Wealth in cattle sparks design idea

Thobekile Mkhize manufactures handbags and purses under her own label
ENTREPRENEUR WITH EDGE: Thobekile Mkhize manufactures handbags and purses under her own label

The coronavirus pandemic is going to drive people to small businesses and keep them there.

“There’s going to be a focus and shift onto our products,” handbag manufacturer Thobekile Mkhize says.

She’s the owner and creative director of Mabotho, a leather handbag brand for women, based in Durban.

The name of the business is a mash-up of her name and her late father Sibongiseni Mkhize’s nickname, Mabo.

“I wanted to honour my father’s entrepreneurial spirit.

“Though he was a teacher by profession he was really great at consulting for his friends’ businesses and before he passed, he was just really getting into it.”

Her family has been the inspiration that has guided her in this business venture.

She settled on the pattern for her bags after attending her grandfather’s funeral and seeing  the beautiful hide of one of his cattle.

She decided her bags would look just like that.

Some of the bag produced under the Mabotho label
BAGS OF STYLE: Some of the bag produced under the Mabotho label

Some of the bags are made from the beautiful, tawny brown hide of Nguni cattle; others are dyed bright green and one bag design has spots like a leopard.

The bags evoke luxury in a very South African way.

, Many South Africans grew up with the saying that livestock is wealth and with her bags, Mkhize affirms it.

She’s not one to let an opportunity go, as evidenced by her getting on a plane and heading to the US  to sell her handbags at the Essence Festival in New Orleans, having never left the country before.

Mkhize started and registered her handbag business in 2013, but began operating in 2017.

It took her some time to save up capital and juggle her time between a full-time job and all the research she had to do.

“I thought to myself because I am building an SA brand which will probably be a little bit difficult for me to introduce to the international market, because the local consumers are so used to imported goods. I felt I needed to do a very big statement as to who Mabotho is.”

She quit her job and through a friend learnt about the Essence Festival which was hosted in Durban for the first time.

She took the stock she had and  boarded a bus to KwaZulu-Natal, having been based in Johannesburg at the time.

Mabotho designs are elegant and made of local animal hides
RURAL INSPIRATION: Mabotho designs are elegant and made of local animal hides

“A lot of my visitors [at her stand] were tourists from New Orleans.

“At the time I didn’t know that the Essence Festival was an international event, as it was organised by the eThekwini municipality.

“My visitors, who were interested in the unique look of my product, were saying it made them feel connected with the continent.”

Her stock was sold out that day and she made contacts with most of the buyers, whom she later found out were people in government positions in New Orleans.

They invited her to exhibit at the Essence Festival there and so she used up all her funds to plan for the trip, and for flights and accommodation.

She made many friends along the way, from New York where she stayed for a week with friends before travelling to New Orleans for the festival.

“Part of my plan was to go and introduce myself to boutique owners in New York ... I had to pitch quickly there and then about my product, and got feedback.

“My aim was to find a distributor in New York.

“I had some good leads but then it didn’t happen; it wasn't the right time then but I still kept their contacts to this day.”

She says she learnt a lot about how Americans do business, how to develop her product to international levels and understanding the market.

Another classic Mabotho design
DRESSED FOR SUCCESS: Another classic Mabotho design

Mkhize found fellow South Africans at the festival, and after her product was sold out, she took a walk and came across the eThekwini municipality stand.

They asked her how she had got to the festival and she explained that she had saved up and got herself there.

This led to her winning an award for her business, which included prize money that enabled her to buy more machines.

“Basically the money I spent after resigning came back gradually, and then I started researching about exporting, and how government could support businesses in taking their business overseas.”

Mkhize then got in touch with the leather council and was able to visit other countries such as China to showcase her products.

She says it’s important that you start so government can see something of worth in your business before they can invest in it. — SowetanLIVE