Bulelani Balabala is driven by passion for entrepreneurship development. He started his business 14 years ago from his mother’s garage and has since taken his ventures to remarkable new heights, creating incredible employment opportunities along the way.

Briefly tell us more about yourself and your journey thus far.
I am highly passionate about the development and empowerment of entrepreneurs. I run a printing and branding manufacturing company called Intercessor Army Franchising (IAF), which has been in existence now for 13 years. I am the chairman of an initiative that runs a community and entrepreneurial development initiative called Township Entrepreneurs Alliance (TEA). I am also a broadcaster, featured on multiple platforms. I give thought insight on entrepreneurship and what it’s all about.

You have a passion for community upliftment and empowering township-based companies. Where and when did this passion start?
The fact that I am a township entrepreneur is the main driver. I think the bug bit me about seven years ago when I began my journey of becoming a professional speaker. I was speaking at all these opulent places, and got corporate and government speaking engagements, however, every time I attended a workshop in the township, it was not a pleasant experience.

Based on my various encounters, I believe that township set-ups, the content, and entrepreneurs weren’t equipped to compete with businesses outside of the townships. I then felt the need to start something that will run and operate in the township.

I specifically chose township entrepreneurship as there are certain challenges that township entrepreneurs come across that are totally different from the ordinary entrepreneur. The challenges are related to infrastructure, employment, and barriers of entry in different markets.

There are certain challenges that don’t level the playing field for them, so they have to fight much harder than the rest.

It’s about bringing an initiative closer to them that would help them in professionalising their businesses, formalising their businesses, creating a global platform for them to be able to push their brands and products, and linking them to large corporates and government in South Africa.

How are you empowering others to be change agents in their communities?
The work done by TEA through the monthly workshops that we run has empowered entrepreneurs to start their own initiatives. One entrepreneur has started a young boys’ foundation where he teaches these boys skills, how to believe, and take care of themselves. The young boys mostly come from fatherless homes and the entrepreneur gathers them and mentors these amazing young boys. So we have seen a rise in entrepreneurs really growing their business and becoming change agents within their communities, creating employment and participating in community development initiatives. Entrepreneurs are encouraged to give back to the community, create a foundation and participate in the growth of their community. I think more than anything TEA has created a great platform to be a direct influence to those entrepreneurs. In addition to that, my influence is driven through my social media platforms and the media platforms that I am featured on.

Please share with us your vision regarding modernised and revitalised townships?
The idea of township revitalisation relating to vision is when a young boy at the age of mostly 11 is able to take his idea and test it out through various means. Furthermore, they should be able to market test, to then see if there is an actual market appetite. Up until such a young child is able to move and test their idea, having actual hubs within their immediate communities, then I would say that we would have revitalised townships.

My dream for the township economy would firstly be for it to open up at a national level – there are over R200 billion that circulate within the township economy, but the actual township entrepreneurs themselves don’t participate in that market. This means that we need to upskill the entrepreneurs and give them bigger deals.

Transformation starts when you are able to transform at a JSE level, when listed companies are able to juggle 5-10 small companies to deal on a R100 million project – that becomes life changing for these SMEs and entrepreneurs.

A revitalised township economy is when these township entrepreneurs become key market players within their areas, and own the markets within these areas. If a large corporate wants to enter the market, they must enter that township market with the 51% majority being a key township player who has been active within that industry space for years.

In areas of buying and negotiating power I think township revitalisation also speaks to being able to create an environment where these entrepreneurs are able to build an ecosystem were they are able to engage and interact on a national and global level.

What have been some of your biggest challenges and successes?
The biggest challenges were starting and gaining the support from people around me. My family didn’t understand entrepreneurship – there viewpoint was ‘go out and get a job’.

The other challenge was mentorship. I started my businesses when I was about 15 or 16. I didn’t know what to do and there was no one who could guide me. If I had the right mentor, I would have grown the business quicker. However, I am happy about the trajectory or rather the direction that we took because there are lessons that are important that I had to learn.

The third challenge was infrastructure. At the time when we were doing business, Telkom was a service provider, however, we had to wait about two years for them to upgrade their exchange for ADSL and for us to get a fax line because they told us that we are the first in our community to make this.

The other frustration was the willingness for suppliers to travel to our company, as we are the only one that they are servicing in the township.

Being able to pay salaries is one of the biggest successes.

What we were able to achieve has been amazing. We have won multiple awards in various categories as an organisation which has been great. We have also worked on campaigns and were nationally recognised.

We have benchmarked ourselves in the market as creating brands that spark conversations, which ultimately leads to sales. As a result, we are featured in multiple print and television media channels. Additionally, we have been acknowledged by various governmental institutions for the work we do.

Any advice for other aspiring entrepreneurs?
Keep your head to the ground – don’t feel the need to validate your hard work with materialism. Sometimes as an entrepreneur you will work and not have physical tangible results of what you are working on, but don’t lose hope. Always focus on your dream and on what you are working on – don’t feel the pressure and the need to perform or to show people what you working on purely to get validation from them.

Also remember that there will never be a good time to start. Don’t fear failure because if we all responded to fear, chances are none of the things we want to build would be built.

Quick-fire Q&A

What is the one thing most people don’t know about you?
I don’t like talking. I like my own space.

Your personal mantra?
“Get things done!”