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Dr Hajira Mashego is the founder and CEO of Fitness Junction, a commercial gym company in Pretoria West that opened its doors in 2018. What makes Fitness Junction special? It offers the same high-quality products and services as the gyms in cities and suburbs, but ensures it’s within reach of the peri-urban and rural markets.

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It’s about making exercise accessible to everyone

“My PhD studies in physical activity woke me up to the lack of facilities for black people in townships and rural areas to exercise safely,” says Hajira. “Township and rural area residents must travel for many kilometres to towns and cities to access gym facilities. The long-distance travel means that access to wellness is financially costly, logistically demanding and time-consuming,” says says.

Chronic lifestyle diseases have increased at a high rate among black South Africans. Physical activity is proven to be one of the most effective ways to prevent or slow down the development of these diseases. “I decided to join the fight against the scourge of these diseases through making exercise accessible to peri-urban and rural residents,” she says. “That has become my biggest passion.”

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But it hasn’t been a walk in the park…

Succeeding as a business in the fitness industry carries extra challenges for women. While there’s a high percentage of female fitness trainers, group fitness trainers and personal trainers, men dominate the strategic management positions. “This means that it’s easy for women to enter the industry, but difficult for us to progress into leadership positions,” explains Hajira.

And then there’s the money to bankroll your biz… “Access to finance has always been – and still is – my biggest challenge,” she says. “I knocked at countless doors for funding until I realised that I was not going to get any.” So, bravely, Hajira decided to quit her job, cash in her pension fund and bootstrap the business.

An uphill battle ensued. “As the capital outlay and running costs for a gym facility are very high, I ran out of funds and had to approach friends and relatives to invest in the business,” she says. “I am currently attempting to raise funds to scale to further branches to reach more townships and rural areas, but to date doors are still closed.”

Hajira’s top saving tip (based on experience)

“Always live below your means. Save up as much as possible so that when tough times arrive you have a cushion to fall on.”

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Keen on the fitness industry?

There are various ways to get into the industry, says Hajira. The most direct route is to become certified as a fitness instructor, group fitness instructor or personal trainer. You can do this immediately after completing grade 12. The bonus is that this route gives you time to gain exposure to the industry in general before deciding on a specialisation.

Once you have a feel for the industry, you can start thinking about your particular area of focus. Various professionals are able to carve out a career in this space. Think: physiotherapists, biokineticists, nutritionists/dieticians and sport science graduates, who can either operate their private practice within a fitness establishment, or form connections with certain establishments as service providers.

Sports management or business administration/management graduates can also get employed as fitness club administrators or sales personnel.

Heads up: internships are available through organisations that receive funding from the Culture, Art, Tourism, Hospitality, and Sport Sector Education and Training Authority (CATHSSETA). Hop onto the site for deets.

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Empowering advice for women and girls

Keep fighting to break that ceiling. “Women entrepreneurs are still discriminated against – even though South African policy documents emphasise women empowerment,” says Hajira. “A case in point is the minuscule percentage of women who receive funding from development agencies and financial institutions as opposed to men. Women need to stand together, support each other and challenge the status quo.”

And when she’s not fighting for empowerment?

“I retreat into my personal space, read fiction books and escape reality,” says Hajira. “I also enjoy hiking and spending time outdoors. These activities help me to reboot and look at challenges with a fresh perspective.”

Connect with Dr Hajira Mashego

“I would love to guide young women so that they don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Connect with me on Facebook: Hajira Mashego.”

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