Keeping South African Languages Alive
Updated: Feb 18
Five friends, passionate about literature, teamed up to form Ethnikids - an online bookstore catering for children up to 11-years old with material available in all South African languages. Co-founders Khumo Tapfumaneyi and Mpho Maje share their story.
When asked why literature when all of them have careers to focus on, Mpho who is an engineer by profession and heads up operations at Ethnikids along with Khumo, sales and marketing director, simply respond: “For the kulture,” quoting the title of their favourite song by DJ Sumbody featuring Mdu and Busiswa.
“We were at Kgala’s [one of the partners] wedding when we decided to start Ethnikids. We are all mothers and we realised that our children struggle with their mother tongue. They have reading material that they don’t relate to. We saw a gap in the market and took advantage of the opportunity,” says Mpho. Khumo adds that only 2% of South African children’s non-academic literature is in indigenous languages. “This does not reflect the demographics of the country. It’s often said that there’s no consumer demand for that kind of literature, but that’s not the case,” she says.
Registered in 2016, Ethnikids started trading in 2017 as a subscription-based company. “Between 2016 and 2017, we worked on researching the industry we were getting into and finding a viable business model. None of us had any background in literature; we were just passionate about it, so we had to teach ourselves the processes... the value chain, how to make relationships with publishers and authors, and how to test the market. When we were offering subscription services, customers could order books quarterly depending on home language and their child's gender. We did this for two quarters and had to stop with the model as the demand grew,” explains Khumo.
It’s hard to operate an online business in South Africa because you have to gain people’s trust that you will deliver your product. Added to that are data costs, which is a struggle. The group combined personal (friendship) with business in their approach to overcoming challenges, even though the general rule is that the two should not mix.
“There are pros and cons to running a business with your friends. Yes, we have differences when it comes to decision-making, for example, how we allocate resources. We are a self-funded business, so we have to make the most of what we have. Most importantly, we know each other’s strengths and weaknesses. We don’t hold disagreements against each other, because we know it comes from a good place and whatever we’re doing is for the benefit of our company,” Khumo says.
People think that because Ethnikids is an online business, it was not affected by the Covid-19 lockdown regulations, but it was. Sales took a knock, since literature was not considered essential services during level 5. “When level 5 of the lockdown was announced, we assumed we wouldn’t be affected because we are already an online business. However, our sales took a massive dip and the business only brought in 10% of what we usually make,” Mpho adds.
Ethnikids had plans to expand deliveries internationally, but this was placed on hold due to the pandemic. The good news is that under level 4 lockdown regulations, the business can deliver online purchases. If you can’t buy a book, the team urges you to follow them on social media as they host virtual reading sessions on Instagram Live.
Khumo and Mpho also encourages the public to attend book readings [when social gatherings are permitted] to keep languages alive.