Next up in our Limitless series celebrating women working in male-dominated industries, this entrepreneur from Botswana has switched from tennis to chicken wings.
Before Natasha Siku first picked up a racket at nine years old as a part of her primary school’s compulsory sports programme, no one could have predicted that she would be playing for the national team by the time she was a teenager. “I’d never played sports before but it was amazing how quickly I took to it and got really good at it,” she says.
Siku was scouted by a tennis coach who happened to be hosting a training camp at Morule Primary School, where she was a student. She won her first official tournament and was subsequently picked to represent Botswana internationally. That chance meeting with her former coach would help create a sportswoman who’d grow to dominate the tennis and netball scene. “Sports just came naturally to me,” says Siku. “I felt compelled to take it as far as it could possibly go.”
As a female athlete in Botswana I’d become aware that we faced some unique challenges.
Sports would be her “way out” of Phikwe, a bustling town to its occupants, but a fast-paced village to everyone else. She would also be leaving Botswana, where she says she’d already come to realize her options would be capped. “As a female athlete in Botswana I’d become aware that we faced some unique challenges, our tournaments not being prioritized, being overlooked often because of your gender, there always seemed to be a lack of resources too, and I wanted more for myself.”
Possibilities presented themselves the more she leaned into her career. Fellow tennis champion Tapiwa Marobela inspired her to research getting college sports scholarships, after Tapiwa got a scholarship to Florida State University to study and play there. “Tapiwa Marobela really changed my understanding of what was possible through sports,” she shares.
“There’s a lot of untapped potential when it comes to sports people in Africa. I think we have natural athletes but we tend to fail them when it comes to teaching them how to maximize their potential.” Siku didn’t want to drop the ball on herself. She saved money from selling phone credit and snacks and would go to internet cafes to research on how to create portfolios, profiles and reels for international schools and scouts. “I think I must have sent out applications and profiles to about 200 colleges and then I picked the best offer.
Siku carried with her an acute awareness that her story was an exception.
“Sports instilled in me discipline, commitment and consistency. To this day, for everything that I want for my life, these three things remain important.” At 18 years old, she set off into the world to start her journey. “I had to sit my family down and explain to them not just what I’d been doing, but what being accepted on a sports scholarship meant and all that. They were a little apprehensive but they were also in awe of the fact that I’d pulled that off all by myself,” she reminisces. “In the end they let me go”.
Through college Siku carried with her an acute awareness that her story was an exception. “Athletics aren’t a viable source of income in Botswana. Many people don’t even get paid to participate” she shares. Back home in Botswana, there were many more wonderful athletes who couldn’t depend on the government to be the sole provider of resources. Thus, Opportunities Without Borders was born.
As well as still playing for both the international tennis and netball teams, Siku does for others what she did for herself through Opportunities Without Borders. “I live a limitless life and I wanted to pay it forward”. The organization acts as a consultancy firm of sorts, helping promising young athletes and their families understand and identify opportunities for growth and expansion when it comes to their sports skills. Siku then profiles the athletes, shares their profiles with her network of coaches internationally and negotiates on behalf of the athletes and their families to help get them placements.
With her back against the wall and her anxiety building she decided to keep herself busy by selling wings.
Opportunities Without Borders was fully operational and hosting workshops when COVID hit and forced everyone into lockdown. Speaking opportunities also dried up, as did tennis coaching classes that Siku had also been hosting. With her back against the wall and her anxiety building she decided to keep herself busy by selling wings. “Botswana’s fast food market is dominated by international brands that aren’t exactly convenient for the average person to access. For example, only a handful of establishments deliver and even less are accessible online,” she says when discussing the birth of her wing business, Wing It On. “When I was in school in the US wings were big business and I thought, why not bring that over here?”
With the reassurance from friends and family that her wings were definitely worth paying for, she decided on seven flavours to start with and used money from a modelling gig to buy her first batch of stock. Wing It On was a runaway success – accessible, delicious and offering delivery.
Hi guys ! I sell wings .. kindly retweet and place an order 😊 pic.twitter.com/rnqZ6jZZAu
— WingItonBw (@natasha_siku) August 17, 2020
Through two more lockdowns, Siku was able to keep growing her business and, in less than a year, opened a physical store. It’s going strong with the original flavours and now a signature cocktail to boot. There’s also the promise of creating their sauces for retail. “The overall experience works for me. I don’t have a strategy,” she says when speaking on the rapid growth of Wing It On. “Right now I just know that I’d like to see it become big, so big that we can be proud of it as a local brand that employs locals and branches out to all areas around the country, ultimately contributing to the economy.”
With thanks to Africa No Filter who made this series possible.