South African Startup: Creativity and Isiqalo
Mlondolozi Qalekiso has 40 piglets, a small shop in the South African wine country and a dream for his people.
Mlondolozi Qalekiso is an inspired entrepreneur, South African style. I met Mlo in his Franschhoek shop – Isiqalo Leather Collection – when I stopped in to investigate the creative work there (leather goods, clothing, and small gifts). It was December 3, 2013 – two days before South Africa’s greatest hero Nelson Mandela left the country for good.
After purchasing a simple pair of leather sandals handmade by a Cape Town man reachable only by phone, I asked Mlo about his vision for his business. This post is a recap of our conversation, which inspired me and moved me deeply.
Something for Ourselves
Mlo and his business partner Solomon Sonxi believe the time has come for their people: “We need to do something for ourselves.”
It’s still difficult, Mlo said, for black people to get jobs there. “Young people must go to Cape Town for jobs. So they leave their families and only come back once or twice a year to see them. Their parents, who remain here, get old and don’t see their children anymore.” Mlo wants to create income opportunities so young people can stay in the area and work close to their families.
Franschhoek is a stunningly beautiful town of vineyards, galleries, restaurants and shops. I’m told it is one of the most expensive areas in South Africa. But the divide between rich and poor, between black, coloured and white is still very wide.
Mlo said that he and Solomon opened the business in the winter (June 2013) because it’s the hardest time of year. Local black artisans, most of whom are street vendors, have a tough time then. “There are a lot of entrepreneurs here,” he said, “but there are very few customers for them in winter.” So Mlo provides them a shop to sell from all year. He and Solomon keep their own jobs because they need the income. It’s still very hard, but he believes it will get better.
I asked Mlo if his family is there, and that’s where we began to know the man.
Family Man, Business Man
The name Mlondolozi means Guardian. Mlo said he is the youngest son, with two brothers and three sisters, all of whom look to him for direction. “I love my father,” he told us. “And I respect him. He is 76 with a lot of experience, and I decided to listen to him. He gives me a lot of good advice.”
Mlo’s respect for the elders extends to business as well. In January 2013, He had an idea to farm pigs with his nieces and nephews in Mevana, Willowvale in South Africa’s Eastern Cape. “In March I managed to buy one boar and one saw, and in July we added three more saws.” That was the birth of Imizamo Yethu Farming. (which means the people have gathered, collective struggle or combined effort). Knowing he did not know how to raise pigs, Mlo found an elderly pig famer in Cape Town. They brought him to the farm; they give him a home and take care of his needs, and he teaches them how to raise pigs.
When we met Mlo in December, they had 20 pigs, and now with 40 new piglets they’ve tripled the size of the herd in just one season.
Mlo said he likes farming because he likes growing things. He believes in nurturing: “I like working with the earth. It gives me something to look after; and when I nurture it, it grows. You love the tree when it gives you fruit, but in the winter when it doesn’t give you fruit, you have to take care of it.”
With all his work endeavors, Mlo is giving. And he is as committed to children as elders.
Mlo and his wife Ziyanda have one son, 10 months old. Mlo’s father gave his first grandson the name, Phahlalomzi, which means Roof, saying that he would be the roof to protect the family. “I may not be rich,” said Mlo. “But my children will be richer than I was. And that’s okay.” In his spare time – when he’s not at his day job, in his shop or on the farm – he also runs the Franschhoek Villagers football club in the Groendal township. Though the boys can be quite difficult, it’s a commitment he keeps anyway. He lives his values in the community.
Nothing and Everything
Mlo sees a higher purpose for his life, and for every one of us. “Children are brought into this world with nothing at all, but they have everything they need within them. That’s why they have their fists closed and their arms crossed, because they’re holding everything; they don’t want it to go. They grow. They crawl, they walk, they fall down, they get up. They come in with nothing, but they keep growing until they become us.”
“When we began this business,” he told us, “We had nothing. But how can we not keep going until we succeed! If we quit, then the children are better than we are. When a child is born God says, “I have a purpose for you. You go do this.” How can I then go back to God and say, ‘I failed. I couldn’t do it.’ You can’t do that. You have to keep going and trying.”
After more than half an hour, as our conversation drew to a close, Mlo thanked us for buying his shoes. He, like the vendors we met on the streets of Franschhoek, was grateful that we were helping them make a living. Every time I wear those sandals I will think of him and the Cape Town man who made them.
He also thanked me for sharing his story. He said that knowing other people will hear his story makes his struggle a little lighter. “It makes me feel better.”
I got an email from Mlo this week: “Business was not that bad for December, but January wasn’t good @ all. For Isiqalo Leather Collection, we are pushing to get the winter range and a new brand for our store (Angels Shoes). For Imizamo Yethu Farming, we were blessed with 40 piglets, which makes it a big challenge on the feed.”
Far More than Souvenirs
Between lingering racism, government bureaucracy and widespread corruption, Mlo’s mountain is steep. He knows this. But he’s committed. And that inspires me.
Mlo is deeply connected and committed to the people around him. He respects his elders, he empowers his peers, and he looks out for the youth. From what I have seen so far, this is a profoundly African way of seeing the world. And I, an ambitious white American woman living in Europe, believe it could be our salvation.
Among the people I work with – Americans and Europeans mostly – I hear so much loneliness, so much confusion about how to succeed in life, and such a sense of powerlessness to make a difference in an increasingly chaotic world. I believe this is the product of our competitive, productive, profit-centered standard for living. The older I get, the greater my sense to “Just do something.”
Let all of us who, like me, were born into privilege (and in this I include everything from getting a college education to having fresh water at home) be moved by this. In the Xhosa language Isiqalo means the beginning. Every day is a new one. Every day is Isiqalo.
If you are moved by Mlo’s story, as I am, please share this post. Let’s see how many more likes we can get on the Isiqalo Leather Collection Facebook page. A simple action can have unpredictable possibilities.