Donald Valoyi's grocery delivery service flourishes despite lockdown
Leonie Wagner meets Donald Valoyi, the man who helps you sit back while others do your shopping for you
Donald Valoyi, CEO of Zulzi, believes that many South Africans will continue to buy groceries online even after lockdown ends.
His app had just over 80,000 users before lockdown. Since the beginning of April it has signed up 75,000 new users and employed 450 more shoppers and drivers.
“Our top 300 customers spend more than R20,000 a month apiece. Joburg North, Pretoria East and the Atlantic seaboard in Cape Town are some of the leading areas.”
About 70% of its customers are women but Valoyi says more men are now using the service, as are more middle-income earners.
“We see the trend continuing,” says Valoyi. “We will be able to retain customers and grow even more with the money we have just raised, and also unlock the middle- to lower-LSM groups by continuing to work closely with fast-moving consumer goods companies who can offer coupons and free delivery.”
In its early days, Zulzi turned over about R5m a year. During lockdown the business has already made R64m
Within an hour of placing an online order with Zulzi, bread, milk, cucumbers, lemons, baked beans, spring water and eggs (to name a few of their most in-demand grocery items) arrive on the buyer’s doorstep.
This is the promise made by Donald Valoyi, 34-year-old founder and CEO of Zulzi, the app that enables buyers to shop from multiple outlets in one go without leaving home. On behalf of customers, Zulzi’s army of personal shoppers visits Woolworths, Pick n Pay, Dis-Chem, Clicks, Spar and, when not in lockdown, alcohol retailers.
Valoyi, sitting in a temporary office in his Bryanston home, where the walls are decorated with children’s crayon drawings, laughs as he recalls how he randomly named his multimillion-rand company after a beautiful stranger’s Facebook profile.
“I was sitting at work going through Facebook and this lady Zuzile popped up on my profile. I didn’t know her but I thought, ‘Wow, this is a cool name’. I was looking for a name for the company, so I took her name and rearranged it and we became Zulzi.”
Zuzile is a Zulu word which means “to achieve something”. It is appropriate for Zulzi, Valoyi’s on-demand delivery service. The personal-shopping app, launched in 2016, allows members to buy from different stores remotely. It provides access to thousands of grocery items which trained shoppers hand-pick and deliver.
The business had been growing steadily since it was launched but the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown resulted in a growth spurt that neither Valoyi nor his business partner, Michael Netshipise, could have predicted.
In its early days, Zulzi turned over about R5m a year. Valoyi says that during this lockdown period the business has already made R64m.
This month they secured a R30m investment from a JSE-listed company, the name of which Valoyi says he can’t disclose just yet.
He confidently rattles off percentages and figures to the tune of a vacuum cleaner and what sounds like a piano lesson coming from downstairs. This is what home interviews during lockdown are like, away from his Sandton office where he employs 35 technical staff members and 600 shoppers and drivers.
This is not a future Valoyi could have envisaged when he was growing up in Ntshuxi village, outside Giyani in Limpopo. Back then, he used to dream about one day owning a football team. As a teenager, Valoyi fooled everyone into thinking he was studying when in fact he was mapping out how he’d achieve his dream.
• R30m - The investment Zulzi received from a JSE-listed company
“I always had a big vision. I had this dream of owning Orlando Pirates. I would sit and plan and people thought I was studying, meanwhile I was coming up with a plan of how I’d buy the players and how much it would cost. I was crazy about football. I was crazy about Pirates. I would walk 10km just to buy Kick Off magazine.”
This wasn’t the only long walk Valoyi took. There was no high school in his village, so every morning he’d cross the river and take a 6km hike to get to school in a nearby village, and do the same to get back home in the evenings.
Mom showed the way
Despite the disadvantages, Valoyi says things were not that bad. Crossing the river in winter was “tricky”, he says with a smile, but other than that he had a normal life growing up in the village.
One of five children — he has three brothers and a sister — Valoyi grew up with his father, a pastor, and his mother, a teacher who built her own preschool in their village, where she is still the principal.
• The year Zulzi app was officially launched
Valoyi says he owes his entrepreneurial skills to his mom. “My mother used to have a little farm where she’d grow maize and sell it. She’s always been selling stuff; she also used to sell chickens. I think that’s where we all get it from. We’re all entrepreneurs. We’ve always wanted to start something of our own.”
He credits his older brother for instilling in him a passion for technology, even though his chosen major at Wits was the less real-world subject of applied mathematics.
Making a start
After graduating, Valoyi’s job prospects as a mathematician were not vast. One afternoon he was “playing on the internet” when he noticed a job opportunity for a software developer at Cape-based company Magnatech. He applied and was invited to be interviewed — in Cape Town.
“I was so broke,” he says. “I had to borrow cash to get to Cape Town. My sister lived there so I at least had somewhere to stay. I used this bus, it was called the yellow bus, and you know when you use that bus things are not great.”
• The number of orders on Zulzi processed each day
But he made it to the interview and was hired within 15 minutes.
“I never looked back,” he says.
After cutting his teeth at Magnatech, he moved back to Johannesburg where he worked at EOH before joining FNB as a software developer. But soon his entrepreneurial drive kicked in and he felt the itch to create something of his own.
While working as a junior at FNB, Valoyi used to make extra cash by selling textbooks — both new and used — to Wits students. In his full-time job he was part of a team who built the bank’s debit order systems. He then moved to the global transition services division, an elite unit including some of the best developers in SA. One of his teammates was Netshipise, now chief technology officer at Zulzi.
Valoyi says being chosen for this crack team was “life-changing”, but the thrill wore off and he and Netshipise began throwing around ideas for new and bigger challenges.
Netshipise left to start an analytics company. Valoyi carried on but at the same time began to expand his sideline business. By 2013, this business was doing so well that Valoyi decided to leave his job at the bank and focus on building his textbook empire.
Two years later he had diversified into the sale and delivery of tablets and smartphones. He and Netshipise spoke about building an app that would enable the delivery of meals, groceries and alcohol. In September 2016 they formalised their business partnership and launched Zulzi.
“When I look back at it, we were taking a big risk,” says Valoyi. “But for some reason things worked out. I don’t remember us ever struggling so much that there was any point where I didn’t know what we were going to do. There were ups and downs, where for two or three months things were not going well, but there was always a way of solving the problem.”
Another risky move was when they decided to move away from takeaway food deliveries and concentrate solely on groceries. Valoyi says he was in something of a panic about that decision because at the time they were making only R100,000 a month from grocery deliveries while food deliveries from restaurants were bringing in more than R500,000.
“Having a big dream is not all about you making money. It’s about working towards something that is going to change lives.
But with bigger players like Uber Eats and Mr Delivery making inroads into the same market, they could see where the future was headed and their bold decision paid off.
A turning point
Securing funding for a dedicated grocery-delivery venture was a challenge. The turning point came when they partnered with Checkers to build the Sixty60 app for the retailer.
“Before Checkers we were struggling,” Valoyi says. “Almost every day I was asking friends for cash to help me pay salaries. My employees get paid before any other person. They come first. If there was any money left over then I’d also get paid. Those were the sacrifices I had to make when building a business.”
Having to borrow from friends taught him that his biggest assets are the people around him. Today, the people he employs as personal shoppers earn a minimum of R5,000 a month.
The recent R30m investment will be used to expand the business and improve operations, which includes employing more shoppers and technical staff.
Valoyi says they will also focus on how to reach South Africans in the middle and lower living standards measure groups.
“It’s all about having a big dream,” he says. “Having a big dream is not all about you making money. It’s about working towards something that is going to change lives. In the beginning it was all about money for me. I just didn’t get it. Then there were times when things were tough and I realised that maybe this isn’t all about money. Maybe it’s all about how can I make an impact in people’s lives?”
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