JOHANNESBURG – South African entrepreneur Noma Radebe's business plan is simple: Tell Africa's stories.
The co-founder and managing director of a television production company plans to do that with the upcoming launch of her first live venture, "Str8 Talk," a talk show by and about young people.
Radebe said young people with no experience in television will be working with youthful veterans on the program, choosing topics and fielding live questions from viewers about everything from teen pregnancy to climate change.
"It's risk, risk, risk," she said of her first attempt at live TV.
The South African Broadcasting Corporation has purchased 13 24-minute episodes, giving Radebe a budget of just 3,500 rand (about $500) per minute, a fraction of budgets elsewhere and cheap even by South African standards.
To keep costs down, Radebe will be encouraging viewers to call in through Skype or to send comments by Facebook or SMS, using new media in a way that's relatively new for SABC. She's made the most of cheap new technology before, using the video-recording feature of digital still cameras to shoot music videos for a show on traditional African musicians she produced for SABC.
In his budget speech this week, Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan said, "We must offer young work seekers real hope where at present there is despair," citing government research showing 42 percent of South Africans in the work force between the ages of 18 and 29 are unemployed.
With her newest show, Radebe, 32, is hoping to do her part by bringing a new generation of South Africans into television, saying she wants to pass on opportunities she was given when she was starting out.
Earlier this month, Radebe was outlining her goals of encouraging Africans to be "the custodians of our own culture" to an audience that included Graca Machel, an advocate for women's development and wife of former President Nelson Mandela. Bank managers and investment advisers were also among the listeners invited by the organizers of the development program, the Senegal-based independent Pan African Center for Gender, Peace and Development; the Spanish business school Instituto de Empresa; and the Spanish government.
"You have to dream big, you have to implement big, you have to become big," Machel told Radebe and the other businesswomen, who included a hotelier from Rwanda, a pig farmer from Congo and a furniture factory owner from Liberia.
Benita Diop of the Pan African Center for Gender, Peace and Development said her project's first class brought together a group of strong and determined women, and that Radebe was "a brilliant young entrepreneur with a vision."
Radebe, slightly nervous pitching to potential investors, was calmly in her element a week later in an SABC boardroom. She and her business partner, Lichaba Nthethe, and other collaborators discussed crew, sets and logistics for "Str8 Talk" with executives of the state broadcaster.
It's been a long journey for a woman who started out by accident working at a children's show a decade ago. Radebe lucked into a job as a secretary after finishing a printing course at a technical school.
She said all she knew then about what career she would pursue was that she wanted something that would allow her to travel. She and a like-minded friend who was a secretary for a TV production company applied to be flight attendants. When the airline accepted her friend, Radebe took the open spot at the production company.
Radebe answered phones but also visited sets, helped out with wardrobe and learned the business. She later set out as a freelancer, and in 2006 formed Leaps Media & Productions with Nthethe, whom she met while the two were working on a talk show.
In the beginning, she said, she would take whatever work came her way. Now, she said, she concentrates on projects that can help viewers in South Africa, a nation of 11 official languages newly united after decades of apartheid, better understand their history and culture.
"Media is a tool that needs to be used very, very carefully, because it's powerful," she said. "As I grew and got more mature, I started understanding the importance of telling our own stories."
Leaps's traditional music show spotlighted artists who are often ignored. A documentary explored the spirit of ubuntu, a word common to several southern African languages that refers to working together for the community's good. A project in the works will bring films by young African directors to TV.
Radebe counts Oprah Winfrey as an inspiration, saying the American has used television to change lives, and that she is driven by the question: "Could I ever reach that level?"
Radebe, who owns a controlling 51 percent of Leaps, describes herself as the business-minded partner, while Nthethe is the creative force. But she's grown used to clients addressing budget questions to the man in the duo.
"I don't mind, because the arrangement is between him and me. We know our roles," she said, saying she's content to sit quietly during meetings and sort out the details later.
Noelle Ngobeni, a small business development adviser, said she has watched Radebe at work and wondered if she could be equally — and as effectively — sanguine.
"That's something I've loved about her — that diplomacy," said Ngobeni, who often calls on Radebe as a motivational speaker for other businesswomen.
Ngobeni's Enablis offers advice, training and money to small businesses in developing countries. In 2007, after a rigorous process in which 4,000 applicants were winnowed to 100 finalists, Enablis offered Leaps a 2 million rand ($280,000) loan. Radebe turned down the money, saying what her business really needed was training and technology support from Enablis.
Similarly, after making it from an initial field of two dozen to 10 finalists chosen to address investors in the Senegalese-Spanish project, Radebe asked not for money but for contacts who could help her enter TV markets beyond South Africa.
"Am I ready?" she said. "Time will tell."