It was a tough route to business for Bheki Kunene who knew privations for most of his childhood while growing up in Gugulethu; a suburb on the outskirts of South Africa’s wealthy tourist city of Cape Town.
At 15 years of age, he was selling peanuts as a way of augmenting his family’s ever-shrinking income, and that was before he moved on to hawking fruits and vegetables.
Beyond his family’s financial struggles, Kunene had a rather troubled childhood. Gugulethu was a tough neighborhood, notorious for muggings and other brutal crimes. And for one to get by on a daily, it was kind of the general consensus that one grew some inner steel and had ice coursing through their veins. Else, one was bound to be pushed around time and again by hoodlums.
But Kunene may have taken the idea of being a ‘tough kid’ a little too far. Like many other youths in the township, it was important to ‘earn one’s bones,’ and that meant getting involved in fights and violent altercations – lest one was deemed weak and bullied by thugs.
Well, it appears there’s a thin line between ‘tough’ and ‘troublemaker’ and Kunene may have crossed that line without even knowing it. As a teenager, he was expelled from school and banned from attending all other government schools after an ugly incident which involved him taking a hammer to his teacher in a fit of rage.
His soiled reputation as an unruly child only grew after the expulsion. Now out of school and having been rejected by several private educational institutions who preferred to do without a well-known troublemaker amongst their ranks, Kunene fully embraced street life.
And that led to a couple of run-ins with the law. Those were checkered times which saw him get in and out of several juvenile detention centres.
You know what they say; one can only cause so much havoc and your “road to Damascus moment” catches up with you sooner or later. Kunene certainly got on the bad books of so many people during his troublesome phase but one thing he never lost was the support and encouragement of his mother and grandmother.
With a mixture of admonishment and encouragement, both women were able to exorcise his personal demons and bring him back. With their support, he was also spurred on to continue with his studies and that happened after he passed the matric exams of a school that was convinced he had turned a new leaf and was willing to give him a chance.
Kunene went through the rest of his high school years without incident, putting his head down and channeling what was left of his inner aggression into his studies. The effort he put into his academics paid off when he won a full scholarship into the Ruth Prowse School of Art in 2006.
It was kind of a timely breakthrough for Kunene, as his folks had made it clear that they didn’t have the means to get him higher education owing to the state of their finances, and the only way he could further his education was by taking up jobs that will enable him to sponsor himself.
But now with the scholarship in the bag, it was now a lot easier. The scholarship demanded that all his educational expenses would be paid for provided that his grades stayed on the upside of 75% in all the courses he took, and Kunene didn’t disappoint. His grades never ventured below that mark.
It was, in fact, during his time at the institution that Kunene initially forayed into the world of business. It happened that there was a six-month compulsory internship at a graphic design company that was recommended for the course. After hitting a snag in all his internship applications, he decided to probably ‘intern himself.’
Kunene reached out to two of his classmates who were facing similar difficulties, and between the three of them, some R600 (USD 57.00) and a computer were realised.
With no more than a rudimentary knowledge of the subject, they started Mind Trix Media in his mother’s house. The business now specializes in web development and design, printing, marketing, and mobile app development. Essentially, Kunene underwent the internship in his own company.
The boy from Gugulethu was in it for the long haul but it would seem his partners had other ideas. It wasn’t long before his two classmates called it quits with the business which they always thought was a dead rubber they had only ventured into in order to satisfy the internship requirement.
But Kunene had the foresight to identify some real potential in the business. He knew the venture would eventually bring the goods. So, he persevered. He kept at it, honing his skills further and managing the business by himself.
Kunene thought he had finally hit paydirt when the big one came in the form a client called AAA Shuttles. His company had been contracted to set up a website and develop other projects for the tourism company. And because he was working solo, he had to do it all by himself despite the rather tight deadline. To show commitment, the client even went as far as paying a 50% deposit for the project.
It was actually a daunting task but Kunene remained unfazed – he probably still had some ice leftover in his veins. He was quite capable and skilled, and the project seemed to be progressing smoothly until a knock on the door some two weeks in set him several months back.
Kunene was printing T-shirts on that summer morning in December 2009 when two detectives walked in through the door. At first, he made the gentlemen out as friends of the local pastor who had just come in for a chat but as he was to soon realise, they were far less friendly folk.
“They started asking me questions of where I was the previous night. Then they told me to take off my rings, belt, shoelaces and I knew something was not right,” Kunene recounts.
All it took were a few questions and some vague accusations and Kunene was getting cuffed and taken in for murder. Perhaps, it was the scent from his past that pointed them in his direction.
“When I got to the police station, they told me they’d torture me like no one would believe. Each morning it was another torture,” he remembers.
“The more I cried, screaming that I knew nothing about a murder, the police would continue to torture me, claiming that all criminals cried and said that they knew nothing until they were tortured into confessing. But I was telling them the truth.”
Kunene took the incessant pounding for about a week, then one morning he was set free with half-hearted apologies. It seemed the police had mistaken him for the real culprit.
“They told me they found the real culprit who had dreadlocks and they thought I had cut my dreadlocks the night before. I cut my dreadlocks a few years ago,” he says.
But the damage had already been done, Kunene was battered and bruised. He needed three weeks to recover from the brutality he had suffered and it set his work-in-progress back several weeks. But thankfully, the client was an understanding one. After explaining his ordeal, the contract was kept and he was given some more time.
Kunene eventually completed the work and the quality of his work made a good impression on his first big client, despite the blip. Soon, the business picked up and bigger contracts were coming in.
Through referrals from satisfied clients and word-of-mouth marketing, Mind Trix Media was able to gain more clients and build a solid reputation. The funds were coming in steady gushes and with it, Kunene was able to move the business to a proper office, procure more equipment, and employ some able hands.
It would appear the South African entrepreneur had ridden the storm and gotten his life on track but some four years after the police incident, Kunene had a close shave with disaster. This time, it was an accident that happened in Gugulethu.
Kunene was hit by a car and knocked into the path of another heading in the opposite direction. In what was a ghastly crash, he could count himself lucky for having escaped with his life and only a cracked skull and a broken leg to show for his troubles.
What followed was three months of treatment and recovery in a hospital but like a phoenix from the ashes, he re-emerged. Scarred, but stronger. Since then, Kunene has gone on to grow his business in leaps and bounds. Money’s been made, lives have been changed, awards have been claimed, and so has fame and acclaim.
Kunene was named as one of the top 10 national finalists of the South African Breweries Kick Start Business Competition. This put him in the same room as a number of well-known entrepreneurs and motivational speakers, including Virgin’s Richard Branson, who he fancies as a role model whose ideas have taught him a thing or two about running a business.
It’s been a bumpy ride for Bheki Kunene but these days, he can kick back and reap the rewards of the company he started in his mother’s house and has grown into a formidable business in Gugulethu – proving his childhood detractors wrong and serving up opportunities to young individuals from diadvantaged communities.
Few entrepreneurs can comeback from a wrongful murder accusation and a ghastly accident, but this one’s taken that left hook to the chin and gotten back on his feet even after hitting the canvas.
Beyond South Africa, Mind Trix Media has blossomed under Kunene’s stewardship, and the company now offers its services to clients in Zimbabwe, Angola, Vietnam, Italy, and the United States. It looks like resilience does pay off after all.Feature image courtesy: destinyconnect.com
Hi! Here’s a little something for you. In the first edition of The African Podcast by WeeTracker, get access to the formula behind ‘Building a $ 100 Mn company (twice) in Africa’ with the co-founder of Andela & Flutterwave – Iyinoluwa Aboyeji. The exclusive podcast goes live soon, Subscribe here to listen to it.
9500+ subscribers are getting our free newsletter on African technology, startups and innovators bi-weekly.
Made with ❤ in Africa