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Malesela Tema (or Ouma Tema, as she’s affectionately known) is a bundle of energy, ideas and creativity. You soon sense that this is not a woman who settles for less in life. So, it’s no wonder that her own frustration with the fashion choices available to her a few years ago led to the creation of a major South African fashion sensation in the form of Plus-Fab.

“I was working in a corporate environment at the time and the clothes that I could find to fit me were all so inappropriate for what I needed as a young, fashion-conscious woman. All the plus size clothes I came across looked like they had been made with my granny in mind,” she says. Instead of accepting that she’d have to dress in a certain way, Tema started buying clothes and changing them to suit her style. “I also started making some of my own clothes and, because I pretty much live on social media, I posted lots of my outfits there. Soon people were asking where I got the clothes, and where they could get them, which is how I realised that there was a huge gap in the market,” she says.

Tema started making clothes in 2010 and in March 2011, Plus-Fab was officially launched. “The beginning was really tough. I had to do everything myself – making the clothes, marketing, quality control, client liaison. Today I employ 16 people who help me ensure that everything runs smoothly, but in the beginning, it was just me,” she laughs.

When asked to give advice to entrepreneurs who are just beginning on their business journey, Tema talks passionately of the importance of believing 100% in your idea. “I remember I was just so resolute that Plus-Fab would succeed. My mom tried to persuade me to stay at my nine-to-five job and just do Plus-Fab in my spare time, but I knew I had to put all my energy in it for it to succeed. I didn’t believe in the narrative of security,” she says.

A turning point came in 2015 when Tema realised that she needed to be in charge of her own production line. “Until that point, I had been outsourcing production to a local CMT (cut, make and trim) factory. I approached the owner and I was incredibly fortunate to find out that she wanted to sell the factory. I knew that it was risky, but I took the decision to buy the business – in cash – and I haven’t looked back since. That’s the thing about business opportunities – they don’t warn you in advance, but when they come you have to grab them, because they might not come again,” she says.

After buying the factory and equipment, Tema was able to dictate her own production deadlines. “It has made a huge difference to own my value chain. I now know that my core business is safe and I can make sure that I replenish our stock on a weekly basis,” she says. “Replenishment is key in retail, as it’s all about the numbers. You have to sell enough stock to justify your space in the store, and then you have to be able to replace that stock soon enough to secure more sales.”

This self-owned supply chain allows Tema to supply to stores around the country, including The Space stores nationwide. She tested the waters by initially stocking just a few items in The Space in Rosebank in mid-2015. Her clothes sold out within less than a week and by the end of the year Plus-Fab was in all branches of The Space countrywide.

Tema places a high premium on client loyalty and has gone to extreme measures to ensure that her clients are kept happy. “Client loyalty is what sustains a business, but the truth is that this often requires a lot of time, energy and self-sacrifice,” she says and then shares the story of how she once drove between Pretoria and Johannesburg three times on one day to ensure that a new client was happy with a dress that she had made for her.

Aside from phenomenal sales, a staff complement of 16 and considerable media exposure, Tema can also list numerous local celebrities as avid fans of her clothing, including former host of 3Talk, Noeleen Maholwana-Sangqu, radio and TV personality, Anele Mdoda, actress Rosie Motene and 7de Laan actress Mimi Mahlasela. And as if she hasn’t already garnered enough of a following, Tema also has plans to launch various new collections, including a range of bridalwear, activewear and undergarments.

Despite her huge success, Tema remains humble and incredibly grounded. “There are many nights when I’m the last to leave the building – I walk from my office to the production floor and I stand in the semi-darkness and look at all the machinery and outfits in creation and I have to pinch myself to remember that it’s real. What a privilege it is to be an entrepreneur. Entrepreneurs really are problem-solvers – we find something that’s not working and then we create a solution to meet that need – and, of course, also make some money along the way,” she laughs.

Being selected as a finalist in Sanlam’s Entrepreneur of the Year has been an honour and a privilege, says Tema. “This is a very prestigious competition and I have been so impressed by the meticulous nature of the judging process. Sanlam is doing an excellent job of shining the light on South African entrepreneurs and I’m honoured and excited to be a part of this competition,” she concludes.

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