Siphokazi Feke... Making moves in Ghana

Siphokazi Feke, whose business is thriving in Ghana, hopes to inspire other South Africans to explore business opportunities on the continent

The 39-year-old South African from Mthatha in the Eastern Cape is the managing director of the BW Medical Group – a Ghana-based medical travel agency. Feke organises for patients who cannot receive the treatment they need in Ghana to be flown to South Africa for treatment.

A medical technologist by profession, she became the first African woman to qualify in the profession and to be registered with the Health Professions Council of South Africa.
Siphokazi Feke, whose business is thriving in Ghana, hopes to inspire other South Africans to explore business opportunities on the continent
She nearly took a very different route however. While studying towards a medical technology qualification at Natal Technikon, she became involved in student politics.

With increased awareness of political issues, she saw certain courses attracted only a few or no black people at all.

Curious, she investigated the reasons behind the low numbers of black students enrolling in those specific courses, one of which was clinical technology.

Feke discovered that unfortunately most black students had not been able to meet the strict criteria for the course. And then she made another important discovery that would change her life.

“I realised that the students who were doing this course had better chances of getting jobs than those of us who were doing medical technology, because while there were 50 of us, there were only 10 of them,” she says.

In addition, the clinical technology students were at a advantage as the school was responsible for placing them at various medical centres and universities where they could study further.

Feke did meet the course criteria and so made the shift from medical technology to clinical technology, specialising in nephrology. Nephrology is a medical specialty focused on of kidney disorders and their treatment, dialysis and kidney transplantation.

Qualifying in 1998, Feke became the first African woman to qualify in the field.

Her goal was to make an impact in the industry, but her working conditions at H F Verwoerd Hospital, now known as Steve Biko hospital, made achieving this almost impossible.

My colleagues were very upset and said I was demeaning the profession, but I told them I was not welcome in the profession

“I had high expectations of this rainbow nation and that people were going to embrace me. But that was not the case. Firstly the [white] families did not want me to touch the patients, and when I gave instructions to white nurses, they would not follow them.”

Qualifying in her field and getting to work at the hospital should have been milestones to be celebrated, but Feke was bitterly disappointed.

“If you are in that toxic environment for a prolonged period you are going to conform to the system, and accept that you are a second-grade citizen, even within your profession,” she adds.

Feke says she could not see herself waking up every day and going to work at the hospital for the rest of her life.

Two years later she hung up her hospital uniform and got a job as a sales representative for a pharmaceutical company.

“My colleagues were very upset and said I was demeaning the profession, but I told them I was not welcome in the profession, as it was still stuck in pre-1994, while the country had moved on,” she says. Feke had big plans.

It was while working in the pharmaceutical industry that she developed a passion for business. But with only a medical background, Feke realised that her lack of formal business education would hinder her career growth.

“When I mentioned to my employers at the time (Adcock Ingram) that I wanted to get some training in business, they were more than happy to pay for me to get a business certificate from the University of South Africa (Unisa), and I also did a programme for Management Development with Gibs,” she says.

After working in the pharmaceutical industry for a number of years and seeing that her career was becoming stagnant, Feke decided to take the knowledge she had gained in the industry and use it to start her own business.

With her experience in the pharmaceutical industry and the relationships she had developed with people in the medical fraternity, Feke says starting a medical travel agency was a no brainer.

Initially the agency was intended purely for channelling patients from countries such as the DRC and Ghana to South Africa to receive medical care they could not get at home. For a number of years Feke travelled to various countries and tried to grow her agency.

She later realised there was a need for a urology clinic in Ghana, as the country was still lagging behind when it came to medical care facilities for renal dialysis.

“But I didn’t have the capital that was needed to get the equipment, register a company in a foreign country, and launch a medical centre,” she says.

Fortunately for her, a number of investors believed in her vision and came on board. The BW Kidney and Urology Clinic was established in 2012.

Even though the business has only been running for three years, Feke says she is happy with what has been achieved in such a short time. She hopes that more South Africans will explore business avenues in other countries, which are endless.

“Now that this is running on its own, I am working with energy companies in South Africa and I hope to explore and grow my business portfolio in West Africa,” she says.

She adds that she now has plans to branch into infrastructure and the energy business, as those kinds of ventures offer a higher turnover.

“Since I’m doing business in a foreign country, I wanted to start with something I was sure of, but now that I have the business know-how, I can focus on other businesses,” she says.

A single mother to four-year-old Kuhleke, Feke says juggling motherhood and running a business is difficult, but she has managed to do it because Ghanaians are very welcoming and still believe in Ubuntu and family values.

“People here still believe that a child is raised by a village, and because of that my son has been able to adjust well in the country,” she says.

Feke’s determination proves that nothing is impossible, even in a foreign country, if you’re ready to work a little harder to achieve it.


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