An army of entrepreneurs

2013-06-16 14:00

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The Awethu Project doesn’t believe in just creating jobs for young people. It aims to create profitable young business owners – 500 within the next few months. Charl Blignaut met their entrepreneurs

It started with a vetkoek and nearly ended with a robbery, but young couple William Mphuthi (32) and Dineo Mabula (26) are about to launch the next phase of Bonolo’s Fast Food.

The business is named after their daughter and they make the best kotas (bunny chows) in Soweto, they say.

Dineo runs the kitchen and William handles the supplies and bookkeeping – and charms the ­customers. It all started because the vetkoek she served for breakfast were nicer than the ones ­William bought on the street.

“Over here will be tables and chairs,” he says, gesturing across the pavement outside their zinc shack restaurant in Orlando. “A young designer is converting buckets to make the seating. And there will be a shelter covering it ... ”

Bonolo’s Fast Food (“Kasi’s home of kotas”) is already an institution on the street here. No one passes without stopping for a chat and a chuckle – as often as not leaving with one of the 200 kotas they sell every day.

William and Dineo are passionate about what they do and it’s clear they were going to succeed anyway.

But since William picked up a pamphlet left by a talent scout from the Awethu Project and enlisted in their incubation programme, their plans have been fast-tracked. “We are busy exploring where we will open the next Bonolo’s,” he says.

That’s not to say they haven’t had their ups and downs – and William says the test of the true entrepreneur is to battle through the bad times.

An empty stall marks the corner where they tried to expand by selling sweets and ­oranges.

It didn’t work because there was too much competition. And, just as they had paid off their initial R8 000 loan to start the vetkoek business and saved up enough for a bakkie to fetch supplies, they lost it all.

“It’s because of her big mouth that we lost the R30 000,” jokes William. ­Dineo clucks and smacks him, returning her attention to the staff: Grace, who is slicing loaves, and an old man sitting in the sun peeling potatoes for chips in between playing rounds of ­solitaire with a deck of cards.

William Mphuthi and Dineo Mabula of Bonolo’s Fast Food, a small takeaway store named after their daughter Bonolo. They form a part of the growth in businesses in Soweto owned by young people. Picture: Leon Sadiki/City Press

“Dineo told everyone we were buying a car the next day. The whole street knew. Walking to buy it, we were robbed at gunpoint by these two guys.”

But they’re not discouraged.

“I love what I’m doing, I love serving and I love people,” William says. “If you don’t have a passion for it your ­business won’t work.”

William, like all of Awethu’s entrepreneurs we meet, peppers his dialogue with formal business terms.

They’re up on “profit margins”, “joint ventures” and “investment capital”.

They may be talking about their car wash or tuck shop or pie trolley, but at Awethu’s incubation sessions they’ve learnt to take informal trade seriously – so that they can expand.

Everyone we meet talks about “creating employment” in their neighbourhoods.

The 30-year-old brain behind Awethu, ­Yusuf Randera-Rees, while sitting on a couch in their offices at Constitution Hill, says: “Imagine if we can replicate this and have thousands of entrepreneurs. Imagine what a different society this will be.”

Randera-Rees studied at Harvard and then ­Oxford, where he first pitched the Awethu concept and landed in the finals of the university’s Business Plan Competition, later bringing it home to implement it.

He has attracted more than R20 million in investment from government and Discovery Health.

“So far, we have 85 entrepreneurs from underresourced backgrounds. The goal is 500 by September and 1 000 new jobs within a year or two,” he says. “We send scouts out to find people to apply. They can already have a business or be wanting to start one.”

It does not matter if you went to school, what language you speak or whether you have collateral.

“We test people psychometrically using images, not words, and identify people who are talented enough to implement and lead a business, who are problem solvers. Then we give them training and assign an incubation coach who works with them in the field.”

For 36 months, most of it on the job, entrepreneurs are trained in marketing, budgeting, bookkeeping, time management and the like.

They don’t lose anything from the profit margin they were already earning when they joined the programme, but split any increases in profit with Awethu for the duration of the programme. ­

Typically, they double their profits within the first three months.

Awethu is no fool at marketing itself either. Desmond Tutu is their patron and comedian Loyiso Gola – who began work as a petrol attendant – is their ­ambassador.

One of their very first entrepreneurs was Lesika Matlou (28) who left ­Mokgalwaneng village outside ­Rustenburg to study in Joburg but ran out of money. He heard about Awethu on the ­radio.

With their help, he started Ek Sê Tours and developed a specialist range of “action adventures” that includes a downtown jaunt, ending in abseiling down a building and a sort of Amazing Race Soweto tour where corporates must compete – partly by hailing taxis, selling vegetables at markets and rock climbing – as a team-building exercise.

Today, 20 months later, he owns a tour vehicle and has a staff of four.

“Every time I go home, there’s lots of talent there as well. I want to show kids that it doesn’t matter where you come from, you can make it regardless.”

Take Laurence Nkuna (28) and ­Kgomotso Mokoena (27), the owners of Afro Fast Food. They became friends when working on a freelance stint at Stats SA, but had no luck finding other work.

They began their food business in Moroka North, Soweto, selling boerewors rolls outside nightclubs.

Today they specialise in affordable African food – the local masters of pap and ­livers. We meet them in Mapetla where they have entered into a “joint venture” with a young tuck shop owner.

Laurence Nkuna and Kgomotso Mokoena formed a partnership to start the thriving Afro Fast Food spaza shop in Soweto. Picture: Leon Sadiki/City Press

They “invested in” a Wendy house and budgeted R400 for stock. At the end of the first month they shared

R1 600 profit, though they’re still paying off the Wendy house.

After the police chased them off a pavement where they were selling chicken feet, they formed a partnership with a homeowner called Vincent.

Now they cook in his kitchen and serve at tables in his yard. He’s delighted with the rent money and even helps out in the kitchen. They enthuse about what is at the heart of their liver trade – the community and partnerships, like the one with Awethu.

» If you have a rocking business idea, contact Awethu at or call 011 024 1606

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