Skip to main content

Hunger And Sore Feet On The Thorny Road To Success

Published 6 years ago
By Forbes Woman Africa

Rirhandzu Letty Ngobeni was born poor, but even as a young child, she was determined to not let that define her life.

Ngobeni, born in Nkuri, a village in South Africa’s Limpopo province, had to sleep on maize meal bags most of her childhood. Today, the entrepreneur is responsible for catering companies and the nationwide maintenance of South African behemoths like MTN.

When we meet the 43-year-old at her offices near Krugersdorp, west of Johannesburg, there are no signs of the pain or penury she experienced. Until she opens up about her past, and you see how much she was affected by it.

“I grew up in extreme poverty, extreme to such an extent that sometimes we wouldn’t even have food to eat. At school I had no uniform and I couldn’t afford school fees which were R15 [around $1],” says Ngobeni.

She was the fourth of seven siblings raised by a hard-working, determined mother. Her father worked at the then state-owned rail company, Spoornet, and lived in Johannesburg. He hardly supported the family.

“As much as I love him, the truth is he never supported us. My father would only send an 80 kilogram bag of maize meal after some time,” she says with some bitterness.

Ngobeni started school at the age of four, matriculating when she was only 15. She was allowed to enter school at the time despite her young age because she was tall and able to pass the rudimental criteria of being able to reach over her head with her left hand and touch her right ear.

Life was tough. Having no shoes meant she had to walk barefoot on the scorching roads of Limpopo, to and from school.

“The tar road was always very hot and on the side of the road there were thorns all over. That left me with two options, I had to run or get burnt,” says Ngobeni.

She gets overtly emotional when dwelling on another childhood memory.

“A neighbor had brought over pap for our family to eat for supper. My mother told us to eat but I refused. When she asked why, I told her ‘we’ll eat today but what about tomorrow’?” The young Ngobeni went to bed on an empty stomach.

“Now that I have children of my own, I can imagine the pain I must have caused my mother that night,” says Ngobeni.

Luckily for her, her entrepreneurial streak was evident from her high school  days when she worked as a domestic worker for R10 ($0.70) a week. She used that money to buy chicken feet, which she then sold at school.

But Ngobeni almost didn’t finish school because she couldn’t afford the R75 ($5.50) exam fee. On the day of her first exam, she informed her teachers she was dropping out.

“When I got to school, I cried hard. One of my teachers asked what was wrong and I told him I was dropping out because I didn’t have money for the exam fee. He paid my fee and I passed with a matric exemption,” says Ngobeni.

At the age of 16, after convincing the local primary school principal she needed a job, she became an unqualified teacher, earning R450 ($33) per month. The following year she enrolled at Tivumbeni College where she studied to become a teacher, majoring in accounting and business economics.

By the age of 20, Ngobeni was teaching at a high school in Limpopo. The following year, she married and relocated to Pretoria where her husband was employed.

She taught at a private school in Pretoria, where she soon progressed as deputy principal, but she wanted to move to a government school.

“I wanted to have the government benefits teachers have, which is why I went back to a government school,” chuckles Ngobeni.

After three years, Ngobeni quit teaching to try her hand at entrepreneurship.

“I was talking to my husband and he told me that we can’t both be public servants. He encouraged me to open up a business, so we bought a Barcelos Restaurant in Alberton Mall,” she says.

This venture unfortunately wasn’t successful. Ngobeni tried various ways to keep it going, including burning onions so passers-by would be lured by the scent.

That didn’t help. In 2010, she had no option but to relinquish the business.

During this difficult time, her husband kept her going.

“My husband is my pillar of strength. He’s my worst critic and my strongest supporter. They say that behind every successful man there’s a woman, with us it’s the other way around.”

Ngobeni kept an eye on tenders and attended a grass-cutting briefing, where she approached a woman who had experience in the business.

“I asked her to teach me about the business because I knew nothing about grass-cutting and she was very helpful. She had government contracts and offered me a sub-contractor job.”

That was the birth of her maintenance company, Integrico. The company’s first major contract was the Ekurhuleni Metro Municipality.

She has come a long way since. Ngobeni says Integrico’s clients now include City Power, the South African Broadcasting Corporation and MTN.

With a noteworthy passion for cooking, Ngobeni did a course at the HTA School of Culinary Art, a chef school in Johannesburg’s northern suburbs, in 2011. She then applied for a tender to run a canteen at MTN.

“My teaching skills came in handy at the presentation and they said they’d get back to me. A few days later, I got a letter saying they wanted to do a site inspection of my place, which was a problem because there was no site to inspect!”

“I spoke to a friend I studied with at HTA who had a professional kitchen and asked her if I could do the inspection at her place. We did it there and I got the contract,” says Ngobeni.

Today, her company, Mndhavazi Caterers, supplies food for the Road Accident Fund, Munaca Holdings and MTN among others.

Ngobeni’s businesses have broadened into butcheries, which supply her catering company and 20 other restaurants. She decided it would be more cost-effective to own her own butchery after bagging a tender for meat.

“I approached a butchery owner not far from my office, gave him an offer, the rest is history, the butchery is mine now,” says Ngobeni, grinning.

“I’m currently renovating the third butchery… ultimately I want to franchise them.”

The one regret Ngobeni has however is that her parents didn’t live long enough to see her success. She says they would be treated like royalty had they been alive.

“I don’t know how many helpers my mother would have. Groceries would fill the house and she would be spoilt, even my father. Yes I was bitter towards him for a long time until my brother spoke to me and taught me the power of forgiveness.”

And Ngobeni’s message for aspiring entrepreneurs who dont have it all?

“Go after what you want, poverty can never stand in your way!”

Sign Up for Our Newsletter Daily Update

Get the best of Forbes Africa sent straight to your inbox with breaking business news, insights and updates from experts across the continent.
Get this delivered to your inbox, and more info about about our products and services. By signing up for newsletters, you are agreeing to our Terms of Use and Privacy Policy.
Related Topics: #Food, #Mndhavazi Caterers, #October 2015, #Rirhandzu Letty Ngobeni.