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A Little African Dream In Gangster’s Paradise

Gorgui N’doye was brave enough to open a restaurant in a part of New York that many were too scared to visit. His risk paid off.

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At the age of 17, Gorgui N’doye, left home in Senegal to be an engineer in New York, but he ended up selling make-up to actors and opening the first Senegalese-French restaurant in Harlem. These days, in his late forties, the unlikely entrepreneur is back in Africa exporting peanuts to Asia.

In 2001, N’doye, who qualified as an electrical engineer from the City College of New York, worked as a salesperson in a company selling make-up to actors in the Big Apple.

“As I travelled Harlem to work there weren’t good restaurants around. I saw a business opportunity and decided to sell my shares at the company. I had contacts here and there, people know people, I worked with them in the build-up and opening of Patisserie des Ambassades in what we call Little Africa. It has been 16 years of hard work since then,” says N’doye.

“This business was needed; there was a demand for it from the African community. The Federal Government contributed 30 percent into the business.”

Many cast doubt on N’doye’s venture except his wife Ken Alice N’doye, who was a caterer making Senegalese food platters for birthdays and weddings.

“Of course people questioned my judgment but I just focused on my work because I believed it was a good thing. Now they know I am a hardworking person,” he says.

It took N’doye two years to get the restaurant at full steam. It was difficult.

“When we first came here in Frederick Douglass Boulevard, Harlem, in 2001, this area was bad, we were the first African restaurant in a gangster’s paradise,” says Ahmadou Ndiaye Jean, the restaurant’s manager who’s also Senegalese.

“In the seventies, Senegalese were the first Africans to land in downtown Manhattan. Most were taxi drivers; they were almost the only daring ones to move into Harlem, then undermined by drugs and criminality. But the rent was cheap. In the late nineties a new wave of other nationalities joined in. At the end of the decade federal authorities revitalized Harlem by renovating the buildings and strengthening law enforcement. The neighborhood is again dynamic and attractive to the middleclass,” says Ahmadou.

“We started the business with less than 10 people and these days we have about 50 staff, a majority of whom is from Senegal. We are open 20 hours. Basically, we just close to clean up. This place is so busy that we don’t have time to close. This is a Little Africa.”

“If it doesn’t kill you, it makes you stronger,” says N’doye about his survival in the crime-ridden Harlem.

“South of Harlem has majorly changed over the years. Now we are living in a gentrification that is better than before 2000. It is now called an entrance to Manhattan. After 16 years we have built very diversified customers. We have been blessed,” says N’doye.

In 2005, N’doye was the entrepreneur of year with the Small Business Administration (SBA) in New York.

In 2009, N’doye returned to Senegal where he explores other business opportunities.

“Since I returned back to Senegal I ventured into a different business of exporting peanuts to Asia and South Africa,” says N’doye.

“I learned a lot from the restaurant business, the interactions I had with African customers helped me with other business ideas back home. There’s a lot to explore in Africa,” he says.

So, the life of this former expatriate entrepreneur took a big circle from Senegal and the Big Apple.

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IN PICTURES | Truck Entrepreneur Drives Style Movement

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Collaborations are key for the development of Africa’s sports economy


On a busy road in Soweto, in the southwest of Johannesburg, taxis go about their daily drill, stopping to pick up passengers outside the apartment-tenements of Chiawelo. Here, a truck of a different kind is stationed next to an old container and a car wash.

It’s owned by Siyabulela Ndzonga, a small entrepreneur dabbling in fashion, who has turned it into a concept store, on wheels.

Ndzonga,who brands himself Siya Fonds (S/F) – after a nickname his mother gave him as a baby, has been associated with the South African Fashion Week and with reputed designers such as Ole Ledimo, the founder of House of Olé, and stylist and fashion guru Felipe Mazibuko.

I didn’t even study fashion but it’s interesting how I’m actually making an impact and contributing a lot in the fashion industry, says Ndzonga. 

It was around 2011, when he sold second-hand clothes on the trendy streets of Braamfontein in Johannesburg, where only the cool kids would hang out.

“I was big on thrifting; selling second-hand clothes. I would thrift, resell,thrift, resell.”

His hard work earned him a stall at one of the flea markets in Johannesburg. At this point, Ndzonga was still employed at a retail store. After work and on weekends, he would be hustling on Johannesburg’s streets, all for the love of fashion and because people loved his work.

Ndzonga saw a business opportunity, quit his retail job and registered his brand in 2013. Later that year, Toe Porn socks contacted him and requested he consult for them.

“Brand consulting means that I come in and take their clothes and use them to translate the current fashion trends, translate them to how I think [people]should be dressing in terms of fashion. I actually became a designer because I set trends before they would trend. I would set the tone, narrative and navigate where fashion should go in the whole world, not just in South Africa,” he says.

His fame slowly grew and he started making clothes for others, traveling by taxi to CMT (cut, make and trim) factories in Germiston, 42kms from his hometown. 

“In 2015, that’s when I really saw that I am growing as a brand and that’s when I started consulting for international brands like Palladium Shoes, Fila and Ben Sherman.”

The business grew but he had to travel to others parts of country and that exercise was taxing.

He stopped making clothes and paused his business.

“The whole of 2016, I focused on consulting and saved money to set up a truck. I needed a store so people could come in and purchase Siya Fonds from the truck. This whole thing of delivering is not me, I can’t do it,” says Ndzonga.

“I initially wanted a container, but the truck was a better, fresher alternative. I’m not the first to do it, but I’m the first in Soweto. I set it up and people love it because it’s bringing popular culture to Soweto. I had to trust myself that’s it’s going to work and it did.”

The truck had been lying unused when Ndzonga purchased it, and he overhauled it with a lick of paint and an infusion of color and character.

I got another truck to pick it up and bring it to the current location in 2016.

In March 2017, the truck was launched as a concept store and he called it Block 88, as it encompasses other brands as well.

“Business was not so great after the launch. It only picked up after a few months of selling a few international brands that I consult for. We had seven brands in the store.”

He sells t-shirts, caps, jackets and jumpsuits. A two-piece suit sells for R1,400 ($97).

The next step for Ndzonga is to have stores in all the neighborhoods in Soweto and major South African cities.

Since the inception of his truck, he has also injected some vibrancy into the community.

He organizes art development programs and conversations around social issues on Fridays outside the truck, gathering youth and children.

“Conversation Fridays is like TED-talks. It’s bringing conversations to the township instead of having them in the city or suburbs and speak about what creatives are facing in the creative space and industry,” he says.

Now, he works as a consultant with a consumer agency and collaborates on a number of brands, also doing research for them. As the hustle and bustle quietens down at sunset in Soweto, Ndzonga’s trendy truck shuts shop. Tomorrow will be another day as a beacon of hope and vibrancy on a Soweto street.


Siyabulela Ndzonga of Siya Fonds. Picture: 
Motlabana Monnakgotla

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