Young township entrepreneur beats the odds

By Nosihle Shelembe

He was among the winners at the National Youth Awards and this past Friday, he was a special guest of President Jacob Zuma at the National Youth Day celebrations held in the North West province.

Young entrepreneur Bulelani Balabala’s career looks bright.

Despite dropping out of school after Grade 9 when his mother was retrenched, Balabala never let the circumstances destroy him.

He now runs an award-winning Printing and Branding Agency in Tembisa. The month of June is declared Youth Month throughout the country and government has been encouraging young people to start up their own businesses and enterprises to lessen the burden of unemployment.

Balabala is one of many young people who are responding to that call.

His entrepreneurial journey started when he sold sweets from his mother’s home and at the age of 17, he made his first biggest deal which was to supply matric jackets to a school in the Kempton Park area.

About two years after he left school, Balabala decided to open an internet café in his mother’s garage as a means to make money and to do branding work, which at the time was printing T-shirts.

“I didn’t even have computer experience at the time. I started with the little that I had. I got carpets from church, desktops, screens and bins from friends, and ink from my aunt. It was more of the community coming together and assisting. For the first five years or so I was making anything between R180 and R380 per week and sometimes per month,” Balabala says.

The first five years were about survival for the business and when things got difficult for Balabala, his parents would encourage him to find a job but he persisted working on his business until he got the opportunity to be incubated at Raizcorp.

Raizcorp provides business support for enthusiastic, growth-hungry entrepreneurs, offering them a platform that fosters learning and guidance, which can be translated into practical business success.

“I have been incubated at Raizcorp for the past five years…it has helped me as an entrepreneur to understand systems and processing income statements, balance sheets and asset variations. I learned how to position my business in such a way that although I am not in the office right now, money is being made,” Balabala says.

He says in the early stages it was a challenge to find the right people to work for the company.

Balabala’s company, IAF Brands, does in-house concept development, design, printing, events set-up and brand activations. 

Some of the brands that the company has worked on include Lenovo, Mofaya, Touch HD and the City of Ekurhuleni. The company employs 12 permanent staff members and five part-time staff members.

Balabala is also the founder of the Township Entrepreneurs Alliance (TEA), a professional speaker and host of his own radio show.

The success he had speaking at schools got him booked to speak at events.

TEA is a non-profit organisation established in 2015 with the aim to develop and grow township entrepreneurs so that they have a long lasting as well as a profitable business that will create employment.

The organisation facilitates a platform for entrepreneurs to give talks about their business journey, training or education.

Running IAF Brands has not always been easy for Balabala but he believes being resilient and focused on his goals helped his business to survive.

“I live on the premise that if no opportunity comes my way, let me go get the opportunity so I am not waiting for anyone to give me anything,” he says.

He encourages other aspiring entrepreneurs to be specialists in the industry they want to operate in.

“Start, hold on very tight, delay the gratification, when the money comes, focus on investing it and reinvesting on the business up until a point where the business can run itself. I believe in being a master in what you do and not be jack of all trades.”

Balabala has big plans for the future as his goals for IAF Brands include reaching an annual turnover of R56 million in 2021, employing 70 creatives and keeping big accounts on retainer.

“With the organisation like TEA, my dream is to build incubators in the township, have TEA sessions happening in two townships in every province per month, with the flagship event impacting over 20 000 to 40 000 young people during the Global Entrepreneurship week in November,” he says.

Balabala has been awarded Best Corporate Citizen in Youth Development by the Mayor of Ekurhuleni.  

His journey to being an entrepreneur is a testament that with hard work, resilience and tenacity, young people can run successful businesses in the townships and contribute towards job creation. -SAnews.gov.za