BACK in 1979, Sara and Matthew Elago started a family business from a simple Cuca shop, a feat that culminated into a chain of stores around the country.

Years down the line, the couple not only concentrated on their family business, but vowed to help other African businesses grow and make life better for the previously disadvantaged Namibians.

Although Sara lost her husband in 2008, she has decided to carry on the family’s legacy and most of all, her greatest passion – helping other businesswomen in Namibia.

Now at the age of 52, Sara says she wants to retire from active business and concentrate on her farming business but by the look of things; it seems the thought is still far-fetched, as her community and outreach projects take much of her “retirement” time.

Sara started her working career as a nurse at Katutura hospital in the 1970s. After many years of offering health services to the community, she retired in 1979 to go into business full time. A cuca shop that sold bread, chips, matches, sweets and other daily necessities from the family’s bedroom window in Windhoek’s Donkerhoek location signaled the birth of the Elago business empire.

Matthew, who was then employed as a driver with a diary company, also resigned from his job and the couple opened their first shop in the Owambo location, which would be the first of many in the Elago group of companies.

The 1980s was a time of political transformation for Namibia and not many black people were allowed to do their shopping in town because of apartheid. The Elagos were restricted to Katutura where they sold the basic groceries that most people relied upon. For them, the market was good as there was no need to sell luxurious items as only basic goods supported their business. As time went by, business grew rapidly, culminating in seven more grocery shops, three butcheries and two bottle stores that were scattered around Katutura.

After Independence, there was more competition from South African supermarket chain stores such as Shoprite, Pick n’Pay and OK that came to set up shop in the country. However this did not deter the Elagos from expanding their business – and neither did they lose customer base.

“The coming into Namibian of South African chain stores after independence was bad for many businesses. We were fortunate in that our businesses were located in Katutura where some of these shops would not get established. However, we had to strategize and reduce the number of shops in certain areas and expand on the volume and choice of goods available,” says Sara.

In 1997 Sara won her first business award sponsored by Lucky 7 in Swaziland and went on to pursue other business ventures while her husband focused on the retail aspect. She joined forces with a Chinese company and opened a joint venture, Namchin Enterprises. In 1999 she won the Business Women of the Year Award becoming the first black woman in Namibia to win this prestigious award.

When her husband fell ill in 2003, they decided to sell off some of the shops and franchise the remainder. In the same year, Sara opened the SE Duty Free shop that she ran for several years and by 2005, the farming bug had bit the family with the result that Sara has become one of the most respected farmers in Namibia. She runs two farms, one in Hochfield area of the Okahandja District and another just outside Windhoek.

The farms employ more than 30 people and although much of the business is cattle farming, Elago harvests cabbages in winter and tomatoes in summer. There are also other vegetable plantations with green pepper, green onion, garlic, potatoes and carrots.

The vegetables produce are sold in Swakopmund, Okararara, Otjiwarongo and Otjinene, among other smaller towns, as Windhoek is considered, saturated.

“After I became the Namibia Economist Business Woman of the Year, the organisers asked me to organise this event in Ongwediva for the North that has now become an annual event attracting participants not only from northern Namibia but also from other parts of the country. I have a lot of passion for this initiative as it not only encourages women to run businesses professionally but also to network among the like-minded women from around the country,” she adds.

She is involved with the Businesswomen’s Conference which takes place in Ongwediva each year around mid-August and has been behind the Katuka business mentorship programme that inculcates business skills among the younger women.

“The Katuka Mentorship Programme started in February 2009. The programme is intended to give women who have just started new careers, or who have been promoted to more senior positions, or who have taken the plunge to become entrepreneurs, all the support they need to handle their situation with confidence.

The programme aims to empower entrepreneurs and other professional women to achieve success in their careers through mentorship by peers or other more experienced business and professional women. The Businesswomen Club makes sure that women in the north are not left out,” she says of the Katuka project.

“I always want to encourage women not to go into business just because they want to make money. They must do business in areas that they are talented in and should have passion for it. My advice to them is that they should try and discover their talents first and work hard to attain the necessary skills to sustain their chosen projects. From my experience so far, I have realised that a lot of women have benefited from the club, now they must not regard themselves as ‘women doing business’ but rather compete effectively with their male counterparts.”

Sara also says there has been a remarkable change in the way business women now communicate with and support one another throughout the country. She also wants to see more women going into the farming business as individuals on a larger scale rather than being “the farmer’s wife.”

A fearless fighter for women’s and children’s rights and a devout Christian, Sara now believes that she can spend much of her time in community activities as she has now given most of the farm management responsibilities to her eldest daughter, Hermien.

Hermien quit her job at Multichoice Namibia in 2008 to concentrate on the financial and marketing aspects of managing the farm.

“We are registered with the Meat Board and Meatco and we acquire the best breed of cattle from the Agra and Namboer auctions. The butchery at the farm packages and sells the meat to smaller towns where our vegetable produces are also on the market,” says Hermien.

Laimi, the youngest sibling and DJ with local radio station 99FM, says she has learnt a lot from her mother whom she describes as a person who “challenges the impossible until she gets it right.” She adds that her mom would not be intimidated by the corporate world with her lack of education and has gone on to do what many with degrees are still unable to achieve and has paved the way for not just women, but many black entrepreneurs in Namibia.

“She is incredibly fearless. ‘No, I can’t’ is not in her vocabulary. She works hard and one would think as she grows older she would slow down but she doesn’t. She gives 100% of herself to whatever she is involved in whether it’s her farming or her involvement in her Turning Point Boys Club,” says Laimi.

The Turning Point Boys Club is aimed at the youth who are roaming the streets and have nothing to do, apart from drugs and alcohol abuse. As a devout Christian, Sara spends a lot of time with the youth and even employs some of them at her two farms and an abattoir in Brakwater.

She helps former gangsters and former criminals rehabilitate while working on the plantations where they earn a living by growing and selling their own produces. These are members of the Turning Point Boys Club.

She says all her four children, comprising of three girls and a boy, have grown up in a disciplined family that respects business and are God fearing.

Laimi further adds: “Having a business minded parents meant laziness was not tolerated. We were always encouraged to earn our own money. My dad firmly believed that working for yourself was the best option. While most children were playing during their holidays my brother and sisters and I were working. From a young age I can remember either working at the shop over school holidays or selling fireworks to earn money over December holidays”

Laimi hopes that one day she will be like her mother and eventually work for herself. She is still puzzled at the amount of strength and zeal that her mother has but like any other youth destined for greater things in life she is still trying to ascertain her business acumen.

“Whether that will be in farming I have yet to discover.”PF