South Africa is a fantastically diverse country with not only a plethora of cultures to celebrate but also a truly distinctive business environment to operate in. Opportunities abound if you look in the right places.
These eight proudly South African entrepreneurs did just that. They looked to their heritage, discovered a market gap and ran with it.
Most of them are unconventional, and some have even been called crazy – but one thing that stands out above all else is their love for this beautiful country and their passion for making a success of their business.
1. MIKIE MONOKETSI
The Business: Mama’s Spices & Herbs
Mikie Monoketsi tapped into the lucrative township market with little more than a hunch and R10 000.
In 2011, Mikie Monoketsi had lost everything – her call centre business and marriage. Having read Dale Carnegie’s How to Stop Worrying and Start Living, she made a life altering decision.
She decided to stop worrying about the future and to turn things around, which is exactly what she did. She knew that the township market is huge and lucrative if you bring the right offering.
“I realised a need to educate the township market. Through my research I discovered that the spices customers used by townships are cheap and of poor quality, with high levels of salt, MSG, preservatives, additives and bulking agents – which all negatively impact health and contribute to high levels of hypertension and diabetes.”
This gave her the idea to create her own unique blend of healthier spices that would complement the foods that were being prepared in the townships. She wanted to offer better quality, with health benefits, and at an affordable price. And so Mama’s Spices & Herbs was born.
2. MICHAL ‘LOOPY’ LUPTAK
The Business: Dlala Nje
Michal Luptak is certainly an unconventional self-starter. While working at a lucrative auditing firm he took the crazy decision to live in Ponte Tower.
But this decision would lead to a social entrepreneurial quest with a project that had legs, and a very big heart.
“We realised that there were between 300 to 500 children in the building with no safe place to play. Their parents were hesitant about leaving them to play in the streets where Johannesburg’s underbelly of crime was prevalent and a strong influence in their upbringing. So the idea of Dlala Nje (“Just Play” in isiZulu) was born.”
When Luptak and his partner opened up Dlala Nje they were both working in their corporate jobs, supplementing the running of Dlala Nje with their salaries. But after only a few months they were thinking of closing shop as the numbers weren’t showing much of a profit.
They were asked to give a talk at The Bioscope in Maboneng around living in Ponte and an audience member asked them whether they could take guests around on a walking tour through Hillbrow.
Two weeks later they were called with a booking for 22 people to join the walking tour and these walking tours gave their organisation the legs to continue.
3. ANGEL JONES
The Business: Homecoming Revolution
While Angel Jones was working in London she witnessed the address of Nelson Mandela in Trafalgar Square on a rainy morning in 1996.
“I grew up always a South African, but never proud of my skin colour or flag,” says Jones. “Then I saw him and he said, ‘I love you all so much. I want to put you in my pocket and take you home’. He made us feel so proud of our shiny new South Africa. There was an idea that, actually, if you returned home you weren’t a failure. I realised there were opportunities back on the Continent and that there were stories to tell of those who returned home.”
And so the Homecoming Revolution was born to bring expats back to South Africa. Each returnee creates nine new jobs in the South African formal and informal sectors. In the past five years, 359 000 South African working professionals have returned, bringing vital skills.
4. LESIKA MATLOU
The Business: Ek Sê Tours
Lesika Matlou is a natural born raconteur. The young entrepreneur left his village in the rural North West province to come to Johannesburg after he heard about the Awethu Project on the radio.
With the support of Awethu, Matlou started Ek Sê Tours in August 2011. His company specialises in showing people aspects of Joburg that are out of the ordinary.
“I started the business with R6 000 that I got from Awethu, which I used to promote Ek Sê Tours at B&Bs in and around Melville and to take my first clients — two Americans — around the city. I didn’t tell them stories about crime and corruption. Instead, I focused on what is vibrant and different about our great city.”
In the first three months, he made a profit of R10 000. Soon after that he employed his first full-time tour guide. Today he provides work for six staff, takes more than 100 people a week around the city, and has recently secured a contract worth more than R1 million with Red Pepper Pictures.
5. STELIO NATHANAEL AND PRAXIA NATHANAEL
The Business: Chesa Nyama
Stelio Nathanael (MD) and Praxia Nathanael (CEO) are well versed in the food industry. Stelio has been involved in the food game since he was 16, is MD of Gold Brands, the holding company of three food brands, and has now founded Chesa Nyama, a flame-grilled meat take-away franchise.
“Everyone knows South Africans are meat lovers, we even have a word for it, ‘braai-mania’, but I noticed that the grilled meat market was very informal and fast food didn’t cater toward this niche of proper flame-grilled meat — it was either burgers, pizza or chicken,” Stelio says. “I knew from experience that high quality products at affordable prices would make the concept work across wide LSM markets.”
Chesa Nyama was founded to provide A-grade meat that can be served with traditional pap and gravy, or chips. To keep prices affordable and maintain quality, the co-founders decided to cut out the middleman. “We go straight to the abattoir, we portion and vacuum-pack the meat in our own central kitchen, then it goes to our franchisees at wholesale prices, helping them turn a profit.”
6. PHILIP CRONJE AND JAMES ROBERTSON
The Business: Big Blue
Big Blue is arguably South Africa’s most distinctive and unique retailer. It’s also one of the country’s largest T-shirt retailers, which is even more impressive when you consider that Philip Cronje and James Robertson have chosen to work predominantly with local designers and manufacturers instead of importing cheaper fabrics.
While helping to create jobs locally, they also remain environmentally and socially conscious, opting to use locally milled and recycled fabrics, and actively supporting craft groups like the Hillcrest Aids Project, Diepsloot Crafters and Topsi Foundation.
An early pilot store, aptly named Kitsch and Kool, was set up in Rosebank, and the original Big Blue store that followed was an instant success. It generated a flood of magazine and television publicity as well as a healthy increase in sales.
This store also became one of the first in the country to combine gifting with clothing, a concept that is now commonly known in the retail industry as a ‘lifestyle store’.
7. RAYMOND RAMPOLOKENG
The Business: So We Too
In 2007 Raymond founded his company, Bay of Grace Tours, providing birding tours for the first time in the history of Soweto. In 2011, Raymond’s business, along with six others in Soweto, took part in a 6-month mentorship programme hosted by the TEP (Tourism Enterprise Partnership).
Each business was linked with a mentor and taught to scrutinise its business plan, bankability, and objectives. Encouraged by the TEP’s Hidden Treasures Programme, the 7 came together under a new brand to share various unique and alternative experiences available in Soweto. They came up with the name SO WE TOO.
“It’s obviously a play on Soweto but we also wanted to send an uplifting message of ‘so we too can do it. We are all from Soweto and we share the same goals and ideals. Together we came up with a township experience with a difference. You not only get to see a truly authentic Soweto but you could do so for 24 hours.”
In 2014, SO WE TOO was awarded a Lilizela Tourism Award for Social Participation and now services an astounding 800-900 clients per month, with 3 tours per day.
8. KEITH BETE
The Business: Ubuntuism Clothing
Keith Bete founded Ubuntuism Clothing, an African-focused active wear brand, with his business partner, Simbarashe Simbarashe, in 2009. He joined the Branson Centre in 2012, where he met Jones through an Entrepreneur’s Organisation/Branson Centre collaboration.
A mix of business savvy and design talent, Bete founded Ubuntuism Clothing because he saw a branded label as the perfect way to get his message of African oneness, uniqueness and communal celebration to the masses. “Ubuntu is our greatest resource. I wanted to package this and make it accessible to everyone.”
Through his associations with the Branson Centre and Jones, Bete has a photograph with Richard Branson wearing one of his shirts, and he managed to get his t-shirt into the latest Leon Schuster movie, where one of the actors loves the shirt so much he wears it throughout the film. Not bad going for a small start-up whose eye is on the big leagues.