Seldom does one leave a stable and well paying job behind to pursue their business interests, especially with minimal support from family and friends but even as this was the case, ‘Mé ‘Mapotlaki Hlakane handed in her resignation letter at the then Barclays Bank and leaped head-on into the ruthless and unpredictable world of business.
It has been years since she made the decision to quit her job and her only regret is why she had not done so sooner “I do not even miss my old job,” she says. Her transition into the world of business and the challenges thereafter is proof that this was a calling that had long been ordained to her.
Born in Masianokeng on December 16, 1961, ‘Mé ‘Mapotlaki spent most of her adolescent years in the dusty streets of Ha Mapetla, where she grew up. She completed her primary school studies at Masianokeng Primary, attaining a third class pass and then moved on to Masianokeng Secondary School where she again passed her Form C with a third class, following these unsatisfactory results, she blamed the school system and asked her parents to transfer her to Thabeng High School in Morija, which they did.
It was not long before she sat for her Cambridge examinations, managing to scrape together a GCE pass. At this this stage, she admitted to her consistent academic struggle, “I was always a shy child at school, I would never answer questions even if I knew the answer and I would never ask where I did not understand. I have always been afraid of making mistakes,” she says.
Before her final results were out, ‘Mé ‘Mapotlaki fell pregnant and got married to her boyfriend, who was a teacher. As they began a new life together, she found herself in need of a job and wasted no time as she hastily began her search for one. “I was young at heart so having a baby and being married was not a dead-end for me, I would wake up everyday to go and look for work, and I looked anywhere I could, including the textile factories”.
Her prayers and efforts would eventually bear her fruits when she got a job at Lesotho Tele-Communications (LTC), which is currently known as Econet as a telephone exchange operator. Determined to develop herself further even as an employee, she enrolled for evening classes for a computer course. "I knew my destiny was in my hands and I could not let anything stop me from achieving my dreams" she said.
When LTC introduced a billing department, she was one of the first people to join the unit as she had been taking computer classes in the evenings, “The reason I took the night time classes was because I never gave up, I wanted to constantly improve myself” she notes. Her second break came when Barclays Bank opened an IT division, which she became a part of, as she was already computer savvy.
From her job at LTC, ‘Mé ‘Mapotlaki sold clothes that she bought in Durban during weekends, her love and ability for selling began to peak at this stage as she sustained this business even with her new job at Barclays “Back then there was barely any competition in the clothing industry as there were very few Chinese shops compared to now and because of that I had a lot of clients”.
An incident with a loan shark that put her at the risk of losing her job provided her with yet another business idea, that of loaning money to her colleagues and close circles. From this trade, she was able to save up enough money to buy her father chickens as a way of supporting himself.
“My father had always loved livestock and had been promised by the government that they would provide him with such. However, they failed to deliver on the promise and that left him very disappointed so when I got the opportunity, I bought him chickens that he could sell. I fell in love with his love and we ended up co-running the business” she reveals.
Between her job at the bank, selling clothes, her money lending and chicken businesses, she decided to open an investment plan for her oldest son’s tertiary education but when he ended up receiving a bursary for his studies, she had no idea what to do with all the money that she had saved up. But ever the opportunist, she then took the time to conduct research on how best to grow the chicken business she ran with her father.
It was the findings from this research that led her to leave the broilers and instead opting for the layers as there proved to be a larger market and less competition for eggs than there was for chicken meat. “My intuition told me that the eggs had a larger market and less competition than the meat”, she says. After making this decision, she then built a chicken house in her family yard “The coop accommodated 2000 chickens even though at that time, I did not see how I could ever fill it but I still promised myself that one day I would”.
After 11 years working for Barclays Bank, she made the bold decision to quit her job and focus on growing her chicken business; however, no one supported this move, not her bosses, not her husband or friends. Even with this lack of backing from her support system, her mind was made up as she had already created a contact list and researched a way forward for the business; she eventually talked her husbands’ friend into convincing him to accept her decision.
As she set of on this new quest, ‘Mé Mapotlaki found herself filling over a hundred trays with eggs everyday but had no idea how to move them. “I then got a stall in a market by the bus stop area in Maseru. I remember how a former colleague saw me as I was unloading the eggs from my car and went on to tell the rest about how I was suffering”. Nonetheless, she remained unfazed by the side commentary as she had a vision for herself and her heart set on achieving it.
When the business started to boom, she was able to extend her house and her chicken coop to accommodate 6000 chickens, all from the profits of selling eggs as she had long stopped her clothing and money lending dealings. She now provided eggs in bulk to businesses and had become the go to person in this regard.
An opportunity presented itself to her once again when she noticed that there was a lack of animal feed shops in the country, which led to a shortage of food for her chickens at times. It was after she discovered an old mechanic warehouse in Khubetsoana that Letsatsi Farm Feeds was born “When I first arrived at the premises, the place was dingy and disorderly, I used paraffin containers for a desk but nothing could match my peace of mind” she states. As she gradually revamped the place, she also bought her first truck as part of the business, an accomplishment that exceeded her expectations.
However, starting a new business was not all peaches and roses as the farm feed proved to be off to a slow start and on some days there would be no sales made. But as demand grew, her patience finally paid off when she started collecting truck-filled stock from her supplier twice a week.
As Letsatsi Farm Feeds continued to grow, she began to experience problems with her supplier, Lesotho Flour Mills, “On some days, they gave me a run around with stock and that would really upset me but I soon learned that in business, being hurt only makes you stronger”.
Demand for her truck also grew as her supplier; Lesotho Flour Mills would hire it out for long periods of time and while business bloomed well enough for her to open a second branch of the farm feed at Ha ‘Nelese and to buy two more trucks- one of which was a horse ‘n trailer- as well as to acquire plots of land in the Sehlabeng area, the challenges also piled on.
“One time, my storehouse filled with hay was blown away in a windstorm and I lost all of the stock I had in there. Another time, I was part of a scam where I bought the premises that I now work from in Khubetsoana but later found out that the owner had sold it to another person, I got my lawyers involved and ended up buying the place legally”. ‘Mapotlaki says that this is the trend in business; you win some and you lose some but what is important is that you get back on your feet and carry on towards realizing your dreams.
When the farm feed industry got too crowded, she embarked on her next venture in farming. With the plots she had bought, she started a corn field which she used to supply the farm feed and on another, she grew vegetables such as green beans, spinach and beetroot- all of which she supplied to retail stores such as Pick n’Pay. Although she reaped her harvest, she notes that it is something she would not do again in future as there is already an inflow of farmers and she feels that the weather conditions are not conducive to sustainable farming, ”I remember one year where I had 158 bags of butternut but no buyers, they ended up going to waste”.
She now has different plans for the plots of land; one is Letsatsi Poultry Farm, which was an accidental business that she opened after receiving a pig from a customer who could not afford to pay her in cash. The pig gave birth to 11 piglets, which she built stalls for. “I even took a course in pig breeding in Pietermaritzburg and look forward to growing this business” she reveals.
Her future plans with the land include planting peach and apple trees for a cannery business and to open a sheep farm for the producing of wool. “My dream is to create long-term job opportunities for the Sehlabeng people”.
‘Mé Mapotlaki concludes by re-iterating the importance of setting goals and then striving for them, “Speak your destiny into being, as long as you want something, it can happen. A lot of what I have achieved today is due to my believing I would do so. Also, do not be scared to fail because failure only opens more doors of success”.