Sphiwe Jele played with ice cream sticks one evening at his home in Philippi – a township in Cape Town – and was surprised at the interesting pattern they formed. “I thought: ‘Oh, I can make a bag'”. That night he couldn’t sleep from excitement.
The next morning, Jele started gathering ice cream sticks at bus terminuses and taxi ranks from Sea Point to Mitchell’s Plain. Soon, children ran to him with their ice cream sticks or collected them and placed them next to his gate. Cafes stored them for him in bags.
“You need to go crazy for what you love,” he said.
Backpacks made from ice cream sticks marked the start of his wooden bag business in 2014. He named it Panashe Design – panashe means the presence of greatness. His kiosk attracts many tourists, but locals too. Each bag is a novelty with a unique handmade design, selling for between R1,000 ($75) and R5,000 ($380).
“I enjoy doing things properly, refined,” says Jele.
From ice cream stick bags, he embraced oak, pine and bamboo, combining some with platinum. “Camps Bay for the premium platinum range, it’s more of a celebrity vibe,” he says.
The 28-year-old, who has worked in fashion, decor and design since he was 15, is self-taught in wood.
Soon, he became so busy he formed a partnership with Vuyo Vannucci Ndifor, who has years of experience in the fashion industry and started collaborating with artist Aurel Okuka Mokando, who’s also a beatboxer.
They used to operate from a kiosk, in Long Street, smaller than Nelson Mandela’s Robben Island jail cell. The vibrant street with its clubs, pubs and clothing stores was ideal, the entrepreneur says.
He occupied one of 10 on-street kiosks, selected from 250 applicants by the provincial economics department. Others sell sandals, beauty products or T-shirts. The side wall of the large provincial legislature was broken open to accommodate the traders who operate side by side.
Jele is the only one who works at night, creating a splash of light in the otherwise bare section of the street.
“At night, it’s like an awareness campaign. So much visibility,” he says.
He marketed his bags in Sandton, Johannesburg, in April last year to reach “the high-end market” while visiting his mother, Jane Sibanyoni, a daycare center owner in Mamelodi, Pretoria.
Suddenly, he heard he was chosen and should open his kiosk within days. He sold a bag for R800 ($60) and travelled back by bus.
Initially, Jele slept on the kiosk’s floor on a space as big as a lilo. But recently, he found a room he shares with Okuka Mokando, who paints curvy designs in subtle shades on the bags, reminiscent of henna tattoos.
“It’s a platform for my art and people carry them around constantly,” says Okuka Mokando.
Curious onlookers, bus commuters, clients or buddies leaned on their working desk for a chat. There was a My City bus stop in front of his kiosk and a coffee shop on his left. On the right, there was an art piece resembling the frontal frame of a double-storey house, where a religious group gathers to sing, homeless rest and protests are held. A camping chair in front of his kiosk was mostly occupied by a friend.
Being 100 meters away from every night’s pumping party-zone, the kiosk created much buzz, but it’s not so distracting Jele had to stop working.
Eddie Xolo, a bag and jewelry designer, ordered a bag the first time he walked past, saying: “He caught my eye”.
Sabine Martin from Strand, who specializes in lamps adorned with feathers and horns, is his main international distributor, focusing on London.
She once told him she was going to clear his stock, leaving him with nothing to sell, which made him work really fast. Martin’s one cupboard is filled with Jele’s bags.
”He’s got skills like nobody. He works his ass off. I love his use of raw materials. My passion is wood. My entire house is wood,” she says.
They met when she walked past and stopped.
“She wanted 10 by the end of the next week. I kept producing, being creative. She helped me improve my designs,” says Jele.
Now, he’s making about 70 bags a month.
Martin ordered a bag with blue-dyed Springbok skin draped over one of the wooden bags. She asked Jele to not allow it to be touched, which many people wanted to do, but he agreed.
“The way he puts it together is amazing. I’ve got bags you won’t believe. I don’t even want to sell them they’re so beautiful. Nobody makes them. I found a similar one in China, but it was plastic that looked like wood,” she says.
Martin is such an admirer of Jele’s work she currently has him working from a workshop and office set up at her Strand home. From here they distribute the bags to high-end clients. Jele plans to open a new shop in Long Street, big enough to have a workshop at the back, as soon as he’s made enough bags.
US tourist Andrea Thomas bought two bags. Jele gave her one for free. “Then she got eight people to buy bags.”
He gave his last ice cream stick backpack to a child whose grandmother accompanied him.
“That same day, someone bought four bags. If you give, you receive,” says Jele.
Jele has worked for a Levi store at the Waterfront his father, Calvin Mabuza, managed, and LA Jeans, Street Fever, Converse, Catz, Cashbuild. He even found time to be a DJ.
He completed six law subjects at an EFT college and chaired the NGO Creative Youth Development.
Shortly after completing matric, a life changing experience required him to care for his father for a year and a half. Mabuza was shot and crippled during an armed robbery. Jele held his father’s transport business together.
“I learned that if you’re determined, you can achieve anything. A lot of people support me. And for a lot of people to support you, you have to be humble enough,” he says.