DURBAN – When Jenny and Jerry Maharaj started their small business selling toilet paper on the street corners of Durban, the couple had no idea that their firm would eventually grow into a manufacturing operation.
Jenny Maharaj, co-founder of Forest Tissue, who has always dreamed of being a successful businesswoman, initially wanted to study food technology but her working-class family was unable to afford university fees. Her first job was as a clerk in the debt collection department of a local supermarket. She then worked as a receptionist and managed to save up to study an accountancy course.
Maharaj obtained a post with Air Chefs where she worked for a few years and was promoted to the firm’s operations division.
But after she got married she quit her job and stayed at home for a while.
“I always wanted to be a successful woman and even now that I’m am running a successful company I still strive for greater heights,” Maharaj said.
Maharaj and her husband brainstormed business ideas and decided that everyone needs toilet paper so it would be a good product to sell. They sourced a good local supplier, removed the back seat of their family car, hired a few local women to work as hawkers and started selling on street corners in Chatsworth and Isipingo in 2011. Their small business, Ashkim Suppliers, which later became Forest Tissue, was born.
“We were creating employment for uneducated black women and they became part of my family. We paid them a commission plus a basic salary and after that it grew. I started going to see tuck shops and supermarkets in the morning after dropping off the ladies, to see if we could also supply them,” Maharaj said.
Local stores started stocking the toilet paper and the business grew so big that Maharaj had to rent a warehouse.
“We got so big we had to get a second warehouse and our supplier couldn’t supply us enough, so eventually an opportunity came up to buy a machine to convert the large reels from the paper mills to make our own toilet paper,” Maharaj said.
Unable to obtain business finance, Maharaj said the couple put their Christian faith into action and took out a bond on their home to purchase the machine.
“It was very scary because we didn’t have a set income,” she recalled.
Today, Forest Tissue has 10 converter machines in its Umbogintwini Factory where it employs 25 young people.
“They came to us with no skills and we trained them and the business is now just growing and growing,” Maharaj said.
The business supplies wholesale and independent supermarkets across KwaZulu-Natal as far afield as TFS Wholesalers in Dundee, Ladysmith and Newcastle, Bargain Wholesalers in Port Shepstone, as well as independent Spar and Checksave stores.
The highlight of being in business for Maharaj has been the opportunity to interact with and empower people.
“People who want to start businesses from home – so many elderly women and unemployed youth – come and ask for prices because they want to start selling toilet paper in their communities. I encourage them and they are so happy.”