Spazas + Tuck Shops: Corner Stores in South Africa

By Alexis Ditkowsky, KF14, South Africa

Nobuthle at her spaza

Everything is better when you have a neighborhood corner store. In Brooklyn – the last place I lived for more than four months – a bodega was almost always a good sign. Not only could you get food and drink whenever you pleased, but its presence was as if someone thoughtfully left the lights on so you didn’t have to stumble home in the dark.

South Africa enjoys an abundance of corner stores and they’re one of the most common businesses funded by Women’s Development Businesses (WDB) in southern KwaZulu-Natal. Corner stores run the gamut from selling a few things out of a home to setting up a small shelter by the side of the road to building a more sturdy structure to leasing a space in a building. They’re a very important source of goods in rural communities since it can be expensive and time-consuming to make a trip to town every time you need something.

There are two terms for a corner store – “spaza” and “tuck shop”. Some people use these interchangeably but it seems like spazas might be the more informal of the two. Typical stock includes chips, sweets, bread, airtime for mobile phones, and maybe cold drinks. Sometimes you can buy fat cookies – a very popular treat made from mixing sugar, water, and flour and then frying the little balls of dough in cooking oil – and mielie (corn on the cob) but options are generally quite limited. It’s also a place where you can chat with neighbors and develop a relationship with the owners, to the point where they might sell to you on credit or sell to you late at night even though the shop is technically closed.

Meanwhile, I think of tuck shops as being in sturdier buildings and selling a wider range of items including fruit, vegetables, milk, eggs, hot food, and staples like salt, sugar, and cooking oil. It’s more like a small grocery store to a spaza’s convenience store. But the distinction is very fuzzy so whether it’s called a spaza or a tuck shop, the stock is based on local demand and the sturdiness of the structure depends on what the owner can afford.

Nobuthle, a borrower with Sabathwa Group, is a great example of a typical Kiva client in the region. She runs a small stall by the side of the road and also sells items from her home. She clearly loves being a saleswoman and supports her children, her brother, her brother’s child, and her sister’s children through her work. Business has been going well since she spent her Kiva loan on airtime for mobile phones and drinks, two popular items with her customers, and she plans to put her profits toward building a sturdier shop to protect her from the rain, building a home for her family, and keeping her kids in school as long as they want to study. In this way, Nobuthle is like every single WDB client I’ve met over the past three months – she’ll sacrifice her own eduction, comfort, and finances so that her family can enjoy opportunities that she didn’t have….

Since this post is dedicated to talking shop, here are a few more businesses you’ll find all over the region:

Curry shops – KwaZulu Natal boasts 80% of the Indian population in South Africa
Bottle stores – What we in the US call “liquor stores”
Butchers – Favorite local items include braai meat (meat for barbecuing), boerewors (translates from Afrikans as “farmer’s sausage”), and cow’s head for special occasions
Stands/Stalls by the rank (where people go to catch buses or share taxis) or by the side of the road – You can find produce, clothes, shoes, crafts, airtime, homemade food like pies, fat cookies, hot chips (french fries), and just about anything else you might need before or after a journey

Alexis Ditkowsky (KF14) works with Women’s Development Businesses in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. Check out WDB’s lending team and stay tuned for new loans on their lending page.

Selection of previous posts by Alexis Ditkowsky:
Special Update from the Field: Beaches, Safaris + Cambodian Glamour Shots
Photos from KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa
Database Detective: South Africa Edition
The Meaning of “Now” in South Africa
Next Steps for Kiva’s Partner in South Africa
First Borrower Visit (Take 350+)
A Hand-Delivered Kiva Fellow
Drawings from Training and Greetings from Boston


Nobuthle's home and stock room

Bricks for eventually building a sturdier home

Nobuthle carries stock from her home to her spaza shelter by the road

The shelter has limited protection from the elements

Setting up shop for the day

Nobuthle's spaza

About the author

Alexis Ditkowsky