South African gym boss: Only 25% of members come primarily for exercise
Dr Hajira Mashego identified a gap for gyms in South African townships and peri-urban areas. In an interview with How we made it in Africa, she talked about the untapped potential in the country’s gym industry, her most effective marketing initiatives and why the majority of Fitness Junction’s members don’t primarily come to the gym for exercise.
Life before becoming an entrepreneur
Mashego started her career as a physiotherapist and went on to become a lecturer in the field. In 2007, she joined the national Department of Sport and Recreation as a director for scientific support services and, in 2014, was appointed the acting chief director for sports and recreation in the Mpumalanga Province. However, she became frustrated with public sector work as she felt her labour had little impact. In 2017, after completing her PhD and a part-time course in social entrepreneurship at the GIBS Business School in Johannesburg, she left her government role to start her own gym. She cashed in her pension to finance the equipment for the first gym.
Mashego’s decision to enter the fitness industry stemmed from her PhD thesis, which examined physical activity among South African adolescents. Her research found that in most townships (underdeveloped urban areas that, until the end of apartheid, were reserved for non-whites), people had little access to physical activity facilities, which contributed to high rates of obesity that leads to hypertension, diabetes, cardiac failure and many other chronic diseases of lifestyle.
Although South Africa has a relatively evolved gym industry – with large players like Virgin Active and Planet Fitness – Mashego saw an underserved market in townships and peri-urban areas. Most people resort to running or walking clubs to get their exercise. “If you drive into a township in the morning, you see people running on the main roads. It is not safe. In some townships, you get robbed while running,” she explains.
Getting the business up and running
Securing her first site proved challenging as Mashego didn’t have a track record she could show to landlords. After several rejections, the owners of the Madeira Shopping Centre in Danville, Pretoria, agreed to offer her a lease. The location was perfect; situated between Pretoria’s western townships and the CBD, where many work. Mashego surveyed motorists at traffic lights in the area to validate her assumptions that there was a demand for a gym in the area.
Fitness Junction opened its doors on 23 February 2018. On the first day, the company allowed everyone to test the equipment for free. It received a large number of sign-ups on that first day and even ran out of receipt books.
Fitness not the primary reason why people visit
While Mashego’s initial value proposition was to provide her customers with a facility to improve their health, she soon discovered most of her members were there for much more than exercise. They were there to socialise.
“In South Africa, gyms, carwashes and nightclubs are more or less the same. People dress up to go to a carwash; they look the part, they get a cooler box and sit at the carwash and socialise, braai meat and drink while their car is washed.
“A gym in our community is similar. They dress up and wear the latest make-up to go to the gym. It’s more of a social area; a place where you find a partner or make new friends… It’s where you are seen to be in the right social class, carrying the right bag, wearing the right sneakers. Only about 25% go there primarily for the exercise.”
Mashego adds the majority of her members – 65% are women – come for aerobics and spinning classes. They don’t use the exercise equipment much.
The pandemic lockdown was a massive setback for Fitness Junction. In 2020, gyms weren’t allowed to operate for several months, and even when they could open, it had to be at a reduced capacity. Many people froze or cancelled their contracts. Mashego expects the business to return to pre-Covid-19 levels only by September this year.
Marketing: pamphlets work best
Handing out pamphlets in surrounding areas has delivered the best results for Fitness Junction. The company pays people in the community R100 (US$7) a day to distribute pamphlets to houses and at traffic lights.
It also does activations such as aerobics marathons at shopping centres. “Every month, we hold an aerobics marathon in a parking lot. Everyone is welcome; they don’t need to be a member. People end up joining the gym because they have so much fun.”
While the company does have a website and social media presence, it is aimed at younger people. “Students find us on social media but older adults find us through pamphlets. They are less social-media savvy.”
At the time of writing, Fitness Junction had about 1,400 members, of which 1,000 are “active members”. “Our active members fluctuate because of bouncing debit orders,” Mashego reveals.
Although Fitness Junction’s main income is from memberships, it generates additional revenue by leasing space to the operator of a juice bar inside the gym. It also collects rent from a dance school for children, which uses its facility on Saturdays.
Mashego sees potential to replicate her business model in several outlying townships. “If I can get the funding, I can scale it to every township where the big boys are not willing to go. People have disposable income but there isn’t much to do in the townships; they work, go home, have braais, drink and that’s about it.”
She hopes to open her second gym by the end of 2022, depending on whether she can source funding. “The jump from the first to the second gym is difficult because the money we are making is not sufficient to support the opening of a second one. Set-up costs are quite steep with the equipment, renovations and other items; you need a minimum of R3 million ($195,000).”
Fitness Junction CEO Dr Hajira Mashego’s contact information
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