Thobeka Mdlalo, 33, is an innovative entrepreneur, seeing opportunities all around her and seizing them. In addition to running four small businesses out of her house in the Imizamo Yethu informal settlement in Hout Bay, Cape Town, she is a tour guide and a local distributor for the organisation TrashBack, which promotes the sale of used clothing by small vendors in Hout Bay.
Like thousands of others, Mdlalo moved from the Eastern Cape to find work in Cape Town. “I did not have money to further my studies, I was [raised] by a single mother and there were many challenges, so I had to go and look for a job.” Mdlalo was able to find work as a cleaner at Woolworths, but she felt unfulfilled.
“I decided to resign and do something for myself,” she says. She began using the sewing machines at a local community hall. “I bought a few materials and made skirts, tops, dresses, alterations — anything that anyone would ask me to do. I would sell them in the community.”
Tasting success, she began to expand into other ventures. “I wanted to make vetkoek and scones, so I bought my own sewing machine so that I could work from home.” She now caters for local events.
Then she went further. “There was a demand for laundry. There are many people without washing machines, they work long hours, they are tired, they don’t want to spend time on laundry.” In 2005 Mdlalo opened the only laundry in Imizamo Yethu.
Using grey water, she irrigates the garden she and her brothers started from scratch. Situated below her house, it beautifies the community and sets a positive example about keeping spaces clean in a township that battles with rubbish. “You used to find paper all over here but now it’s rare to find any. People are respecting the space.”
Her most recent enterprise is a flush toilet situated in an outhouse just beyond her doorstep, providing an alternative to the frequently unsanitary public toilets in the area. She charges R1 per use.
Mdlalo hopes to inspire others in Imizamo Yethu to take matters into their own hands and dreams of opening a youth centre, as well as starting a youth gardening group, a women’s sewing group and a women’s poetry group, to inspire creativity and positivity.
“Other people complain that there are no jobs, but there are many things to do! There are opportunities [for] a person if he or she wants it. All of us have good thoughts about what we can do in life; it’s just about putting them into action.”