“It hasn’t been easy breaking into work wear because the industry is associated with risk taking, aggression, and manliness and when clients see a woman in the field, I have to work harder to convince them to do business with me, says Akona Gwele, owner of Westrand Safety.
But working in a male-dominated industry hasn’t thrown Akona off course. Westrand Safety is set to become a global brand.
Established in 2014, the company provides comfortable and stylish protective clothing and easy-to-use equipment to ensure worker safety in various industries.
Gwele says though she was raised by a woman-strong household, taught to look at entrepreneurship rather than employment at the technical high school she attended and studied electrical engineering at tertiary level, she never had a clear idea of her career path – until she started working at a manufacturing company after graduating. “I noticed how there were no proper safety measures in place for staff and took the initiative to conduct my own research and present the findings to the company about what was needed.”
After identifying the gap in the market, while working her way out of formal employment, she set up her business and her former employer became her first client. Not only does Westrand Safety still supply them with protective clothing, the four-year-old, Johannesburg-based company also has reach in the Western Cape, North West province, and the Free State.
“Westrand provides safety solutions for the many people who work under dangerous circumstances. What we have found is that clothing is designed without women in mind and we are working on changing that,” says Gwele.
When it finds bigger premises and the right equipment, the company is planning to bring manufacturing in-house so it can make its own fabric and design more custom-made solutions.
“Women have smaller feet than men, for example. And during that time of the month, we need to be as comfortable as possible – the style and fit of the clothing needs to take our shapes into consideration. You find women wearing pants that tear when they bend over because they are not are shapely enough for our physiques.
“There are more women in engineering, who are working as boilermakers for instance, and protective gear needs to be more innovative.”
Another challenge Westrand Safety faces is around changing perceptions associated with spend on workwear. “You can’t cost-cut when it comes to people’s safety. And not only that, using shady equipment will end up costing you more because of the serious injuries that could occur as a result.”
Akona also admits that capacity to deliver to big clients is also a challenge because Westrand Safety is still a small outfit that focuses on providing good quality and going the extra mile for its existing clients.
As one of the fortunate applicants selected from many to be part of the SAB Foundation Tholoana Enterprise Programme that develops entrepreneurial aspirations, Akona says she has learnt so much about doing proper costing, pricing, sales, marketing her business and “how to close that deal”. “Every time we have training, I leave feeling so positive and ready to tackle the next challenge. It changed my perception of entrepreneurship and business entirely.”
Westrand Safety has even had inquiries from Namibia and Botswana. While they’ve already supplied to those countries, they’re focusing on South Africa until they’ve created the right cross-border structures before doing more business. “We must excel in the space we are in first,” says Akona. They’ve established a small distribution channel in Cape Town that is proving to be both cost-effective, profitable, and beneficial for other suppliers as a result of doing business with Westrand.
Akona says the objective is not for the brand to become recognisable by its logo or distinctive branding unique to Westrand Safety, but rather one that becomes a household name through its association and partnerships with other brands. “I want Westrand Safety to become a brand name that immediately says: ‘this is the workwear from South Africa’.”
For more information about Westrand Safety, contact Akona Gwele or call her on 0732588891.
For more information about the Tholoana Enterprise programme visit the SAB Foundation website.