“I did not believe that receiving a formal education and then following a specific profession was the only way I would succeed in life”.
These are the words of Mohau Kobile, a renowned businessman, politician and all-around community builder who made it his life mission to preach the importance of Basotho becoming business owners.
Born and raised in Motimposo, Maseru, the business bug bit very early for Kobile, who says he has his grandmother and his father to thank as they were the earliest influences that inspired him to take his love and passion for selling seriously.
Although his mother was a nurse who had very little understanding of business and strongly believed that a profession was the only means to survive, his father had been a businessman, long before he was born. And while he learned much from his father, it was his maternal grandmother that set the ball rolling and contributed the most to his love for trade.
“My grandmother was one of the first women in the country who collected clothes from Durban and Johannesburg and came back to sell them here at home (‘mathoto). Not only that but she also sold peaches in the bus stop area, during holidays I would go and help her and that is where I found my spark for selling” he remembers.
He also recalls the very first time his grandmother encouraged him towards his first selling assignment, it was during his years at Methodist Primary School and she had suggested that he sell apricots from a tree in her yard.
“It was at this time that I discovered my passion for selling and I loved it, not only would I sell those apricots but I would also motivate why people needed to buy them,” he says.
He gave the money that he made from the sales to his grandmother who saved it for him until it was enough to buy paint for her entire house and to this day, that remains one of his proudest moments.
“It was a really good feeling to know that I had done something for my grandmother with the little money that I had made. It is a story that I still tell my kids”.
Even though he had reaped the sweet fruits of his labour, he learned from that early stage that nothing worthwhile came without its challenges “My only setback was that while selling these apricots in town, I would meet girls that I liked and would be so embarrassed when they saw me but I soon got over it as the results were far more rewarding” he notes.
Having noticed his determination, Kobile’s grandmother continued to instil the principles of hard work and discipline in her grandchild. This time, he and his brother wanted to go to an end of year church camp when she decided to buy both of them a bag of oranges to sell as a head start so that they could make their own money to attend camp.
“Oranges were popular back then and sometimes I would change and buy apples because I enjoyed selling something unpopular. As usual, I would speak for these apples and explain how crunchy and nutritious they were and people loved that”. At the end of the year, Kobile had not only raised enough money to pay for his way to camp but he had an adequate amount left over to buy stock for a new business venture.
In growing his young business, he went on to buy watch batteries which he sold in the bus stop area, “It was around the time when digital watches were popular and I made a lot of profit from selling those batteries”.
It became clear at this point that he had the unique ability to observe his surroundings and identify needs in the market; this revelation would delve him further into the world of business long before he finished his higher education studies at Lesotho High School.
“I enjoy talking and I am good at it. Sometimes I would walk into a bus to sell and find a sombre atmosphere but by the time I walked out, everyone would be laughing”.
Kobile states that he owes his spirit of determination to his grandmother whom he says praised him and his siblings for every milestone they achieved, but it was his passion for sales that brought him closer to her than the rest. This bond eventually led her to entrust a spaza shop that she had started on her own, on to him.
“It was the December holidays when she decided to fire all the workers at the shop because she claimed they were stealing from her. She told me to manage the shop and at first I was scared that she would end up accusing me of stealing from her as well”.
Things only picked up from then as he was able to fill up the shop with stock in just one week, proving his grandmothers’ suspicions to be right. Sales continued to rise and the store practically ran itself so much that his grandmother was able to take from the profits to support her ‘mathoto business. Although she had promised she would pay back the money from the store, Kobile says there was never a need to because business was booming.
Shortly after the success of the shop, his grandmother was diagnosed with stomach ulcers and was admitted to hospital, where she died three days later.
“Everything happened so suddenly, it was a very sad period for me” he recollects.
When the school holidays ended, no one else in the family had the energy to take over the shop and because his grandmother had strictly requested that it should not be hired out, it was closed down. Even so, Kobile had long-term plans with the place and a few months later he struck a deal with someone who had a car and television battery charger and used the space to operate this business in. His customer base grew rapidly and before long, he had bought a charger that mounted six batteries at once.
“I was loyal to my customers and I served them with honesty; that is why they kept returning. Some businesses would only charge their customers’ batteries halfway as a means to keep them coming back”.
At this stage, he registered his first business- Mohau’s Batteries- with the purpose of fixing, charging, selling and buying batteries but since he was still underage, he applied for a new passport and changed his age. With the money that he made, he was able to pay for his own school fees and maintain his basic needs.
He says that a quick study of the industry had revealed that this market had not been penetrated and this worked in his favour as the business grew enough to see him buying a site and a taxi from its turnover.
When he eventually completed his High School studies, he was not only consumed by all of his ventures but the citizens of Motimposo had also grown so fond of him that they nominated him to be their councillor. In accepting the nomination, there was clearly no room for him to consider furthering his studies at that time.
“I served as councillor for four years before I was voted for the position of mayor in Maseru, which I held for two years. I started to distance myself from the businesses even though they sustained me. I eventually sold the taxi and gave the battery shop to my business partner as a gift for his loyalty”.
Following his stint in the civic sector, Kobile returned to the world of business after he had noticed an influx of Chinese-owned stores in the country, something he says he felt uncomfortable about.
“I did not like it and I decided to do something about it so I opened Lancers Gap general café. I also came across other Basotho who felt the same way as I did about the growing rate of Chinese shops and together, we founded Theko ‘Moho”.
Theko ‘Moho, an association that was established with the intention to de-monopolize the emerging Chinese market in Lesotho, has produced several Basotho millionaires in the retail industry. Although it still exists, it is no longer as active as it once was.
“We competed with the Chinese and refused for them to monopolize the industry and they really respected us for this. I was even awarded for contributing towards the advancement of the association”.
As Lancers Gap grew, he expanded by buying a bigger site where he opened GM Shopping complex, which is currently run by his wife, ‘Mats’ireletso.
He has since started Ts’enolo Media Services and registered a radio station- Ts’enolo FM- under it, which he says will be extending its coverage to Leribe and Mafeteng in the coming year. “I realized that the media can either build or cripple a nation and that is why I chose to open Ts’enolo, we are here to help Basotho and give them the exposure that they need” he notes.
His vision with the station is to help presenters to create their own means of income by motivating them to start their own businesses “I always encourage them to think of ways they can make their own money here, for example, last year they hosted a fun walk and raised M20 000 and shared it amongst themselves”.
His introduction to the media industry came through Harvest FM, first as a producer but was later asked to serve as a board member. He credits the founder of the radio station, ‘Malichaba Lekhoaba for having spotted the potential in him.
“A lot of people think that we are rivals but that could not be further from the truth. We have a great working relationship and we are both very supportive of one another in our respective endeavours” he says.
Ntate Kobile says that he is in no rush to develop Ts’enolo Media Services, as one of the things that made him lose out on some successes was tackling too many things at once “It is a weakness to not concentrate on one business until it has grown immensely. Focusing on too many projects at once and not giving your energy to one big business is not necessarily a good thing” he advises.
Although he never got a formal education beyond his COSC, he has attended a lot of courses and conferences over the years and continues to read a lot about the various industries he has an interest in.
His hard work and efforts have led to the ministers of Energy, Meteorology and Water Affairs and Local Government and Chieftainship Affairs handpick him to sit on the board of the Water and Sewerage Company (WASCO) and as commissioner of local government respectively.