The long walk to entrepreneurial freedom

Vuyisa Qabaka is the CEO of Abaphumeleli Business Consultants and a director at Sabef.
Vuyisa Qabaka is the CEO of Abaphumeleli Business Consultants and a director at Sabef.

Cape Town - It would have been a long walk to Qunu for South African entrepreneur guru Vuyisa Qabaka, who started out life 200km away in Mdantsane, outside East London, but his own walk to entrepreneurial success has been built on the freedoms set down by South Africa's first democratic president from Qunu, Nelson Mandela.

Mandela's autobiography, A Long Walk to Freedom, showed how the icon found his political voice in Johannesburg in the 1940s.

For Qabaka, who is the founder and director of the South African Black Entrepreneurship Forum (Sabef), his journey as an entrepreneur really started gaining momentum while selling life insurance to his fellow students at the University of Cape Town 15 years ago.

Now, aged  33 years old and a father of two, the Eastern Cape-born entrepreneur is involved in various start-up initiatives, after he opened Abaphumeleli Business Consultants in 2012.

Liziwe Ndalana: How did you become an entrepreneur?

Vuyisa Qabaka: I’ve always been entrepreneurial, having been exposed to entrepreneurship as a child. My mother owned a clothing boutique and my dad owned shops in Mdantsane Township in Eastern Cape. I helped in the family business and this lit up the entrepreneurial spark within me. My own personal journey began at university, during my second year where I got involved in different types of businesses with my friends.

My friends and I launched three magazines while at university and we sold advertising space to the shops around campus. We also came up with a web developing company called White Picket Fence, which designed websites for restaurants and guest houses. I also sold life insurance to students.

I also worked as a receptionist on campus. When I didn’t feel like working, I’d ask someone to work my shift and pay them a portion of what I got paid. For me it was not about making money, but making a difference in someone’s life who needed the money more than I did.

Ndalana: What’s your business about?

Qabaka: Abaphumeleli Business Consultants is focused on ecosystem development, stakeholder management and sector liaison. We specialise in transformation, BEE matching, supplier and enterprise development. Our core objective is to find like-minded partners who want to grow thriving businesses. Our objective with the Entrepreneur Traction project is to develop and support technology start-ups.

Another project is Socionext Africa, a high-impact innovative and social business incubator. Both of these meet the two aspects of what I’m about: the social aspect as a change agent and the innovative creator. We’re all about connecting with strategic partners with the hope of connecting our partners with worldwide opportunities.

Ndalana: What challenges have you encountered?

Qabaka: As an entrepreneur you encounter many opportunities daily, the challenge is to take full advantage of those opportunities that come your way in legal framework context.

Ndalana: How important is education to you as an entrepreneur?

Qabaka: Education is incredibly important. One of the values espoused by the Sabef is entrepreneurship education. Education is what makes the difference between people who understand the content of information is available; the broad data universe that’s available and using it to their advantage.

My sincere belief is that some of the strongest entrepreneurs are not necessarily academically educated, but those who are well read. The entrepreneurship education is slightly different from academic education as it is not subject specific. It is more about learning from other peoples’ experiences. 

Ndalana: Can one be taught to be an entrepreneur?

Qabaka: I certainly believe so! Socionext Africa is a week-long social innovation and entrepreneurship skills development programme started in South Africa. The programme trains participants to use lean start-up methodology to operate and run a business in five to seven days. The initial phase of implementation of the programme will target tertiary students and unemployed youth from peri-urban and rural communities in all nine provinces of South Africa.

Through our Socionext we use a programme called Lean Start- up methodology which will not really teach you how to be an entrepreneur. The programme will give you the mechanics to enable you to become entrepreneurial.

Ndalana: What makes a successful entrepreneur?

Qabaka: A true entrepreneur is a risk taker, can spot a gap, is innovative and most importantly is fearless. It is also about being consistent and persistent. Those things can be learnt and taught to people through circumstance. It is also about finding the right business model for you. The secret source of becoming an entrepreneur is being entrepreneurial.

The key fundamental lessons that Lean start-up model teaches you, is how to ask questions from the customers. The feedback that one gets from those questions becomes a building block of your business and it gives you a better chance of succeeding. You also need to test out the product from its quality, packaging and pricing.

These are what make people buy the product. You also need to keep in mind that trade is what makes your idea a business. Profit is made when trade takes place. If you are not selling anything, it is just a hobby and not a business. The importance is teaching entrepreneurship is to teach people to sell what people want and willing to pay for.

Ndalana: What business motto that you live by?

Qabaka: It is integrity, transparency and disruption. South Africa is a unique country and I feel blessed to be born at the time I was born. Everything I’m about and where I am feels like a blessing to me. We also have many challenges as the country, but challenges are an entrepreneur’s paradise.

Every day we get an opportunity to make a difference and make a profit out it at the same time. If you look at our business model allows us flexibility around the projects that we take. We structured our business to take full advantage of the opportunities that come our way. The legacy I want to leave behind is making a difference in society. In all the efforts that we take in my business we try to be inspirational and add value in the lives of people. This is through Socionext and Entrepreneur Traction programmes.
The added value part is when people partner and collaborate with us to help them build their businesses. In essence, we are saying as Abaphumeleli all things are possible even though we are at the southern tip of Africa.

Ndalana: What values do you espouse?

Qabaka: Integrity, honesty and transparency; these are the same values that I apply in the business.  My favourite saying is “to live a life of purpose and a purposeful life. The difference you make in the world. I’m happy that I get to do that.

Ndalana: What do you attribute your success to?

I attribute my success to the opportunities that I have daily. Every day I get a chance to look at the opportunity and make a choice on which to take advantage of. More often, it’s about who we get to collaborate and partner with. Therefore, our success as a business is a result of our willingness to collaborate with others. It is also about finding synergy with others and consistently focusing on creating value for other people. Every day I get a chance to make a difference.

Ndalana: How important is mentorship to you?

Qabaka: Mentorship is very important especially as a young person. You get to learn through others’ life experiences and they sign post and warn you of certain things. It’s also important to have a strong sounding board.  I have a mentor, but I also watch the success of others and learn from them. These people even though mentor me even though I’ve never met them.  The advent of social media exposes you to a global universe of mentorship and life lessons. It’s important to have mentors especially as a young person because you gain life experiences from others.

Ndalana: Do you have any books that have changed your life?

Qabaka: Yes, I have a number of them which have shaped my thinking. One of them is called Start-Up Nation by Saul Singer, which tells the story of Israel as a collaboration and innovation country.  I also read Napoleon Hill’s Thinking and Grow Rich, which talks about the importance of compound interest and how to building businesses that create value. Robert Kiosaki’s Rich Dad Poor Dad is another book which uses quadrants to forecast your future as an individual. I particularly liked the investor quadrant, which talks about making passive income. I aim to focus on this quadrant.  

Ndalana: What advice can you give to other entrepreneurs?

Qabaka: It’s critically important to manage your emotions and energy. If you are unable to manage your emotions well, it becomes very to become frustrated by money, staff and partners. When that happens you get sick and break down, then it becomes difficult to recover. In the reverse, if you are unable to manage your energy, you overwork yourself and your body will break down. When your body breaks down, you begin to doubt yourself and struggle to trust others.

When doubt creeps in, you get off-track and that’s when failure comes in. Have a healthy forecast of what you can achieve at a certain period of time. Don’t overestimate what you can achieve in a year and don’t underestimate what you can achieve in three years. Also have patience to see your business grow.

I think many businesses wouldn’t fail if business owners were more pragmatic around what it takes to be successful in business and plan things over a longer period of time. Every day we face challenges and that’s an entrepreneur paradise. It’s what makes us thrive.

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