A neatly laid out kitchen made from African Wenge side panels, with high gloss wrapped doors, completed with a black silico nero top imported from Germany, is the work of two young entrepreneurs, Aubrey Dolweni and Simpiwe Malotana. They are slowly transforming the interior design industry in townships in the Western Cape province of South Africa.
Obsido Interiors started in Dolweni’s backyard and is now growing into a successful interior design company.
It was Dolweni’s father, Amos, a well-known cupboard maker in the Nyanga township, who taught Aubrey how to build and make cupboards. When Amos died, Dolweni decided to continue in his father’s footsteps and start his own business.
In 2005, Dolweni was working for another interior design firm as well as doing odd carpentry jobs on the side. While installing new cupboards at Malotana’s home, who was his neighbor, the idea for Obsido Interiors was conceptualized.
Malotana, an IT analyst, knew that Dolweni was not entirely happy with the job he had and urged him to start Obsido Interiors.
“At the time I wasn’t comfortable at work. I felt like I was underpaid, but I had a fear of leaving because I didn’t have any business or management skills,” says Dolweni.
Eventually, around 2008, Malotana was able to finally convince Dolweni to look at starting a business with him. It was finally registered two years later.
“It took him a while to decide as he was also employed at the time and a sole bread winner in his family. After several consultations with his mother, he finally decided we could start the business,” says Malotana.
Dolweni concentrated on design and manufacturing, while Malotana, a father of two, would focus on the marketing, financial and admin side of the business.
For six months, Dolweni worked on the business in the evenings and on weekends, doing odd jobs in manufacturing custom-made wooden coffee tables and interior design work for friends and family.
Soon, the company grew and he quit his full time job to focus on Obsido Interiors.
“This business grew very fast and we couldn’t manage the pressure in terms of delivering projects on time and so on… And he [Dolweni] had to work full time on the business.” says Malotana.
Obisido Interiors grew from just making wooden ornaments to a business focusing on redesigning and assembling home interiors in townships.
“We saw that a lot of the people were going to the city to get new kitchens and stuff and so we decided to bring this service to the people in the townships,” Malotana says.
Although, it wasn’t easy at first because Dolweni would meet with clients, do the measurements and sketch the designs on paper. Some clients would chop and change what they wanted, forcing Dolweni to redraw the designs from the beginning.
“We had to look for software to make things easy for us. In 2011, we bought a program which allowed us to do designs in 3D and things start to work and look better. So we could show the customer a 3D view of the design and if they wanted changes, we could do them instantly,” says Malotana.
A few months into the business, Obsido Interiors received its first big client. They were asked to design and manufacture office furniture for another business in another township.
But like any business, they experienced challenges along the way, especially in townships which an emerging black middle class no longer wanted to reside in. They were instead choosing to move into the city and surrounding suburbs.
Many of their would-be-clients are often unemployed. Some are blacklisted by the credit bureau but still want to spend money redesigning their living areas. Many of them, according to Dolweni, would rather get service from the guys who sell cupboards on the side of the road using off-cut material. He says it is one of their biggest challenges; competing with these sidewalk businessmen and not compromising on the quality of their product, which is sometimes seen as expensive.
“This market is slow. The type of products we offer, we feel like we’re not going to change. We’re not going to offer lower end products. People will just grow into it,” says Malotana.
Running a business and being young in what is labeled as South Africa’s murder capital has proved to be thorn they are trying to pull out.
“The other problem is trust. Because we’re black and young and we’re from Nyanga, people still feel that we’re going to run away with their money, even though we have all the systems in place,” laments Malotana.
But that attitude is slowly changing. They now have showroom in a mall in their township and people know where to find them.
“We recently formed a partnership with one of our major suppliers, Lansdowne Boards. They helped us set up our showroom,” says the outspoken Malotana.
Business might be booming for Obsido Interiors, but the pair have not forgotten about their upbringing in Nyanga. The township is plagued by one of the highest crime rates in the country and rising unemployment. The saying, ‘charity begins at home’ has become part of their life. The pair decided to start a football team, Nyanga Football Stars, in the hope that it will help alleviate the crime in their neighborhood.
“The team is made up of former gangsters, former drug addicts, ex-prisoners and general students. The vision was to help reform them and get them to be accepted back into society.”
They have even taken their philanthropy a step further by hiring or finding employment for promising team members.
Obsido Interiors might have started from humble beginnings in Dolweni’s backyard, but it is an interior design business that is transforming the township.