MASERU-WHEN transport industry mogul Thabiso Tšosane died in 2015 the smart money – to quote an over-used cliché – was on his business empire to quickly crumble while erstwhile rivals swooped down to pick up the pieces.
But five years down the line not only is the empire still standing strong, it has diversified, spreading its tentacles into the property sector where during the late Tsosane’s times it had little to negligible presence, all thanks to some really hardnosed decisions by ’Mathabo Tšosane, the late tycoon’s widow now sitting at the helm of the business.
“Because I had been in the industry for a long time I was able to see even before my husband passed away that the business would not become very profitable in the coming years and started looking at ways to diversify income streams,” says ’Mathabo, speaking to thepost in an interview last week.
With its stable income flows from rentals, property is a far more solid base for the family business empire than the volatile taxi industry where fortunes can be made quickly and lost even quicker.
Surely, the late Tšosane, were he around, would certainly be very proud of how ’Mathabo has held forte in business, defying the odds in an economy and society where widows generally struggle to keep their deceased husbands’ ventures going.
But ’Mathabo is the first to admit that it wasn’t easy keeping the ship afloat, even with the advantage that she was never a spectator in the business but played an active role during the time her husband was alive and running things.
In fact, she said she never had the chance to mourn her husband. She said because of the cut-throat nature of the transport industry she had to immediately step into the breech to keep the business running and safeguard her children’s inheritance.
The knowledge gained while her husband was still alive helped to position her in good stead in an industry that arguably is home to some of Lesotho’s worst male chauvinists and misogynists.
“The taxi industry in Lesotho is male dominated and most owners do not involve their wives in the business,” says ’Mathabo.
“Wives are often overlooked and children get more involved (in running the family business). My husband always insisted that I learn about the business,” she says, adding it was one of the smartest things her husband ever did to teach her the ropes of the industry and allowing her to gain the skills she would dearly need once left on her own.
And when time came for the tough calls to be made ’Mathabo was equal to the task such as when she had to streamline and reorganise the business, getting rid of some of the more expensive to maintain vehicles such as the Mercedes Benz minibuses her husband loved to operate and using the proceeds to help finance expansion into property.
“I sold most of the vehicles, they were mostly Mercedes Benz sprinters and Man buses and as a result were high maintenance (assets),” she says, without saying how many vehicles she sold away or how many she has left in the business.
According to ’Mathabo, other factors that prompted her to sell off some of the vehicles were that she was not able to easily source spare parts like her husband used to, as well as the factor that a
bigger fleet was much harder to manage and therefore susceptible to other risks such as increased theft of money and vehicle parts by drivers.
“It is true I was able to dodge huge challenges like losing cars or drivers stealing money or selling parts,” she says.
While she was busy navigating the difficult terrain that is the transport industry, ’Mathabo also had to juggle several balls in the social sphere where society puts a heavy and undue burden on widows of successful business people, always waiting to see and jeer when their living standards begin to drop because of reduced income.
“When you lose a spouse you also lose the joint income meaning you cannot afford everything you used to afford while you were together,” she says, adding that she had to make hard decisions, adjusting her lifestyle and letting go of some things while holding on to what was important to her children.
“I had to keep my children in school but had to live a less flashy lifestyle than when my husband was alive,” says ’Mathabo.
She adds, “society will paint you anyway they want, some will say you have hit rock bottom but do not mind them. Accept that you are alone and create a lifestyle to suit you.”
Yes ’Mathabo’s life is far from perfect, and so is anybody else’s. But one thing that is clear is that she is one widow who has succeeded where many others have failed – keeping a business left by the husband running and even expanding it in the process.
Another woman bucking the trend of the fate of most widows in Lesotho is 38-year-old ’Makatleho Motsie, whose husband died in 2018, leaving her with two daughters to raise.
Motsie, unlike in the case of ’Mathabo, never quite involved herself in her husband’s transport business.
She had to quickly learn the ropes once he was gone.
“I was never seriously involved in the business, I basically ran minor errands like picking up (vehicle) parts,” says Motsie, whose husband was a giant of the transport industry.
However, left with no option but to keep the business running and the bacon coming home, Motsie proved a fast and courageous learner. And just like ’Mathabo, she also never took time to mourn her husband but quickly moved in to keep the family ship afloat.
“I would go to the traffic department offices for renewal of vehicle permits when I was still in mourning wear. I would be up at 5am when the cars left the yard and see to it that they were back at the end of the day,” says Motsie.
“I was thrown in the deep end and I had to swim or sink. I chose to swim.”
Motsie, who says she never thought she would last long in the transport industry nor live up to the reputation of her husband who was one of the sector’s big men, says she is determined to drive the family business to greater heights but in her own space and time.
“I know that things can no longer move at the same pace that they moved at under my husband. He was passionate about this industry and I am only learning to build at least half of that passion,” she says. “All I can do is run this race at my own pace and shut out society’s noise.”
But ’Mathabo and Motsie’s heart-warming stories are not the normal tale of every widow in Lesotho or across much of southern Africa.
For widows, be they of rich or poor men, often quickly fall on hard times, with their in-laws rejecting them for one reason or another, or simply grabbing whatever wealth was left behind by the deceased husband.
In some cases, in-laws accuse the widow of witchcraft and causing the death of their relative and use this as an excuse to chase the poor woman away or to grab whatever the husband left behind.
It can even get worse once accusations of witchcraft and black magic are raised, with some widows unfortunately ending up losing their lives after being labelled witches.
That is what happened with ’Makatleho Sekonyela, the widow of a former transport magnate Sekonyela Sekonyela.
She was in 2012 shot dead by none other her own son who accused her of killing his father and brother and of planning to kill him too, presumably so she could inherit all the wealth left behind.
The son turned murderer, Chief Sekonyela, was sentenced to 20 years in prison in April 2012 for the crime – what a waste of an innocent woman’s life and that of a young man, himself.
But an even far greater tragedy is that widows continue to face unjust treatment including murder as happened with ’Makatleho when they could make huge contributions both to their own families and to society in general if only they could get the support as happened in the cases of ’Mathabo and Motsie.
It is even more worrying when the cruel and retrogressive treatment of widows is seen against the fact that 13.8 percent of Basotho women are widows, according to the 2016 Census.
Lesotho’s own brandy
ROMA-“Go, eat your food with rejoicing, and drink your wine with a cheerful heart, for already the true God has found pleasure in your works,” so says the Big Book.
Driven by that divine, Mohapi Pule has gone a step further – by coming up with a new type of brandy – to make you merry.
The brandy, Mountain Spels Brandy, will make the heart of the dying man rejoice.
“The healthy nutrients in fruits that make brandy, end up in you when you drink it,” he said.
Pule studied nutrition at the National University of Lesotho.
His brandy is made by fermenting fruits into wine. The wine is then distilled into a brandy. It carries the flavour and the aroma of the original fruits.
The story began when Pule was born in Quthing, Mphaki. He was born to a hardworking mother who brew traditional beer like no other.
“She brew beer well before I was born. She is still making it to this day,” he said.
His passion for brewing was probably “born” even before he was born. Mothers have a hidden way of passing not just their looks but their passions to their children.
As he grew up, he found that he was still intertwined with his mom’s brewing business in one way or another.
“Mostly, I am expected to fetch water for the brewing process. That, I still do to this day when I visit home,” he says.
Two decades later, Pule found himself in the Roma Valley, doing BSc in Nutrition.
“At some point, I found that I had lost purpose in life. There was not a thing that I could say, well, I was passionate about this thing or that thing.”
That situation, of course, threw him into some serious soul-searching.
It brought him back to his roots.
“During this period, I recalled that when I was younger, I used to imagine helping my mom do the packaging of the beer she was making and helping distribute it countrywide,” he said.
From a young age, the issue of subsistence business didn’t appeal to him. But that imagination came and passed. Now here he was, worried that he might not amount to anything in life.
Then, boom! An idea came!
What if he produced an alcoholic drink?
He could have thought about anything to do as a business but, lo and behold! He thought about his mother’s passion!
One of the things he loves about alcoholic beverages is that they are popular.
“I haven’t seen products as popular as alcoholic drinks,” he said.
He might be wrong or right but the reality is, the rest of the world has for generations found delight in alcoholic beverages – some to the extent of overdoing it to their injury!
“Mabele khunoana ralitlhaku thabisa lihoho. Mabele u tsoa kae e le khale re u batla re sa u thole? Ueeeena mabeeeele!” (Loosely translated beer brewed from sorghum make men happy. We’ve been looking for you from afar, you sorghum. In short, this is a praise poem for the Sesotho sorghum brew).
But then came the most difficult part. Which specific beverages should he focus on and how would he do it?
He decided that he would focus on ciders. He realised that not many people in Lesotho were making ciders.
He started experimenting at home and realized how difficult the process was. He just couldn’t get it right. To worsen matters, he also did not have the right equipment.
But like most successful innovators, he just knew that he had to start his business right away.
Pule says he then learnt about other forms of beverages: the spirits. Spirits are very high in alcohol content. Here we are talking the likes of whiskey, vodka and brandy.
He was particularly interested in vodka. He went into one NUL laboratory and, with necessary permission, began testing a number of spirits and doing a lot of research about them.
He began saving some of the money he earned from the National Manpower Development Secretariat in the form of student allowance so he could buy equipment. Saving was not easy. The subsistence money was already not that much. Having to share it with a business was asking a little too much.
But Pule was so determined that he did it, bought equipment that allowed him to develop what he thought was “vodka”.
However, after buying the equipment he immediately realised that the equipment was to make brandy not vodka.
“Now I was forced to get into brandy by chance,” he said.
It was a mistake that he has never regretted having realised that there are very few individuals who were making brandy in Lesotho.
Pule had to throw himself fully into experiments. He read books about brandy production. He even enrolled for an online course on distillation.
In the end, he began to see some light.
“I began to feel some difference in the taste of my produce,” he said. “When I shared my produce with my lecturers, they were over the moon!”
With that encouragement, Pule began packaging his brandy and is now selling it to family and friends.
“My small equipment means that I can’t produce much. However, If I were to get bigger equipment, things would be much better.”
ROMA – ’MATUMANE Matela, a National University of Lesotho (NUL)-trained nutritionist, is an example of how a nutritionist should think and act.
Matela makes and sells ready-to-cook vegetables out of produce from her own farm or produce she preferably buys from local farms.
“When I make a dish, as a nutritionist, I make choices that ensure a typical package is packed with nutrition,” Matela said.
Today, we examine an interesting story of the lady who is determined to ensure that you eat healthy despite your busy schedule.
It started with her experiences in life.
She describes herself as an extremely busy woman.
She likes getting things done.
As the busy amongst us will say, the busier you become, the less you watch your diet.
She couldn’t escape the trap!
“My busy schedule meant that I ended up eating junk and I was gaining weight,” she said.
With time, she came to her senses.
As a nutritionist, she recalled that the best way to preach was to preach by example.
So, was she preaching what she practised?
Clearly, she wasn’t.
She had to find an option to maintain the busy schedule and eat healthy at the same time.
The beautiful thing about nutrition is that the healthiest foods are the closest to us: fruits and vegetables.
Some scientists even claim that our bodies seem to be designed to thrive on fruits and vegetables.
“Have you ever wondered why looking at a ripe raw peach on a tree is mouth-watering but looking at a fat cow isn’t?” asked one scientist.
Well, whether we were designed for fruits and vegetables or not, the truth is that they are good for our bodies.
That’s what good science tells us.
And we somehow “know it” too if you have heard about anything called intuition.
So one day she found herself increasingly eating fruits and vegetables.
It’s easier to change a religion than a diet, they say.
So it is commendable that she changed her diet at all.
“The idea was to chop as much vegetables as possible and put them in a fridge so that in future, I will just pull them out and cook.”
She wasn’t proposing something new.
Who amongst us doesn’t enjoy the convenience of just pulling up chopped frozen vegetables and cooking?
Little did she know that what she was doing was putting her on a path to a brilliant business.
It took a post on a social media to achieve just that.
“I took a pic of the chopped and packaged vegetables and posted them on my social media account. The reaction was swift. I began getting questions like, “how much?””
It immediately dawned on her that she could be sitting on a great business idea, after all.
So she gave it a try and started selling.
To her surprise, people started buying.
In fact, “I get orders for my products almost on a daily basis.”
That is how interested people really are.
This to an extent that her business now gets up to four irregular employees, she included, when the demand is high.
She said her training in Agriculture, Home Economics and Nutrition has helped her to give a thought into what she was doing.
For instance, where possible, she grows her own crops and sells them as first preference.
She has grown spinach, butternut, green pepper, onion, herbs and beans.
She is also in the process of renting more fields to grow more vegetables.
Then she empowers Basotho producers by requesting them to supply.
Going for foreign produce is the last resort.
Look at her packages and you realise something.
The “7 colours” proverb comes alive.
Those seven colours (several colours actually) may have been designed to appeal to your eyes but that is just the tip of the iceberg.
The colours of vegetables mean a lot in terms of nutrition.
Each colour gives you something different.
So, the more colours in one meal, the merrier.
To drive this home, let’s go a scientific route for a second.
Red, Blue and Purple: These vegetables contain substances that are good at reducing the risk of stroke, cancer and memory problems.
White: The likes of onion or garlic may help lower your risk of high blood pressure, high cholesterol, cancer and heart disease.
Orange and Yellow: Carrots immediately come to mind.
These vegetables contain substances called carotenoids which may help improve your immune system and help to improve the health of your eyes.
Basotho, it would appear, have long known a thing or two about the relationship between carrots and eyes.
Hence the famous saying, “o jele lihoete” (they ate carrots), often applied to good sportsmen or women with symbolically “good eyesight”.
Green: Green is life. Green vegetables come packed with chlorophyll, a chemical that scientists believe can boost your immune system, eliminate fungus in your body, clean your blood, lead to healthy intestines and give you boundless energy.
As a bonus, her Home Economics background is such that she is armed with a host of recipes for each of the packages she sells.
She has great dreams for the future.
“I want to see my products decorating the shelves of big supermarkets,” she said.
A new, co-operative chain store
ROMA – ’MAKUENA Lesiea is spearheading the creation of a cooperative chain store that will sell Lesotho products only.
The store is being developed under the National University of Lesotho (NUL) Innovation Hub and it will be incubated by the Hub.
“Have you seen it? Basotho are producing like never before,” Lesiea said.
“However, their products are hard to see in the markets. We want to change all that.”
The store, she said, will open branches in all districts of Lesotho, starting from Maseru.
Visit any supermarket in Lesotho and check the products on the shelves.
You will be shocked to realise that, in general, just one percent of them are made in Lesotho.
The other 99 percent comes from elsewhere.
Is it because Basotho are not producing or can’t produce at all?
“Having worked directly with the NUL Innovation Hub and the Tsa Mahlale TV programme under the Hub, I have travelled the depth and breadth of Lesotho and I was amazed at the amount of work Basotho are doing,” she said.
What is the problem?
Basotho products are not given sufficient platforms to prove themselves.
“Credit where it is due, some shops are beginning to accept and sell Basotho products,” she said.
“However, they are barely making a dent because Basotho products, being at their infancy, cannot receive full attention unless by a store that is designed to give them full attention.”
Such a store doesn’t exist.
She said the idea is not to compete with any of the existing stores because “we are getting into a new territory altogether, we are addressing a different market”.
So listen to Lesiea as she presents some features of the store that will surely persuade you to join the bandwagon:
- Customer and producer confidence: The store, she said, will achieve two things.
First, when they see masses of Lesotho-made products in one place, Basotho customers will slowly grow confidence in them.
The confidence will shoot to the roof when the customers experience that many of the products made in Lesotho are already way ahead of foreign competitors in terms of quality.
Secondly, the store will give Basotho producers an assurance that their products have, at least, one store that is willing to take them, dark or blue.
More production will come from such assurance.
- Selling “everything”: The store will sell everything from fruits and vegetables to processed foodstuffs to clothing and building materials (if Thabure car will be in production by then, it will be on the shelves too).
“Suppose what we want to sell is not locally made, we will never cross the border, any border, to find its equivalence. We will encourage Basotho to produce it until they do.”
- We mean business: whereas Basotho are beginning to produce, their products are still all over the place.
You bump across them in some few willing stores, in expos and trade shows, or as being sold by individual resellers. Those are good efforts, but they are not enough. In fact, many in Lesotho have come to see producing and selling as being more of an art, a hobby, a therapy or a hustling than a business, “so we are seriously moving away from such a casual approach, we mean business this time around.”
- Ownership: So when you enter this store, you could be purchasing a product made by you in a store owned by you. What a difference!
- Reasonable standards: the store will only demand reasonable standards. As a struggling Mosotho, try taking your products to some of the local shops and you are, at worst, turned away without reason or, at best, given a long list of standards you must meet before they can take your product.
“In our case, as long as your products are reasonably of good quality, you are in. NUL Innovation Hub is already testing many Basotho products. We won’t ignore quality, but we won’t use it as a way to prevent Basotho products from growing either.”
- A cooperative chainstore: From contributing as little as M50 per month, members will use a continuous financing model to ensure that the store doesn’t just end in Maseru but reaches the ten districts of Lesotho.
Each branch will start at a medium scale in order to grow along with Basotho products. We won’t ask for investors to come from anywhere, “we will be investors ourselves.”
- An export launch pad. “We are often told to export our produce. The obvious question is, if you haven’t convinced your own people to consume your own products, how can you convince people in other lands to do so? Why should they take you seriously?”
However, the store is not meant to be a local store forever.
It will be a means by which we export our products to other countries in the future.
When we export the store to Soweto, we export it along with products from Lesotho.
Don’t say no because we have seen Chinese shops and Indian shops and, of course, South African shops, filled to the brim with Chinese products and Indian products and South African products in many countries.
“If they can do it,” Lesiea ended, “so can we.”
“Because if it is there in some of us, it is there in all of us.”
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