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My great grandfather, Maroun, came to South Africa to seek fame and fortune as a diamond miner.

By Greg Khoury

My great grandfather, Maroun, came to South Africa to seek fame and fortune as a diamond miner. Like so many of his generation, he had heard stories of diamonds lying in the veld, waiting to be picked up. With his head filled with big ideas, he and his brother boarded a ship bound for Cape Town to stake a claim in Kimberley. I can only imagine his disappointment, when he got there, having walked from Cape Town, and finding that De Beers had already taken over the mines. Unperturbed, he headed to Johannesburg to be a gold miner.

Upon arrival in Johannesburg, having walked from Kimberley, he discovered the Randlords had taken control of the gold mines. A peasant immigrant and his brother from a tiny village in Lebanon would never be able to overcome the barriers to entry required for the sophisticated mining operations the Witwatersrand required. The year was 1902. The Second Boer War had just ended, and South Africa was not yet a thing. He was stranded in a foreign country with no money. His grand plans for success were in tatters. He then did what poor immigrants across the world do. He started his own business.

Sourcing fruit and vegetables from the surrounding farms, Maroun and his brother sold the produce from a wagon to the hungry miners and their families. They did this until his brother died from the Spanish Flu around 1919. Faced with this personal loss and a raging pandemic, my great grandfather pivoted his business model. He secured premises in Pritchard Street across from what is today the South Gauteng High Court.

Khoury Trading was formally founded around 1920 and he sold dry goods, fresh produce, and fresh-cut flowers until his death more than 40 years later. The business passed to his sons, my great uncle and grandfather. The family traded from Pritchard Street until the building was demolished to make way for a new building sometime in the ’60s. The business relocated to Multiflora in Jeppe Street where they changed business models becoming one of the largest fresh-cut flower wholesalers in the city. In 1975 they relocated to the new Multiflora complex in City Deep.

My great uncle and grandfather have both passed and the business transferred to my great uncle’s son who continues to trade today and still sells fresh-cut flowers. The business has changed names, locations, and business models over the years but has traded as a family business for over a hundred years.

The South Africa of today would probably have felt very familiar to my great grandfather. He arrived in a country struggling to find a new identity. The South Africa of the turn of the century faced rampant corruption and political uncertainty brought on by the social upheaval of the Second Boer War and then the First World War.

As he grew his business, he had to deal with the 1918 Flu pandemic and the economic collapse that followed. He was not a well-educated man and could barely speak English. Some of the racist legislation and policy that would form the backbone of apartheid was being formulated at that time. As an immigrant from the Middle East, he would have had to deal with the hurdles this created in his day to day life. He never became a miner and he never made a fortune. However, he was a successful entrepreneur and created a legacy.

Maroun’s legacy was not just his business. He was a leading member of the local community and church. He supported and raised a family who in turn raised their own families. His extensive family now extends to a fifth generation, all of whom have contributed to the building of his adopted country. His decedents are doctors, engineers, bankers, scientists, and the list goes on. They are all ordinary people. Some of them are even entrepreneurs themselves.

Entrepreneurs do not only create businesses; they create wealth and capital that lasts generations.

Entrepreneurs do not only create businesses; they create wealth and capital that lasts generations. Not all the capital they create is money. They uplift their communities and create employment. They drive progress and create opportunities for others. I doubt Maroun ever envisioned that his ox wagon stall would create a business that would last a century or that his family would extend to great-great-grandchildren who continue to contribute to his adopted homeland.

Which is why now, more than ever, South African needs entrepreneurs. Like Shadrack. He is a former work colleague, friend, and now a business partner. He worked for the company for 17 years before being retrenched last year. He worked in the company warehouse, and before that as the company security guard.

Entrepreneurs drive progress and create opportunities for others.

He is a long-distance runner with more Comrades silver medals to his name than I can count. Shadrack is an honest and humble man. He has a broad smile and makes friends easily and loves running. His plan, when he received his retrenchment notification, was to head back to his family home in Limpopo. During a catchup call earlier this year, he started telling me about his poultry farm. He took the money he received from his pay-out, bought a small second-hand truck and brick making equipment. He made bricks and built his own chicken hock. He started a micro-scale poultry farm supplying live chickens to the surrounding community. Chicken is a popular source of protein and if done correctly can be very profitable. He has big plans to scale his business to keep up with demand. His plans include more hocks and a small slaughterhouse. He is as passionate about his chickens as he is about the Comrades.

The pandemic has been devastating for small businesses and small business funding. Access to capital for a micro-scale farm in rural Limpopo is impossible. But that has not stopped Shadrack. A small loan was all that was needed to get him enough materials to restart his building cycle. He is currently making bricks to build his second hock. His role in the community is more important than just as a supplier of chicken. Families in the area, especially the elderly, are heavily dependent on employed relatives sending money home.

Since that source of income has dried up, many are solely dependent on SASSA grants and pensions. Shadrack supplies chickens on credit. He delivers near full-grown, live chickens to his customers so that they can slaughter when they need the meat. They pay him once their SASSA grants are received. It is an innovative idea. By sending out the chickens once they are of a certain size, he can save money on feed and shorten his cycle time to getting more chicks into the hock. His customers can get the chickens to the full size and have fresh meat when they are ready. He is supporting his community while building loyalty with his customers.

At the same time, he is planning the expansion of his business and looking to employ someone to help on the farm. With so much in common, I am sure Maroun and Shadrack would have a lot to talk about if they had ever met.

When we think of entrepreneurs, and entrepreneurial success, our minds often turn to Jobs, Musk, Gates, Bezos, and the like. These are exceptions. Entrepreneurs are often nobodies. Poor people with big dreams and empty pockets. They face the day to day hazards of life and struggle to make their businesses succeed. Their well-laid plans derail. They fail and face wars and pandemics, political and social upheaval, and turmoil. Often, they are immigrants or refugees in strange countries. They are unemployed or unemployable.

Entrepreneurs all have something else in common though. They all have the drive to succeed.

Entrepreneurs all have something else in common though. They all have the drive to succeed. They face challenges head-on. They pick themselves up when they fall and carry on. They innovate and change their business models. They lead themselves and those around them with their vision, honesty, and the belief that what they are doing can only succeed. And they always find opportunity no matter how bad the circumstances are. They never stop dreaming. They create jobs and wealth and support their communities. They become the backbone of our economies.

Perhaps the most important lesson they can teach us is about courage and staying the course. Getting on a ship to head to a war-torn country takes enormous courage. You are in it for the long haul. The same is true for running an ultra-marathon. You do not simply put on your running shoes to jog 80 plus kilometres. I do not believe there is a magic recipe for entrepreneurial success.

But maybe if we can capture some of that entrepreneurial spirit, we can weather the current storm and forge a better, brighter future.

But maybe if we can capture some of that entrepreneurial spirit, we can weather the current storm and forge a better, brighter future. Nelson Mandela said, ‘Do not judge me by my successes, judge me by how many times I fell and got back up again’. The current crisis will pass and, in its wake, a new generation of Marouns’ will build the future.


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