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Navigating markets in the mud and dust

Article provided by Discovery Business Insurance.

Two entrepreneurs keeping Khayelitsha hydrated are head brewer and co-founder of Ukhamba Beerworx, Lethu Tshabangu and Sikelela Dibela, owner of Siki’s Koffee Kafe. They share the challenges and rewards of doing business in grassroots markets.

Siki started out as a dishwasher at coffee chain, Vida e Caffè but went on to become a champion barista. “Vida was growing, and they wanted to go to open up stores in the United Kingdom. I was selected to go, and I was the youngest in the team,” Siki says.

He became homesick after a while and returned to Cape Town, where he decided he wanted to introduce coffee culture to Khayelitsha. “I wanted this for my community. There were no coffee shops around at that time,” he says. “I saw an opportunity where I could introduce something in a market, where it was not a norm. I wanted to educate people about the type of coffees that they could drink,” he says.

Fast forward a few years, and while he still operates from his mother’s garage, the business is going strong and has become a favourite tourist spot in the township.  

Lethu, who introduced craft beer to Khayelitsha, had a similar idea with his brew. Working at a bar in Waterfront, he says he learnt a lot about different types of drinks. “I realised I was in the beginning phase of this craft culture in Cape Town. I did cocktail bartending, so I was trained to understand drinks… to think with your tongue, as one of my mentors put it.”

He says: “When I got into craft beer, I understood the flavours. My head could start creating flavours, the same way that I did with cocktails. I started experimenting with sorghum and trying to make a beer that would taste like traditional African beer, with the same ingredients… and that’s how I made my Sorghum Saison. It lit up,” he says.

Secrets of the market

Both say despite testing early days, the market thrives because the businesses are about craft, which has always been a natural part of the local culture. But they also saw value in staying in the township, because of the lively market and unique partnerships it brings.

“What’s happening right now, it even scares me. I’m seeing the level the coffee shop is heading to, yes, still from our garage but with the number of people that are coming in, even on Sunday, it is positive,” says Siki.  

One of their key networks is the other hustlers in the area.  “The funny thing was that a friend came to visit the shop, with a bunch of entrepreneurs in the tourism sector. These people were just starting out, just like us.” And so, coffee culture kicked off with the group of start-ups.

“It doesn’t feel like I am doing it alone because there are other people who are just like me, at five o’clock in the morning I know there’s other eight, ten entrepreneurs that are up looking to start their day,” says Siki.

Lethu meanwhile, partnered his beer with a caterer. “I had to look for someone, and this guy who was making food had a group of followers of his own.”

Keeping it at home

“As much as one wants to get into broader markets, for me right now it is about actually about bringing people to the township. The stories that you’ll find there are good stories, people are doing great stuff there. So as much as I want to get in to an urban market, I still want to remain here,” says Lethu.

Siki adds: “Exactly. Having the right partners going into those markets where there is a demand, instead of going into [Cape Town], am I going to spend a lot of time now marketing, advertising etc. In the townships there are many industries that are just waiting to be opened. The potential is there, the people are there, if you track those numbers.”

And for Lethu, it is also the particular culture that exists in Khayelitsha. “I always say it’s not about the beer, it is about the culture of having the beer where we are.”

He is also about changing the mindset around beer in his area. “The same people that think they cannot afford craft beer, go and buy hundreds of Rands of the R10 beer, and then get drunk and wasted. But if they are to change their mindsets, to have fun and enjoy beer, go home safely, they could.” 

“We always wanted to build a brand for the people, people like us who come from those backgrounds and I want to achieve the sense of belief from the township kids to look at us as these guys that came from the townships and built a national brand, an international brand. We want to take it from the townships to the world,” says Lethu.

Siki is also in the process of creating his own coffee blend. “In Khayelitsha people are exposed to instant coffee, and they put too much sugar in their coffee – like five spoons of sugar – and it’s not good for their health.  So I want to come to a sweeter blend, to solve for that.”

The power of mentors

Both Siki and Lethu say partnerships and mentors have made the difference to their brands.  “Having the right people in your corner, it’s the best thing that you can do. For me as a high school dropout, I needed to have people to introduce systems and structure those systems. I have many mentors. As a person that is leading and owning the brand called Siki’s, I’m always eyeing for the right people that can be behind me or work with me.”

Lethu adds that listening and learning – including from the customer – is essential. “We lack listening skills, I think. You just have to learn that.”

“Kids nowadays are luckier than us. There is so much information nowadays, on the internet. There’s nothing you will not learn on YouTube. I never went to varsity but I learned everything from brewing to marketing just by listening to people and following the people who have done things before,” Lethu says.

“You don’t necessarily need to have a physical mentor anymore, you can just tune in to a podcast like this one. I think that now is the easiest time to do. The only thing that you need is the courage to start,” he says.          

The 15-episode The Healthy Business Show is brought to you by Discovery Business Insurance. For more insights from these two inspiring entrepreneurs, listen to the podcast below.

Discovery Business Insurance is a proud Partner of the NSBC