Bulelani Balabala has big ideas for small businesses

Bulelani Balabala
Bulelani Balabala

Entrepreneurship is a huge phenomenon in Ekurhuleni, and one of its main drivers is Bulelani Balabala - an entrepreneur, public speaker, and founding executive of Township Entrepreneur Alliance (TEA).

TEA is a platform where aspiring entrepreneurs learn, engage, access skills and mentorship to start and operate a business in order to drive economic development in their areas. Over the past three years, about 4000 potential entrepreneurs have attended.

Inspired by overflowing creativity in the townships, Balabala, 30, the owner of his own branding enterprise called IAF Brands, established TEA, a Tembisa-based nonprofit organisation, three years ago to help small-time entrepreneurs realise their goals.

"I come from humble beginnings myself, I dropped out of high school after Grade 9, so as to speed up my schooling because there was no money at home for me to complete matric. I enrolled at an FET college with my Grade 9 pass," said Balabala, who was born at Mqantsa section in the township.

But even at college, he couldn't get bogged down in the course. He quit after N3 to pursue his burning desire to become a businessman.

"I have no work experience but have sold caps, as in headgear, sold fat cakes, sold stationery. I've washed cars and transported kids to school but that business also failed. The most important thing [is] I didn't give up."

Today, Balabala's IAF Brands employs 12 people, six on a permanent basis and the rest part-time. His business does everything from printing, branding to banners and signage.

"We don't outsource any of the work equipment, we own it at IAF Brands. For the longest part as a township entrepreneur, six to seven years, I had wanted to leave kasi to enjoy air-conditioned suburban office space," he says.

"But my personal relationship with my community and belief in every aspect of the thriving township entrepreneurship values has kept me in Tembisa. Concepts and ideas coming from township small business are world-class.

"So I don't need to be based in Rosebank or Parktown for my business to have clients from the suburbs. I've seen whites using township dry cleaners for their clothes.

"I believe big corporates like Eskom, Bidvest ... the likes of MTN, can invest in small business, give them opportunities. What is the purpose of the department of small business [development]? From simple things like digging trenches and laying optic cables, why must the tender go to a well-established and thriving business?"

The purpose of TEA, he said, is to create the right atmosphere and platform for entrepreneurs to succeed in their chosen business space. TEA's meetings are held every third Saturday of the month. "We've made incubation accessible to ordinary township folks.

"Where will a struggling entrepreneur get money from for a double transport fare to the suburbs to be mentored? We've brought incubation home."

Balabala funds the sessions from his own pocket, through IAF Brands. "I'm talking of classy events - we provide and serve all types of quality brand teas and coffees, biscuits and muffins, delivered excellently by a local bakery in Tembisa.

"Whether it's two or 500 people in attendance it's immaterial, TEA is for all entrepreneurs."

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