and started offering a battery charging service too. Their service became so popular that they were soon able to purchase an additional three chargers to meet the increase in demand.
“What I learnt from this was the importance of being close to the customer, of being alert to unique needs, and of developing innovative yet simple solutions to meet those needs.”
What he saw was that his parents were ethical people who wouldn’t compromise on their values, but that they were also adaptive and innovative. This was to stand him in good stead when he was finishing off his MBA and was looking for a career that would enable him to do business but also to do good.
That was when the opportunity at Nomanini came along. It was, he says, right at a happy intersection where these two objectives met, offering him the perfect fit with his own goals and values. It was an environment where he knew he would thrive.
Ajay says that working in his parents’ shop gave him a good grounding in business. The work he does is more than a job, it is a poignant link to his own story – and there is a very personal reward in helping people like his mother and father to establish and grow independent businesses.
“Nomanini helps people who need it most to become financially empowered – and that lifts up both individuals and entire communities.
“I have the greatest level of job satisfaction I could hope for,” he says. “I thrive on empowering small traders like my parents to grow their businesses, serve their communities, and care for their families. It’s a noble way to make a living. For me there’s a meaningful connection to the work that I do, having seen it first-hand in my home growing up. If a solution like Nomanini existed when my parents were traders, we would have been able to expand into other areas of our community.”
Learn more about Nomanini’s mission to empower retail merchants across Africa: https://nomanini.com/case-study/