From roadside tailor to beacon of hope

Mariah Watsikiwa believes the world has changed and women should no longer moan about marginalisation and wait for men to drag them into influential positions. Instead, she says, women should do take the initiative.

Café Exquisite staff at the Third Street branch.
Café Exquisite staff at the Third Street branch.

These days, the entrepreneur employs close to 100 women in her catering enterprise, Café Exquisite.

“Over the years, we’ve spent a lot of time decrying our marginalisation as women. We’ve lobbied government and donors to help us rise from the sidelines, but things have changed,” she says. “It is now crucial for us women to fight our battle through grabbing opportunities and helping each other do well in life.”

She emphasised that it had always been her desire to see a world where girls lived a decent life without poverty.

“My life-story in business dates back to 1987 when I was a roadside tailor,” narrates Watsikiwa. At that time I joined hands with other women and established a sewing project on one of the street corners. We would sew things like clothes and seat covers and supply other female cross-border traders who would go and sell the wares in countries like Tanzania, Botswana, South Africa and Namibia.”

“Things were not easy. We had to brave the chilly weather in Gweru with children on our backs, fight running battles with council police and endure verbal insults from passers-by, just to make sure we put food on the table for our families.”

Realising that things were becoming harder as the economy took a dip in the run up to the year 2000, Watsikiwa and her colleagues abandoned their project and decided to join the cross-border trading. Their port of call was Mhlazatshi, a place in South Africa near Swaziland.

Starting in business

“It was during that time that I started buying equipment in small quantities, to set up my food and catering business,” she said. “Sometimes I bought very heavy equipment that my husband, who was also struggling, couldn’t carry from the doorstep into the house, yet I would have brought it back all the way from down south.”

In 2010, Watsikiwa made her first step into business and opened a restaurant and catering business on Third Street. At first, her staff was made up only of family members and times were tough.

They used to prepare the food at home and ferry it to the restaurant using commuter omnibus transport that dropped them far away from their final destination. They then had to carry it on their heads and walk to the shop.

Those days are long gone now. Watsikiwa is a successful businesswoman with a fleet of five cars, three other branches and a staff of 96.

Most of her employees are young women who have graduated with hotel and catering qualifications from colleges around the country. Several others are on attachment. She wanted to give girls a chance to empower themselves, so made a conscious decision to have a workforce of mainly women.

On a good day, a single branch serves an average of 500 customers with several dishes that match some found in five-star hotels in the capital.

Pedlin Sibanda was one of the first women to join Café Exquisite. At 23, she’s now her family’s breadwinner and supports two siblings.

“Besides taking care of myself, I pay school fees for my siblings,” she said. “I’m happy because I do not have to resort to immoral ways of surviving, like prostitution.

“Soon I hope to also start my own enterprise and employ other girls who are roaming the streets,” she added.

A better world

Veronica Makoronyani, who graduated with a first class hotel and catering qualification, said she has succeeded in funding her mother’s now thriving agricultural project, which had become a source of livelihood for several of her relatives.

“My brother, Christopher, is now a soldier. I used money my wages to send him to school and it makes me proud. If more women would empower others as madam Watsikiwa does, the world would be a better place for girls and women,” she said.

Admore Manyika, one of the few men working at Café Exquisite, said that male employees also cherished the gender sensitivity of Watsikiwa.

Mariah Watsikiwa’s philosophy is one that Charles Chikozho, the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions regional officer, approves of wholeheartedly. He believes women need to be enterprising and not wait for formal employment.

“We always fight for rights of women and help them enter the job market but my appeal is that they now need to be enterprising,” he said. “If they can join together their ideas, they can rule this world.”

Alderman Kenneth Sithole added that the local authority was prepared to make the conditions right for women wanting to venture into projects.

“Our council is very gender sensitive,” said Sithole. ““There are some who speak from the shadows, saying our conditions are discriminatory, but we challenge them to come forward and check with us whether that is a fact.

“We have always said that women who want to start their projects are free to approach us so that we see how they can be assisted.”

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