The engineer who sells grass hats

The engineer who sells grass hats

MASERU – AS a mechanical engineer, Lehlohonolo ’Moka, 25, is an expert in the design and production of heavy machinery.
’Moka says he loves engineering and has always been fascinated by machines. Yet it is away from the buzz of heavy machinery that ’Moka has found a new love – the designing and production of traditional Basotho grass hats.

It is a solitary endeavour that is bringing him huge financial rewards and a deep sense of personal satisfaction.
’Moka’s new career stands far away from what he dreamt he would do for a living while in the engineering lecture theatre at Lerotholi Polytechnic.
’Moka says after graduating in 2015, he immediately realised he would struggle to get a job in his preferred area of expertise.
But he says he remembered the inspirational words of one of his lecturers at Lerotholi Polytechnic, Teboho Mohapeloa, who used to encourage him to think broadly and not just focus on engineering.

“He used to tell us that we will get our diplomas but should not expect to get jobs (because there were none). We should start thinking about what we will do to employ ourselves,” he says.
It was that candid conversation in class that drove ’Moka to venture into the business of hat-making when he could not get a job.
Lesotho’s unemployment rate stands at a staggering 25.8 percent, according to a 2008 Lesotho Integrated Labour Force Survey done by the Bureau of Statistics, a government agency.
A shrinking job market has seen most college graduates fail to secure jobs, pushing most of them into the informal sector.
The bulk of the graduates are absorbed into the civil service which is the biggest employer in Lesotho.

The report says there were currently 192 119 people who were unemployed with 94 322 being males with the rest being female.
Unemployment was also said to be higher in the 20-24 and 25 to 29 age groups. Although ’Moka initially toyed with the idea of starting a small engineering business, he soon realised he did not have the capital to start the business.

That was when he realised why his late father used to make grass hats for sale and how he himself would help his father to make some hats.
He says he realised that although he did not need much capital to kickstart the business, he was not convinced he had the necessary experience to get the business going.
’Moka decided to hone his skills first.

He began making grass hats and selling them to his neighbours.  They all loved the product.
He says through research on the internet, he discovered that he could run the business with very low costs.
‘‘At first, I made some hats for neighbours who all loved the products. I was surprised when some people showed real interest in the product and gave me some orders.
“That was when I decided to advertise the business,” he says.

’Moka says he is grateful to his late father who implanted within him the love of business.
“Before my father got sick, he taught me how to make hats,” he says.
‘‘He gave me a big ‘inheritance’ which I have now passed on to my younger brother,’’ he says.

’Moka recalls the gratifying times when he was able to pay his own school fees through the sale of grass hats after his father died.
“Grass hats made me who I am today; that is why I still make them. During the day, I deal with baskets but before going to sleep, I do some touch ups here and there on hats,’’ ’Moka says.
He says he fell in love with engineering when he was still in Form C.

‘‘I was interested in civil, electrical and mechanical engineering. I approached students who did those courses to seek their opinions which helped me in my career choice,” he says.
’Moka says he is grateful to his family which has remained supportive in his new venture. “Whenever I tell them what I want to do, they stick with me rather than criticise me. Realising how much they believe in me gives me strength to make sure I finish what I started,’’ he says.

’Moka says he finds inspiration in reading about people who started their businesses from scratch, not millionaires who bought shares in big companies which were already successful.
“It is high time we change that negative mind-set we have and start doing something to reduce the high rate of unemployment,” he says.
“Let’s put into practice the skills we have. Let’s appreciate what we have and more blessings will come our way.”

’Moka says while selling grass hats has helped keep hunger at bay, he still dreams of setting up an engineering company one day.
“It is a company which will specialise on manufacturing. I want to venture into pig slaughtering plant, incubators, pedestal grinder, pedestal drilling machines as well as a welding plant business,” he says.

’Mapule Motsopa

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