Vusani Ravele taught himself to craft home decor with an unlikely tool.
Two men quietly sit in the corner of a warehouse, covered in sawdust, as they deftly carve a rendition of the Johannesburg skyline on a block of wood, oblivious to the creative mayhem around them.
They are focused on ensuring that the plywood is silky-smooth and ready to adorn a stranger’s living space.
At this warehouse in Wynberg in Johannesburg that we are visiting, we are confronted by the constant din of drilling and the high-pitch buzz of machinery that is in fact etching shapes on a sheet of birch plywood. In no time, we are covered in pulp and wood shavings.
A few minutes later, the brainchild of Native Décor, 32-year-old Vusani Ravele, arrives, ready to tell us how he turned a cordless drill that was a Valentine’s Day gift from 2015 into a lucrative online business with a R2.2 million ($154,522) turnover.
“She was probably trying to hint that I should make more things for her — not that I was lazy,” jests Ravele.
This millennial is anything but disinclined to work. He used the gift as a medium to explore creative ideas at home, most times, this was after putting in long hours of work by day as an industrial engineer.
“I just started drilling holes into everything and I realized that this was a lot of fun,” recounts Ravele.
Originally from Tzaneen in the Limpopo Province of South Africa, he moved to Johannesburg in 2005 to pursue a career in industrial engineering, not knowing he was destined to become a business mogul in the home decor industry.
It all began when he posted some of his work on Facebook and it led to more ‘likes’ than he had anticipated.
As he continued to attract a new market, he invested R100,000 ($7,028) into his enterprise making nifty home accessories and corporate gifts.
His creativity grew as did his entrepreneurial edge — something he believes he inherited from his mother, who had an exemplary work ethic and was resourceful.
“At some point, my mother would sell some fruit and vegetables from the back of her car. It was very exciting for me,” Ravele says.
Following in her footsteps, he opened a tuck shop at his high school which eventually outdid the main school tuckshop.
“Clearly, I had an affinity for running a business,” he says.
A year after establishing Native Décor, he made waves on M-Net’s Shark Tank South Africa, a show on budding entrepreneurs who pitch their business concepts to moguls with the hope of securing an investment.
Gil Oved, now the COO of investment company LLH Capital, was impressed.
“I remember saying to my girlfriend if there is anyone that I need to go home with, it is Oved. I just knew a lot about what he had achieved. He is a go-getter, he is well-connected and I thought he would be the perfect entrepreneur to take me to where I need to go,” Ravele says.
Ravele believed in Oved’s ability to grow his business that he offered him a 40% stake of Native Décor.
He did not make use of all the funds — an attribute he wishes other startups would also grasp.
“Sometimes, when you receive funding so early, it can confuse everything. You feel like you are successful but you are really not,” he says.
The mentorship from Oved honed his business acumen.
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“He is one of those guys that you have to go to and know what you are talking about. So don’t go to him and ask him a question that you have not researched before… He will give you the feedback that you are looking for and more,” he says.
Ravele says that being open-minded has helped him approach his work artistically.
“Creativity is everywhere… Look around and just see different shapes and how they work together and you get ideas. Then you experiment, and see how things work. When one thing doesn’t work out, you can try something else with the same concept and it sort of flows.”
He believes that the home accessories market is currently thriving in South Africa.
“If you are, perhaps, moving into a new house, you need to buy furniture. The furniture can’t be by itself, you need decor to put on your walls and those sort of things,” he says.
Native Décor is an online retail store, which is also available on other platforms such as eBucks and takealot.
“In this day and age, we are moving into the online space rapidly. More people are shopping from their cell phones; forget your computers. If people are there, that is where you want to be as well,” Ravele says.
According to eShopWorld, in South Africa, there are currently 18.43 million eCommerce users, with an expected additional 6.36 million of users by 2021. The online shoppers are expected to be spending approximately $189.47 each on average.
Online trading has also proved to be more beneficial for Ravele’s bottom line.
“The overheads are low so it doesn’t cost a lot to sell online. The beautiful thing about selling online is that you do not have to have stock on hand,” he says.
“Our model is that we make to order everything that we dispatch. It can be a surprising thing, because people believe that we have this warehouse full of stock… and the online space is great for that.”
Ravele might appear to understand the decor business to the core, but that was not always the case.
“It all has been, amazingly, YouTube; it has been my friend. I feel like anybody can learn anything from there apart from professional things like being a doctor. It is a great resource and anybody can make use of it,” Ravele says.
That is why he believes that providing guidance to others is a necessity for entrepreneurs and that “information should be free”.
“I don’t have all the answers, sometimes people come to me that are in business and they ask me for advice. It is nice to get that sort of attention but it is also quite nice for me to develop that sort of rapport with other people to network.”
He is still learning as much as he can, but looking after his money is the greatest lesson that he has learned in his journey as an entrepreneur.
“In business, you can make money quickly and lose it at twice the speed. It is a space where you have to be awake all the time and be ready for change. Change drives you to be constantly re-evaluating everything.
“I decided that I was never going to be in that situation again. Now we are able to think on our feet and react much better.”
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The exposure to Shark Tank South Africa enhanced his Valentine’s Day gift, and for that, Ravele will be forever grateful.
Martin Monareng, a craftsman at Native Décor, attests to his success.
“The workload has increased because we are getting a lot of business as compared to when we were working from his [Ravele] house. Things were tough for us at that time, we were not even really sure if the business would grow,” he says.
Despite the din all around him in the warehouse, Ravele is calm.
“I am no longer working from my living room, so that is a relief,” says the man turning wood into workmanship.
The Art Of Survival: The Art Of Adire Gave This Textile Artist Global Fame, She Now Educates Generations Of Women In Nigeria
Textile artist Nike Davies-Okundaye worked as a construction laborer and carried water and firewood to survive. The art of adire gave her global fame and she is now educating generations of women in Nigeria.
There was no way Nike Davies-Okundaye could look the other way. For after all, she too had been a victim in her early teens.
Too many women were being pushed down the traditional path of marriage and child-rearing in her country.
Born in 1951 in Ogidi-Ijumu, a small village in western Nigeria known for its spectacular rock formations and traditional art industry, Davies-Okundaye resolved to fight this practice four decades ago.
“By the age of 13, they wanted to marry me off because my father had no money. I had to run away from home and join a traveling theater. I said I didn’t want to marry and wanted to pursue art,” recalls the internationally-renowned Lagos-based artist.
Not wanting to become one of six wives to a minister, Davies-Okundaye found her escape through adire, the name given to the Yoruba craft of tie-and-dye where indigo-dyed cloth is made using a variety of resist-dyeing techniques. Growing up in a predominantly art and craft household, Davies-Okundaye is a fifth-generation artist who decided to take the craft seriously due to poverty.
“I had no money to go to school and the first education parents give you is to teach you what they do. So, when I finished primary six and I had no support to go to secondary school, I said to myself, ‘let me master art so I can teach other women to also use their hand to make a living through their own artwork’.”
Davies-Okundaye was forced to work in the male-dominated construction sector, carrying concrete in pans to builders in order to save one shilling, just enough to buy a yard of fabric to create what she called wall-hanging art.
Her goal was to use the traditional wax-resist methods to design patterned fabric in a dazzling array of tints and hues. The adire design is the result of hand-painted work carried out mostly by women and through that, Davies-Okundaye saw a way to help women to become economically empowered. After all, her first break in life came as a result of that.
“There was no other job I was doing apart from adire. I was lucky the American government came to Nigeria to recruit an African who will teach African Americans how to make traditional textiles or crafts in the state. That is how I was lucky and got picked.”
Davies-Okundaye was the only woman in a class of 10 men who were flown to Maine in northeastern United States in 1974. That is where her whole outlook on life changed.
“Before I went to America, I used to carry three drums of water every day and carry firewood to be able to survive. It was like a breakthrough in my life when I reached America. I said ‘is this heaven?’ I was the only woman in the class and all the men were learning women’s looms and I kept telling them ‘this is for women’ and they said ‘yes, in America, what a man can do, a woman can also do’.”
This was in stark contrast to what she knew to be true in Nigeria at the time.
“If your husband is an artist, you are not allowed to do art. In the 1960s, if your husband has a PhD, you are not allowed to also have a PhD. You had to give room for your husband to be your boss.”
She decided to beat those age-old stereotypes.
As one of 15 wives to her then-husband at the time, Davies-Okundaye, with her newfound knowledge gained in America, started a revolution at home. She encouraged the other wives to create their own art business using adire.
“I said ‘if you learn this, you can earn a living by yourself and get your power because your money is your power’ and that is how they also started learning it. I didn’t stop sharing the knowledge there. I gathered girls on the streets who were selling kola nuts and peanuts and started training them. I said ‘if this textile can take me to America, let me teach other people’,” says Davies-Okundaye.
And that has been her calling ever since. Davies-Okundaye is the founder and director of four art centers, which offer free training to 150 young artists in Nigeria in visual, musical and performing arts.
One of the centers is the largest art gallery in West Africa comprising over 7,000 art works.
“They used to get the police to arrest me because they said I was trying to teach feminism in Nigeria because I went to America. They said I was going to corrupt our Nigerian women but I believe God sent me to liberate a lot of women who have the passion for what makes them happy but are afraid to do it because of what people will say. I say do what makes you happy always!”
Why This Photographer Looked Up During The Lockdown
Steven Benjamin chose to focus on the bird life in his garden in Cape Town to escape the confines of the lockdown.
During South Africa’s five-week shutdown (the country is still on Level 4 restrictions), Cape Town-born underwater photographer Steven Benjamin more used to sharks, whales and dolphins, used the period to look up instead – and indulge in bird-watching, another passion of his.
“Ever since the age of five or six, I have been interested in birds. I was dyslexic as a young child and I still have my first bird book where I ‘ticked’ backwards. I was trying to identify the birds that flew into my pre-school class and begged my mom to let me mark off what I’d seen, so birding has always been a passion,” says Benjamin, who also runs a seal-snorkeling business.
He has spent his life capturing South Africa’s marine world, and now, Benjamin had to redirect his focus to his Kalk Bay garden during the lockdown to photograph Cape Town’s resident birdlife.
He says photographing these feathered beauties is a way to bring joy during these uncertain times.
“They are so beautiful but incredibly difficult to photograph because they are shy and extremely fast. Photographing birds is a challenge but it creates a mental space to observe and admire nature.”
Soon after the lockdown started, Benjamin put white sugar in his bird feeder every morning and enjoyed the sight of local birds and documented them. He posted the images on Instagram and that garnered some online attention.
“The lockdown has made me relax and take the time to do things I would never have gotten around to doing. I settled on this project, which I work on every day. I’m always adding something new to the scene and there are always new birds and interactions happening. It’s made the days fly by,” he says.
During the lockdown, there was only one male Cape Sugar Bird that landed in his garden. This spectacular bird is unique to South Africa and mostly only found in the Western Cape. All of this will go into an exhibition Benjamin is working towards in Cape Town.
‘Our Home Became The Film Set, Blankets Became Props, Windows Became Locations’
A poem exclusively penned and performed in lockdown in the US for the readers of FORBES AFRICA, by Rwandan artist Malaika Uwamahoro.
Malaika Uwamahoro, an artist born in Rwanda, and a Theatre Studies BA graduate from Fordham University in New York City, has performed her own poetry on stages around the world including at the United Nations headquarters in New York, and at the African Union summits in Addis Ababa (Ethiopia) and Kigali (Rwanda).
In 2014, she made her Off-Broadway debut at Signature Theatre in the world premiere of Katori Hall’s Our Lady of Kibeho.
Currently resident in Portland, Maine, in the United States, she speaks to FORBES AFRICA about her life in lockdown, and about a poem she penned exclusively for the readers of the magazine: “To fight this pandemic, essential workers and medical doctors are doing their best on the frontlines to ensure everyone in need gets the necessary support and best care possible… Before we are all choked and out of breath just by thinking about this, I extend this poetry piece as an invitation to look inward.”
How did she come up with the poem, titled I Don’t Mind!, and its accompanying video?
“It was late in the night, my fiancé was fast asleep, and I thought to myself, ‘how do I really feel about all this, what are my true thoughts about this pandemic, what can I do’? I opened my notes and the words began to flow.”
A few days later, she shared the poem with her fiancé, Christian Kayiteshonga, a filmmaker.
“We had previously been pondering ways to make art in our home. This poem seemed like the perfect push to set us in our new path. Our home became the film set, using blankets and cake mix as props, windows and office space as locations, myself as the talent, him as the crew, and now you as the audience,” says Uwamahoro, who also performed for the ‘In the Spotlight’ segment at the FORBES WOMAN AFRICA Leading Women Summit in Durban, South Africa, on March 6.
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