Max Lichaba’s rise to the top is quite an interesting one. He might be rolling in millions of randelas now, but it wasn’t so from the beginning.
Max was born in a small town called Saaiplaais in Virginia, Welkom. By the time he was age 16, he was already helping his mother sell fruits & veggies by the roadside.
Max’s childhood wasn’t delightful because his family had little to cater for themselves. At some point, his family were forced to live in a garage belonging to a friend, as they didn’t have the finances to rent a proper home.
He attended a school for children with special needs in Virginia because it was free, and close by. His mother couldn’t afford school and transportation fees to send him to a general school.
He got to work a lot with his hands, and discovered he was really good at it, but the remedial school ended at Grade 10, which meant he wouldn’t have never matriculated. By the time he left the school, his maths and language literacy skills weren’t that great.
By the late 1990s, his school career was over but then, another opportunity presented itself.
Motsepe’s Harmony Gold owned the mines in his area, and had developed the Harmony Gold Jewellery School to upskill people from the local community.
According to Max, he wasn’t satisfied with his Grade 10 qualification, didn’t want to be a miner like everyone in his community and also, he wanted more than selling fruit & veggies by the side of the road.
One thing for sure, he knew he was good with his hands, so the jewellery school presented an opportunity for him to elevate his financial situation.
The fact that he applied at the school late didn’t discourage him. Everyday he’d go to the school, and sit in the waiting room, hoping to secure a spot if one had opened up.
Luckily, there was one student who never pitched at the start, so Max pestered the management to let him take her spot.
After being relentless for some time, he received the call, “Fine, the spot is yours, when can you start?”
When he got there, he noticed he was the youngest member, and everyone at that school had completed matric but that didn’t scare him, he was hungry for success.
He spent all his time there, constantly practising and horning his skills to get better at his new craft. Six months later, he was one of the best in his class.
According to Max, being at the school made him realise that he could create nice things and sell to people — he was already thinking about launching a small business.
As they were close to finishing their course, Regal Manufacturing came to the school and asked for two of their best students.
Max secured his first employment as he was chosen alongside another student. The company manufactured jewellery and exported it beyond boarders. With over 3 000 employees, it was theee major employer in the community, mostly employing women.
After 9 months of being employed, he had the down payment for his first car, and had just moved into his flat apartment.
One day, he arrived at his workplace to closed gates. Without no warning whatsoever, the company closed down its doors. They were given a letter stating that they would receive their salaries by week end, and just like that, the business was liquidated.
According to Max, everyone was shocked. The women around him, who were mostly the breadwinners in their households, were crying and kneeling in shock coupled with anger.
But then, he started thinking to himself. He realized he had no dependants and could easily find another job, but what about those other women?
Although he couldn’t save everyone, there were four grannies he knew, in every black community, grannies are the backbone of everything. He proposed to them that they start something to generate money.
They met at his house the following day and put their heads together.
The machine they used at Regal Manufacturing costed between R50 000 – R100 000, and they didn’t even have R5 000 between them. So realised that the simplest thing they could do and afford was beads. This was the fastest and easiest way to generate cash.
Systems running again…
They managed to gather R1000, and bought beads and started working on them from his flat. They had a hit with the local Nigerian market as they loved them dearly.
They started approaching church choirs, offering to make each member a unique set of beads that they could wear during competitions.
After spending 18 months focusing on beads, Max started looking at growth opportunities. He realized the business was very much hand-to-mouth, and they used most of their cash to buy more materials, leaving little room for expansion, they weren’t any closer to buying the machines.
Max went on research mode and started looking at SME support programmes. He found SAB’s Kickstarter competition and they entered.
They won R20 000 prize money in their region, enabling them to buy small machines.
The new equipment took them to the next level, and allowed them to look for their next opportunity – a programme between the Free State Department of Tourism and the Department of Trade & Industry(Dti) that helped local manufacturers market their products overseas.
After filling millions of forms to check their capacity to deliver, they were eventually approved for the programme. They were still operating in his flat, and they needed more space, but they couldn’t afford rent.
He then found a tiny shop and managed to convince the landlord to let them move in.
According to Max, its important to always ask because you never know what the answer will be. With enough politeness and friendliness, people usually want to help.
They finished Dti’s programme in six-months, and were considered export ready.
The choir market had grown exponentially, allowing them to use the profits to manufacture more products for export. The first country they exported to was Nairobi, followed by London. They received great reception, and realised they were onto something.
Despite the success in the jewelry business, Max was looking for more.
He found another opportunity. It dawned on him that he could open a school, similar to the one Harmony Gold had ran, and give youth the same opportunity he received.
He realized the Dti funded initiatives like that, which meant he could give back to the youth with government’s support.
After getting the necessary NQF accreditations, he set up the school at a cost of R900 000. Dti assured him that they would pay him within 60-to-90 days of each student enrolling.
Harsh reality stepped in real quick. Max had taken of his eye off Lichaba Creations to concentrate on the school and at that time, they had just moved into bigger premises to handle increased international orders.
Lichaba Creations was effectively carrying the school financially and as a result, they couldn’t pay rent for the jewellery business. After two months, the landlord kicked them out and locked the doors despite Max’s pleas for more time.
He kept hoping the Dti payments would clear but unfortunately, that wasn’t the case.
All the equipment got auctioned off while he was in Joburg. He owed the landlord about R30 000 and still couldn’t pay it. He sadly watched his machines getting sold for a measly R300, and couldn’t do anything about it.
After losing the business, he started reflecting, he realised that he paid less attention to his family and more to the so called friends.
They laughed at his demise and told him they never expected his good fortune to last. He was surrounded by fake people who didn’t truly care about him, and were satisfied by his losses.
According to Max, starting over is one of the hardest things to do in life.
He failed the people he wanted to protect in the first place, they were all jobless – the old grannies and some of his newer staff. They younger staff who hadn’t been with him at the beginning were angry with him and wanted their salaries.
The one light at the end of his tunnel was the support of his brothers, who specifically came back to Welkom from Johannesburg to help him out. They put their faith in him by each taking out a R3 000 loan to help him pay his staff and settle some of the debt.
He vowed never to neglect family again.
He dusted himself by reaching out to his old special school in Virginia, and asked if whether he could could teach there and luckily, they agreed.
For six months, he taught and saved every penny he could. He sold most of his furniture, and slept on a mattress on the floor. When he accumulated enough cash, he started visiting all the pawn shops in Welkom.
He knew his equipment was specialised, and that the people who had bought it, wouldn’t be able to use it. He started to find the machines at different pawn shops, and piece by piece, he eventually bought them all back.
He was able to get back up and running again after 8 months at a very small scale. He worked from his flat, exported to India and the UK. He was laser-focused and vowed to never lose sight of his core business again.
Dti finally paid for the school, he then proceeded to pay for the grannies’ retirement packages.
No matter what he did, he couldn’t get through retail stores in the country.
But he didn’t want to admit defeat, so he launched 2 new stores in a Pick n Pay centre – one in Welkom, and the other in Orange Grove. The profits he made overseas went into these stores for three years.
According to Max, having a personality that wouldn’t admit defeat has its pros and cons. It kept him going when he faced enormous adversity, and also sustained him during a time when he should’ve admitted defeat and moved on.
He realized later on that he spent too much on those stores for limited returns, as he didn’t want to admit defeat so soon after the failure of the school. He eventually closed them down, and looked for other opportunities elsewhere.
Max has always loved cars. When he was at school, he learnt how to fix cars and for a while, he had this idea of opening a luxury car wash, where people could sit comfortably and eat chesa nyama while they waited for their cars.
Thinking this combination would attract lot of people, he bought a plot on Vilakazi Street in Soweto, and started building his dream. The whole project took a year to finish, it was funded via the jewellery business.
They opened Kwa Lichaba on the 16th of December 2013 and haven’t looked back since, it gives them incredible returns. Over the years, Kwa Lichaba has been one of the go-to venues in Soweto.
In 2016, they replicated the Kwa Lichaba model in Lesotho – the birthplace of his grandmother.
This was followed by Lichaba Custom Rides, a car customation and sound business. He also launched a refinery to recycle precious metals, to help supply the gold needed for Lichaba Creations.
Create your own opportunities….
According to Max, aspiring entrepreneurs should create their own opportunities for themselves and don’t let obstacles hold them back.
They should view obstacles as challenges to help them elavate higher.
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