How Ramona Kasavan Achieved a Dream That was Bigger Thank Herself
Starting a business can be brutal. Your vision can take longer to materialise than you hoped, and you'll probably have to adjust your model along the way. Here are Ramona Kasavan's four pillars to a successful start-up that can change society as we know it.
- Player: Ramona Kasavan
- Company: Mimi Women
- Est: 2015
- Visit: www.mimiwomen.com
“Understand who you are — and what you're selling.”
Ramona Kasavan is a social capitalist. She is running a full profit organisation that aims to make a massive impact on the lives of impoverished South African girls and women, and help them break the cycles of abuse and poverty that define many of their lives and circumstances.
She’s doing this through contract manufacturing and selling sanitary pads. Like many start-ups, it took Ramona some time before she could articulate — both internally and externally — that her company is not a sanitary pad business, but an organisation that helps women to empower themselves.
“One of my mentors, ex- FCBDraft MD Klasie Wessels, helped me to understand this,” says Ramona. “At the time I had already established my own sanitary pad brand, Happy Days, and he said to me, ‘Happy Days has nothing to do with periods. That’s not what this business is; it’s not the problem it’s solving.”’
Today, the company is called Mimi Women, based on the Swahili word for ‘I am’. “This business is about female empowerment; it’s about teaching girls to be ‘selfish’, giving them permission to believe that they are enough, just the way they are. They can be who they want to be.”
The seemingly simple act of rebranding helped Ramona shift her strategy, but it’s an important lesson that other start-ups can benefit from. Often, the idea that sparks a business, and the resultant product or service, can become so consuming that the business owner doesn’t take the time to step back and define exactly who the business is.
When this happens, the company struggles to develop a vision and purpose greater than its product offering, which can be extremely limiting to growth.
In Ramona’s case, it was the realisation that sanitary pads are not only expensive [which she discovered once she was in varsity, living in a flat and trying to make ends meet), but that for many households they are scarce resources, keeping girls at home during their menstruation cycles when they should be at school.
“There were two options: Brands that are good quality but expensive, and cheap brands that are terrible quality and don’t solve the problem at hand. I wanted to create a premium brand at an economy price.”
With the assistance of the IDC, local partners and a successful relationship with a Chinese manufacturer, Ramona achieved her goal, but she soon discovered this wasn’t enough to make the impact she was looking for.
“Don’t be afraid to pivot — it could take your business to the next level.”
Enter the pivot, an essential element in business innovation, sustainability and growth. “I was tired of being donor funded, which was how the business was operating. We had a campaign running with JSE companies to sponsor a girl child and keep her in school. It was working, but it was also incredibly stressful. Relying on donors was making it difficult to grow the business and create the intended impact.”
Rebrand and refocus
An integral element of the business’s rebranding was the opportunity to move away from a donor model, and develop a more sustainable for-profit model to support the Mimi Foundation, a new non-profit arm that donates sanitary pads to girls in need.
“We realised that we had a product, but that this wasn’t the business. Once that was in place, we could develop different, interlinking business models to achieve our goals.”
There are now three arms to the business: A foundation that supports keeping girls in school through donated sanitary pads; a distribution arm that provides business opportunities for women in impoverished areas; and fundraising to instal a factory that manufactures Mimi sanitary pads, which are currently sourced locally and from China.
The factory will be completed and operational before the end of 2017, opening the way for Mimi pads to enter the local FMCG retail chain. For every pack of Mimi purchased, a pack will be donated to the foundation, enabling consumers to buy local and support a good cause.
“It’s been a big shift from our original donor model, but it’s made a huge difference to the overall impact of our business on South African women.”
“If you want to grow, you need to find additional revenue streams.”
Ramona has evaluated multiple ways to get her sanitary pads into the market in such a way that the business makes an income, but can also deliver on its original mandate of keeping girls in schools, and its more sophisticated current mandate of empowering women.
“We’re negotiating with schools to have sanitary pad vending machines available for their students. This is a pilot that we are currently running with IDC. For each pad sold, a pad is donated to the foundation, so it ticks a CSI box for the schools while helping us to grow our footprint.” Ramona is also negotiating with the big five retailers in South Africa to get her product onto their shelves.
Spreading the love
However, the biggest shift in her model has been the introduction of Agents for Change which is an empowerment direct selling model. “The initial aim was to have 1 000 agents selling our product. Within three weeks of launching the new division we had 100 agents.”
Agents for Change focuses on women aged 18 to 35 years. “We look for historically disadvantaged individuals who have no experience in selling a product or running a business.
“By giving them an opportunity to create income for themselves we hope to assist them in breaking the cycle of poverty they’re in, while also getting our products into the markets that will benefit from a premium brand at an affordable price.”
The Agents for Change idea came from a pilot with SAB Milller called Pads and Cents, where Agents meet every second Friday for a full day of coaching in financial literacy, basic business principles and sales. “If you can sell pads you can sell anything. We’ve found that women build confidence when we help them to speak about important things that are taboo in their communities.”
Women who complete the programme can become Agents of Change who sell Mimi products, or they can pitch their ideas to current business incubators as a different route.
“This is about empowering women, not enabling them. We're not about covering their costs, but giving them the tools and opportunities to create and grow their own businesses. They can have their own agents, and we’re creating an ecosystem to support them.
“Mimi-branded tuk-tuks will deliver product and instal waste disposal units that they’ll empty and incinerate; the tuk-tuks will stock vending machines, and we can even offer bathroom cleaning services.”
Focused on growth
The next step in the evolution of the business is building a manufacturing plant under the company’s investment arm, Full Circle Women, which Ramona developed with support from her mentor, Wendy Luhabe. The ultimate aim is to become a female-focused VC investor, and the manufacturing plant is the fund’s first project.
“One of the mandates when you receive IDC funding is that you need to source locally,” says Ramona. “I was 100% local for just over a year, but local suppliers couldn’t meet our supply needs. The IDC is aware of this, and understood when I sourced a Chinese manufacturer to produce the sanitary pads I had designed. The idea is that I source from the Chinese as a proof of concept, and they will help us set up the plant later this year.
“For the model to really be sustainable and have longevity, we need to control manufacturing. Therefore, we’ve created a fund whereby 100 women invest R100 000. We’ve currently got 32 women and are also talking to VC investors.”
“Don’t take no for an answer.”
Truly successful entrepreneurs have one trait in common: They don’t take no for an answer. Ramona is one such entrepreneur. Her involvement with SAB, for example, began because she kept being turned down for SAB’s Kickstarter programme, so she phoned SAB’s exco to ask why.
“I had my honours in marketing and two successful start-ups under my belt, yet I couldn’t get their support; I wanted to know why.”
In response, SAB asked Ramona what she wanted, and together they devised the financial literacy incubator, Pads and Cents, whereby Ramona spearheads her own pre-incubator programme supported by SAB Miller Egoli Region.
Another example is the IDC and her Chinese partners. “I needed the IDC to understand why I was finding a Chinese partner. You just need to lay down your case. They’ve made concessions as a result, particularly because this will help me to build a local manufacturing plant.”
The Chinese relationship wasn’t seamless to begin with. “I’m an Indian woman from South Africa, and I’d sit in meetings with my supplier and they’d talk over my head. I had to put my foot down, look him in the eye and tell him that if he didn’t start dealing with me, I’d take my dollars elsewhere.”
The move not only earned Ramona her supplier’s respect, but has laid the foundation for a very good relationship built on trust and mutual respect.
“In business, as in life, you won't get what you want unless you ask for it — and fight for it where necessary. In 2016 I was stressed and despondent because I was so reliant on donors and my business wasn’t making the impact I wanted. I had to sit down, re-evaluate what I was doing, and adjust my model. Today our vision is bigger than I ever thought possible. This is also based on the relationships with mentors, stakeholders and people who are passionate about building a sustainable future for young women leaders.”