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Change in fortune for self-taught baker

'I started baking scones, demand for bread grew'

Hlengiwe Shandu of Gemisquare Bakeries.
Hlengiwe Shandu of Gemisquare Bakeries.
Image: Supplied

A self-taught baker from Umlazi in Durban is riding the wave of a sales boom on the back of a series of unfortunate events that befell her and the economy of KwaZulu-Natal.

For Gemisquare Bakeries, then a struggling bakery, the July 2021 civil unrest that swept the province meant a change in fortune.

After her retrenchment from an administrative job at a Durban food manufacturing firm in 2016, company founder and director Hlengiwe Shandu turned to baking.

“I started in 2017 by baking scones because they were a bit easier to bake. I also made cakes and buns,” she said.

In 2020, Shandu ventured into baking bread to sell in Umlazi township.

“Everything I know about baking is self-taught. I have a BTech [bachelor of technology] in cost management,” she said.

The self-funded start-up experienced exponential growth during the destructive July 2021 unrest that swept KwaZulu-Natal and some parts of Gauteng.

“At the time I was still working in a small space I had in Amanzimtoti [near Umlazi] and a lot of people couldn’t access services because a lot of businesses had been destroyed during the looting. Luckily, we were not affected because our space had been protected by local security,” she said.

It was during this time that the business was inundated with calls from people looking to buy bread.

“I found myself making arrangements to deliver the bread,” she said. 

Before this, Gemisquare sold about 200 loaves a day. The unrest saw the demand balloon to an average of 1,000 loaves a day.

“At the time I couldn’t meet the demand because of the space I was working from and the equipment I was working with,” she recalled.

This meant that Shandu had to double her efforts and work irregular hours to meet the demand. 

Impressed by the start-ups work, the Hollywood Foundation in 2021 sponsored Gemisquare with much-needed baking equipment such as an oven, a proofer and baking pans.

In 2023, the foundation sponsored the business with a 12-metre container to work from.

After the devastating April 2022 floods in the province, the business received R700,000 from the National Empowered Fund (NEF) and Solidarity Fund’s R450m Humanitarian Crisis Relief Fund.

“Just before this, I had moved from Amanzimtoti to Umlazi due to financial constraints. When I got here I received a lot of support from the community. The NEF funding helped a lot. It helped us expand the space we were working from and to purchase more equipment,” she said.

The bakery mainly supplies bread to local tuck shops and other private clients. It has so far employed seven people.  This article was first published in the GCIS’s  Vuk’zenzele

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