He appears to be soft-hearted behind his infectious smile, but this is a steely franchise mogul who has survived being stripped of all his assets.
On a gloomy day, as gloomy as his worst day, we arrive in Mamelodi, Pretoria, South Africa’s capital, to meet Itumeleng Mpatlanyana.
At the corner of Shabangu and Maake Street in Mamelodi West, is a shisa nyama (township braai restaurant) made with a shipping container painted shocking red. This is Nkukhu-Box, one of his many businesses.
The atmosphere is vibrant. There is deafening house music playing at the restaurant – we had to ask people to turn it down. The street buzzes with taxis and hooting cars.
Finally, 40 minutes late, a white BMW sports car pulls up. It looks out of place, as well as tardy.
A short and soft-spoken gentleman, in a white shirt, emerges. Mpatlanyana, the food man, is ready to speak about his worst day.
For someone seen as successful, it comes as a surprise that seven years ago Mpatlanyana found himself sitting on the floor of his near empty house. The only thing he was able to save from the repossessors was a painting on the wall.
“There was one painting that I bought when I was a student. I actually begged the guys not to take it and I still have it today,” he says.
“It is a happy colorful painting. When you look at that painting in the mornings, it gives new life and meaning. So that is why I begged the guys not to take it. They took everything, but that painting was the only survivor that day.”
This was how bankruptcy felt.
It all began when he was 14 years old, growing up in the township of Embalenhle, in Mpumalanga. He had started a lawn-mowing business in his neighborhood at weekends. His motivation was money for a nice packed lunch.
“Having a tastier lunch meant that I could hang out and trade my lunch with more privileged pupils who were perceived as being cool at school.”
While his fancy lunchbox brought him a sense of belonging, his business brought a sense of wealth. He branched out into the food business selling cheese, polony and bacon throughout high school.
With a taste for business, Mpatlanyana then studied a BCom in entrepreneurship at the University of Pretoria.
As a student he sold beanbag furniture to students. He also bought his first car – a 1979 VW Beetle – that he used to transport students.
“The business was successful. At one point I had 20 apartments under my portfolio, but none were owned by me,” he says.
The money rolled in and the friends came with ideas.
In 2008, he and his friend bought Fashion TV Café, a French television channel franchise. He thought it was gold for the grandchildren.
“When we became Fashion TV Café’s first young black franchisees in the world, we were in our twenties and it was a hell of an achievement,” says Mpatlanyana.
It all seemed plain sailing; but the exorbitant rent and overhead costs were to make a meal of them. Mpatlanyana lost his R3.3 million ($252,000) investment. The thought of losing everything was always his biggest fear.
Soon he was to experience his worst nightmare.
“That day I thought, colorful s*** just hit the fan, and it is looking beautiful. I was accepting defeat, because I knew it was coming and I knew I could do it again.”
First, the repossessors came.
“Those guys park their truck and they knock at your door, thereafter they just walk in and they just start taking stuff without negotiating, because it’s a done deal, the courts have given them the order,” says Mpatlanyana.
“I actually helped them to move the furniture, because I tried to make the experience as comfortable as I could. I was not fighting them, I wasn’t crying. I was like, ‘It went bad sharp-sharp, moja (fine), take it.’”
Reality kicked in when he was alone and bereft.
“The tears came later, after they left, when I was sitting on the floor.”
“The remote control is gone, the TV is gone and the ironing board is gone. I was just sitting there asking myself, what was I going to do next? But I knew then, that I could do it again bigger and better,” recalls Mpatlanyana.
“That was the lowest moment of my life. I would sit on the floor with no furniture or anything, wondering where did it all go wrong? At one point you were rolling in cash and all of a sudden, you have hit rock bottom,” he says.
The fear of people was stronger than the fear of loss.
“It’s was not even about the money, it was about the people that knew me and how they would look at me. A few weeks ago, you had this upmarket restaurant and the ladies love you, then all of a sudden, you have zero.”
“How do you even get your friends to come visit you again, if you have no furniture in the house? Your bank accounts are all cleaned up,” says Mpatlanyana
A phone call changed his fortunes four months later.
“I don’t know whether to call it luck or whether it was just my work ethic that came through for me because a customer who happened to be a coalmine owner who was looking for a BEE partner decided to call me. Instantly, I became part of a small mine operation,” Mpatlanyana says with relief in his voice.
“He could have called any other black man, but he called me, because he saw my work ethic and the amount of hard work I had put into FTV Café.”
His journey with the mining company was not long. Four years later, the coalmine was sold. He went back into the food business; his first love.
But this time, he was to do things differently. He would become the franchiser instead of the franchisee.
Spykos Foods was born in 2011, with R1 million ($76,000).
He founded a franchise that was about taking traditional township shisa nyama, fish and chips and bunny chow, into major malls and shopping centers in South Africa.
“You have to have a strong character to try again. I didn’t allow that to discourage me. I got up and I tried again.”
“I still went back into the food industry, the experience and what I learned out of the situation helped me to come up with the next brand. I decided to start my own brand, where I make my own rules and I don’t have to be dictated to by any franchise or international person that is in Paris,” says Mpatlanyana.
Forty Spykos Foods franchises were established around the country, but some collapsed.
“The stores started to close down due to several factors, but the main [reasons] were the escalating shopping center rentals, increase in food prices, especially fresh potatoes as this was our main product line.”
“There were also major competitors dominating the market… Some not so well-skilled franchisees and the lack of adequate infrastructure,” says Mpatlanyana.
Even with the punches that he took, he is adamant he’ll become a franchise mogul.
He launched his first Nkukhu-Box, selling chicken, in August 2016. It is a business that mitigates the rent and overheads of Spykos Foods with a red shipping container that doesn’t cost much.
To date, he has three stores in South Africa and plans to expand to Zambia, Namibia, Lesotho and Swaziland this year.
Mpatlanyana claims that his business is worth R6.5 million ($497,000).
“Being a young black entrepreneur has immense challenges in the private sector. I realized that in business you need to find a business model that doesn’t rely on too many external sources,” he says.
Seven years on from an empty house and empty bank account, his worst day, in many ways, made him.
What Will It Take To Close The Funding Gap For Black Female Founders?
If you’ve heard the statistics once, you’ve probably heard them a thousand times: Of the nearly $100 billion in venture funding that goes to entrepreneurs in America, less than 3% goes to female founders and just 0.2% goes to black female founders.
There’s a growing consensus that venture capital’s race problem needs to be fixed.What’s less clear is precisely how to start closing the massive gulf. And at the inaugural Black Women Raise conference in Manhattan on Friday, a gathering of some 80 black female founders, a series of candid conversations laid bare the frustrations around the lack of an obvious path forward. In several raw moments of interchange, however, some answers started to emerge.
Investors “could ask different questions,” Charles Hudson, founder and managing partner of Precursor Ventures, said during a panel conversation with BBG’s Susan Lyne, First Round Capital’s Hayley Barna, and Female Founder’s Fund Sutian Dong. “There are all these questions—‘Well, do you think she can recruit? Do you think she can hire?’—I know what’s behind that question.
It’s ‘Do you think she can get people to work for her because she’s a black woman?’ And people ask these, what on the surface sound like innocent enough legitimate questions about investments, but they’re not innocent. They’re loaded. And you learn a lot by the questions people ask.”
Despite the existence (and, arguably, preponderance) of these loaded questions, Hudson and the others cautioned the entrepreneurs in the room against becoming disillusioned with the traditional venture capital community. Instead, they said, minority founders should prioritize investors who have a track record of investing in entrepreneurs who look like them.
“Vet investors up front. Don’t let them waste your time only to give you a half-ass answer after you spend an hour with them or even two weeks later,” said Barna, who started her venture capital career after successfully cofounding e-commerce darling Birch Box. “Just ask, ‘Is this in your sweet spot?’”
Dong noted that investors should be self-monitoring for where they’re over- and under-indexing, too. “We’ve said we don’t like the ratio of founders in our portfolio. About half are nonwhite, but only two are African-American. So we asked our network who we should be talking to,” she said.
It can be hard, in an open and on-the-record forum, to ask the hard questions about investing in underrepresented founders—much less to receive forthright answers to those questions—but to the credit of the Black Women Raise attendees, no one shied away from speaking about the reality of her experience as a founder of color.
“Everyone talks about the ‘friends and family round.’ I raised $63,000; I am the friends and family round,” quipped Star Cunningham, founder and CEO of health management platform 4D Healthware. But underpinning her self-funding, Cunningham continued, was a lack of capital access. “I have debt, because I had to get it, because no one wanted to give me any money. So what are you, as investors, going to do to look at our companies differently?”
Barna’s reply: Don’t be afraid to talk about your distance traveled. “The same stories about people getting straight A’s from Ivy League schools isn’t what gets us fired up; it’s instead hearing about how someone put themselves through med school from driving an ambulance,” she said. “You might think that you’re not supposed to talk about your life story, but I think it’s an important data point in helping [investors] make the right decision.”
This isn’t to say that a little bit of information and clever storytelling will fix the funding gap for founders of color. Viola Llewellyn, cofounder of African fintech platform Ovamba, pointed out as much, saying that many of the investors she’s come across don’t seem interested in asking the questions that lead to the sorts of decisions Barna is referencing.
“Here’s the problem: No one gets punished intellectually, emotionally, or financially for saying no to black women or to Africans. You will instead be congratulated if you don’t make the ‘foolish mistake’ of investing in something that doesn’t fit into the preconceived ideas of what success is,” Llewellyn said to Hudson, Lyne, Barna and Dong.
“At what point do we find a way to tell the story of the fool that said no?” she continued, to applause from the room.
Hudson waited a beat, and responded with empathy.
“There’s a million reasons [for investors] to say no, but until we have more success stories, I think there’s always an easy out for people to say, ‘No one has proven to me that investing in this way and this type of person works out.’ It’s intellectually lazy and it’s wrong,” he said. “You have every right to be angry.”
Angry, yes, but also motivated. Among the clearest takeaways from the conversation is that one of the best ways to change the system is to start from within. In Silicon Valley and Arlan Hamilton parlance, fight pattern-matching with pattern-matching.
“More black women need to control capital, in whatever form that may be,” Dong said. “More black women need to be controlling capital to put that into companies run by black female founders.”
Masai Ujiri’s dream of harnessing untapped African talent
The President of Toronto Raptors, Masai Ujiri, on his adoration for Africa as a continent filled with unlimited potential and talent.
The tall man in sport, Masai Ujiri, is a name in professional basketball far beyond the borders of Africa and his native Nigeria.
Born in England but having grown up in Zaria in Africa’s most populous country, Ujiri’s adoration for Africa sees him on the continent often, inspiring the youth.
“Africa is no more afraid. We are not afraid of anybody anymore. The continent is bold. The people are bold,” says Ujiri, when FORBES AFRICA meets him in Johannesburg in November at the Africa Investment Forum in which he participated.
The continent has a special place in his heart.
The President of the Toronto Raptors in the National Basketball Association (NBA), also founded Giants of Africa (GOA) in 2003, as a way of harnessing budding, untapped talent.
“As long as I am in a position where I am able to, we have to give the youth a chance. We have to pave a path for them and there is nothing I can’t do. I have to do everything, it is an obligation, I have to be an example for them by creating that pathway,” he says.
Ujiri, who started playing basketball at the age of 13, travels to Africa every August to visit the GOA camps across seven countries on the continent, training young boys and girls to be leaders in both sport and everyday life.
He says he draws inspiration from each and every country in Africa, and the feeling is inexplicable.
The history and culture are a constant reminder of his years growing up in Africa.
Whether it is in Kenya, where his mother was born, or the lasting friendships in Rwanda, Senegal or Nigeria, each country holds special memories.
Apart from the numerous trips in and out of the continent, 2018 granted Ujiri a rare once-in-a-lifetime moment.
This was in July when Barack Obama, the former president of the United States, visited Kenya, and with him, Ujiri opened a basketball court in the country.
Ujiri’s outreach program GOA launched it at the Sauti Kuu Foundation Sports, Resources and Vocational Centre in Alego; familiar ground for both leaders.
Managed by Auma Obama, Sauti Kuu, much like GOA, is focused on youth development.
“To spend that time with somebody that Africa means so much to, meant so much to me and so much to Auma. We are trying to inspire youth, we built a court that is going to impact the youth and that was special,” says Ujiri.
Being able to scout African talent is what is imperative for Ujiri, and it all comes down to building facilities to help the youth play basketball.
Ultimately, his dream for Africa is not only to see material wealth but for talent to go beyond what he has achieved.
“My dream is to have one of the youth become bigger than me, and bigger than everybody. People think I always dream of building this and doing that but I want one of these kids to take everything that they learn and do better in each and everything.
“I love the continent; I love the culture of different places. I am almost like Anthony Bourdain [the late American celebrity chef], that is how it really is with basketball, with the culture, the people and the food,” says Ujiri.
Staying true to his African roots, when we meet him, Ujiri speaks about his favorite yam and stew dish that he says reminds him of his childhood.
It’s such memories that see him taking the long-haul flight out of Toronto to Africa each year.
Brewing Success: Lessons From A Beer Baron
Canadian John Sleeman shares his entrepreneurial lessons with Africa.
cis not your typical textbook entrepreneur. His belief in what it takes to be an entrepreneur is so controversial that his advice is no longer welcome in MBA classes. The white-haired charismatic brewer, who re-established his family’s brewing business in 1988 as one of the most successful in Canada, offers sage advice to African entrepreneurs, although he has no plans to expand in Africa – yet.
Nonchalantly, in his automated beer manufacturing plant in Guelph, Canada, surrounded by people enjoying his craft beer, Sleeman says he believes entrepreneurs are born, not made. He argues that unless you are prepared to go bankrupt, work over 80 hours a week, lose your friends, face the prospect of divorce, put your house on mortgage and miss meeting friends for drinks on Fridays, then entrepreneurship is not for you.
He should know. This is the toll he took to restart his family business. It had lost its licence and was banned from the market for 50 years in 1933. This was for smuggling beer during the roaring 1920s by brokering deals with bootleggers and gangsters like Al Capone when prohibition set in in Canada.
Passionately, the beer baron, who plans to open a micro-distillery later this year, and is considering expanding his business in either the eastern or western parts of Canada, tells FORBES AFRICA: “If you want to be an entrepreneur, be very focused on what you want to achieve and don’t let people talk you out of it. If it is a dream, pursue it until you are successful.”
He attributes his success to surrounding himself with the right people. They will make or break your business, says Sleeman. You should be ready to change your business model if the current one isn’t working, he adds.
In his own case, he did this after his colleague advised him that rather than opening up new breweries across Canada, he should buy existing ones that share Sleeman Breweries’ crazy passion for beer and authenticity.
Sleeman reckons you shouldn’t grow so big that you lose your entrepreneurial flair, first-mover advantage and risk-appetite, but you also shouldn’t remain so small that you get knocked out of business or get bought out by someone who does not see your vision and wants to dismantle you, as it almost happened to his business in 2006. If you do sell, reminisces Sleeman, sell to someone who sees your vision, like Sleeman Breweries did, when Japanese company Sapporo saved the Guelph-based firm from a hostile takeover.
But that’s history. Since then, Sapporo has helped fund research and development and training for the business, whose humble, down-to-earth founder is now taking it on its next spirited journey.
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