Sweet success as former fruit and veg hawker turned businessman churns out the taste of Mitchells Plain

Iehsaan Small with his product, Ice Cream Vanni Plain. (Coffeebeans Routes via Facebook)
Iehsaan Small with his product, Ice Cream Vanni Plain. (Coffeebeans Routes via Facebook)

A former fruit and vegetable hawker studying to fulfil his dream of becoming a chef, has started a small business named after the neighbourhood in which he was born and raised – Mitchells Plain.

Iehsaan Small, 33, is churning out a living with "Ice Cream Vanni Plain". Less than two months since it launched, he is starting to taste sweet success as his little empire takes shape.

Forced to find an income to support his daughter, 9, while studying full time, Small chose to capitalise on the little girl's favourite treat.

"I initially wanted to name the product after her, but decided that it didn't sound local enough. I wanted to incorporate local slang and give it a more homegrown feel. So I chose Ice Cream Vanni Plain, because that is exactly what it is."

The magic happens in the kitchen of his partner's house in Portlands, where Small and two friends he has since employed make the product by the bowlful.

There are eight flavours, named after neighbourhoods in Mitchells Plain - Westridge, Eastridge, Woodlands, Rocklands, Tafelsig, Beacon Valley, Lentegeur and Portlands.

"This is symbolic, to show the good that can come from this place, which so many associate only with gangsterism, drugs and bad things."

Iehsaan Small with his product, Ice Cream Vanni Pl

Iehsaan Small with his product, Ice Cream Vanni Plain. (Coffeebeans Routes via Facebook)

Small dropped out of high school when he was only 14 years old after being bullied by gangsters and threatened with a gun. He was only halfway through Grade 10.

His parents, who were divorced, decided that he couldn't live under their roof if he didn't return to the classroom.

He moved in with a friend, who lived next door to his father in Rocklands.

"I was underage so I couldn't get a job yet. I needed to find a way to survive, so I learnt to hustle. I walked around with a pair of dice in my pocket and played people for money. I was good at card games; I played people at taverns and drug dealers' yards. I never stole or robbed people to keep myself going."

He played his last game when a drug runner threatened him with a gun after Small won his dealer's loot.

"It was thousands. The guy told me I couldn't go with the cash because it was smokkel geld (gambling money). He gave me R30 and I walked away. I was done."

He got his first job at 16, selling fruit, vegetables and household goods at the Mitchells Plain Town Centre.

When he was finally old enough to get a formal job, he worked at an engineering company in Montagu Gardens as a storeman. He started out with a wage of R340 – R250 went towards his weekly rent; his bus ticket cost R60.

"Every week I only had R30 left, but that was okay. It was an honest living."

He married his girlfriend of 10 years at the age of 25. When they got divorced seven months later, Small said he went into a deep depression for four years.

"I was down and out. I moved from place to place, stayed indoors, I didn't work – times were truly dark," he said.

But in 2017, after years of pep talks from his loved ones, Small decided to "pull [himself] together".

"I realised that I needed to do something with my life. I needed to determine what I wanted to do. A friend offered me a place to stay, allowing me to live rent free until I was back on my feet. That was the biggest blessing that could have happened to me."

Iehsaan Small after delivering a motivational talk

Iehsaan Small after delivering a motivational talk at a coaching event for women entrepreneurs. (Supplied)

He enrolled for a hospitality course, scraping together R1 500 to cover the deposit by doing odd jobs like painting and doing maintenance work in the area. He didn't know how he would pay the R9000 balance, but "prayed Allah would help me".

The outstanding fees were later covered by the South African National Zakah Fund.

In 2019, he registered for hospitality studies at the College of Cape Town.

He is in his first year and is covering the cost with a student loan.

"I am older than the other students, but I am not here for anyone but me. I have a goal and a vision and told the [faculty head] before I got accepted that I would be the top student in the department. I have delivered – if I say I will do something, I do it."

Small does catering for events and functions to earn extra money, but needed more to cover maintenance costs for his daughter.

After he decided to give the ice-cream industry a try, he saved enough money for ingredients to create the eight different flavours.

He then created samples, which he tested on family and friends, later doing his own surveys at different beaches and malls to determine if his product would have a market.

When he realised 90% of testers chose his ice-cream over other established brands, he realised he had a winner.

"I started approaching people I knew had money and asked them to invest in me and my idea. Nobody took me or my idea seriously. They knew who I was and where I came from, how poor I was as a child. They didn't think I was destined for great things."

Determined to find someone to back his dream, he approached the college's head of hospitality.

While financially unable to become an investor, she ordered ingredients and packaging for him and allowed him to use the facility's kitchen, freezers and equipment to get his business off the ground.

He made a few samples which he distributed among the students.

"The next week we had an entrepreneur day on campus and I used that to launch my ice cream. I had enough ingredients for eighty 250ml tubs. I took it out of the freezer but the ice-cream never made it to my stand. I was sold out before I had even displayed it."

He used all the money he made to buy more ingredients.

"That is how I am financing my business – sell, buy, sell, buy. So far, so good."

His labels were designed by fellow student Mika-eel Moerat, from Lentegeur, who is studying art and design.

Small said while his business was still in its infancy at less than two months old, he has already been approached by a number of businesses interested in stocking his product.

Among them is one of SA's biggest supermarkets, who will next week be sending representatives to meet with him, the elated businessman said.

Small said he hoped to see his business grow as he wanted to make a dent in the rampant unemployment in his hometown.

"We are currently selling from home and people from as far as Durbanville, Muizenberg and Brackenfell have been coming all the way to Mitchells Plain for my ice-cream," he boasted.

Ice Cream Vanni Plain is available in 8 flavours,

Ice Cream Vanni Plain is available in 8 flavours, named after areas in Mitchells Plain. (Supplied, Iehsaan Small)

A tourism company has also approached him, encouraging him to consider giving tourists an ice-cream making workshop in his kitchen.

"I would love to show Mitchells Plain to the world. This is a beautiful place with lots to do and see. They can eat gatsbies and fish and chips while they're here too!"

He is in the process of adding local success stories to his ice cream packaging, focusing on people born in Mitchells Plain who have done great things.

Similar to Chappies Bubblegum's "Did you Know?" facts, the ice cream packaging stories will be called "Het Djy Gewiet?".

"These stories are important, because it shows that everyone – even me – can become something big."

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