Meshack Nchupetsang, 46
Interview by Allister Arendse
Meshack Nchupetsang has turned his life around. Twenty-four years ago he was destitute and dug in bins and today he owns his own bike shop: On Bike in Westlake Village. He has a restaurant too and recently started bike tours. This is his story:
I STARTED THE SHOP in 2002 after being retrenched. I realised job security was not something I could bank on so I looked for a business I could start.
UPON DOING RESEARCH, I realised there were few black owners of bike shops. Most were mechanics or working on the shop floor. I wanted to be a pioneer. I wanted to be one of the first black guys to own a bike shop. I wanted to make cycling accessible to lower-income earning people. Most of our people can’t afford to go into fancy shops because they’re not catered for.
I VOLUNTEERED at Cape Town Cycle Tour helping with logistics. At end of the race I was given the task to sell Argus newspapers at the VIP lounge. I realised
I was rubbing shoulders with influential people in the cycling industry and sold my idea of starting a shop. I was introduced to Bicycling Empowerment Network which offered a bike mechanic training course which I took. A year later I set up shop with only five spanners.
MY MOM (Rebecca) bought me bicycles when I was a kid and I still have them at home in Mahikeng. I started riding at four years old. We had fun. There was a BMX park with all the ramps. I am happy to be making a living through cycling.
CYCLING IS the last thing I do every day. I cycle daily. I commute all over. From Westlake, the furthest I have gone is Kraaifontein. I have taken rides to Cape Town city centre, Wynberg, Lansdowne and Athlone.
DOWNHILL MOUNTAIN BIKING is a current interest. It takes me places I have never been and I meet riders. In my business, I started with the low-income group and started achieving success and now I’m going for the middle and higher income groups. This is what drew me to mountain biking.
WE'RE JUST ON THE DOORSTEP of Tokai Forest. The Green Belt is like a mountain biking Mecca. I go on a ride, stop for refreshments, speak with people, tell them what I do and they’re like: “Wow, we want to see your shop.” Then they start coming to fix their bikes. And they realise I am good at what I do and they recommend me to others. This keeps traffic flowing.
“I say to clients: ‘When can we go for a spin?’ Then they see this guy is confident in what he does. And then we ride.”
I HAVE A COMMUTER BIKE: Royal Mail (postal) with basket in front. Three-speed internal gear system. They are low maintenance. I use it to go grocery shopping. I love vintage bikes. I have fold up bikes which I ride on a Sunday afternoon. I have a road bike. When I’m in training mode, I ride to Cape Point. My favourite is my Specialized full suspension. It takes me to rough terrain. I enjoy flying in the air and coming downhill.
ENTRY LEVEL MOUNTAIN BIKES are my best sellers. The 26 inch with or without disc brakes. Vintage sell well too. We’ve seen high interest in those. People have memories of their grandfather using that with the dynamo light and mud guards… Bikes that are fully kitted and safe.
I SELL MOUNTAIN, road, commuter and kiddies bikes. Our bikes are pre-owned from overseas. We have a partner called Re-Cycle in the UK and they collect and send bikes to us. We contribute to shipping costs. We refurbish and service the bikes. And make them available to the public.
I FEEL 25 THANKS TO CYCLING. It keeps me in good spirits. I eat properly, sleep enough and drink enough water. That’s what we live for, is to be happy.
COVID-19 came with its own blessings allowing us to diversify our business. We have started On Bike Tours Westlake. I employ two guides full time.
I HAVE BEEN an official mechanic for Cape Town Cycle Tour since 2005. It’s an indication I’m on the right path.
IT'S NOT EASY when you’re working in front of many people trying to get a bike back on the road. Even when people come here, I don’t say: “Go sit that side.” I encourage them to sit in the workshop with me. I explain things to them. I think it’s what gives me an edge over other shops. People love the personalised service. When they leave the shop they know exactly how to use their bike. I also say to them: “When can we go for a spin?” Then they see this guy is confident in what he does. And then we ride. We develop a good relationship. From business to friendship, they become my riding buddies. I have travelled with them to Jonkershoek, Meerendal, Tokai Forest and the future looks bright. One has to be cautiously optimistic. Hence I went ahead and diversified my product.
PEOPLE in Kirstenhof, Tokai, Constantia, Lakeside and Muizenberg etc don’t know what’s going on in Westlake. They only see from a distance. I want to give them an opportunity to interact with locals so we can showcase what we sell. We want to create a value chain to sustain future generations.
WHEN I STARTED the shop, I was working seven hours a day. As the shop grew, I worked 14 hours a day. It’s the passion I have. Sometimes I work through the night. It’s the dedication required when you have your own business. You want to see it successful. I learn and stay abreast with developments in the market. It took 19 years to get to where I am. It’s a great reward. You can’t buy experience. Have to go through it. I have been fortunate to work at major races. I have been to Cape Epic and many big races.
“I’m glad to have broken out of the rat race and crafting my future as an employer.”
IT'S LIBERATING to run my own business. I feel I’m in charge of my destiny. I’m pursuing financial freedom. It gives me confidence. It has made me a better, stronger and more determined person. I have discovered my strengths. I have learned from mistakes. Business is about finding solutions to people’s problems. Then you just have to figure out how you’re going to get paid and by who. I’m loving being my own boss and not having that employee mentality. I’m glad to have broken out of the rat race and crafting my future as an employer, as an entrepreneur. I would like to employ people fulltime and have chain stores.
I CAME TO CAPE TOWN to study in 1994. I completed two years at Varsity College and heading to my third year my parents ran out of cash. I didn’t have school to go to. I had to drop out. I ended up not having money to pay rent so was kicked out. I was on the streets sleeping under the stars. I remember my first day out there. I phoned my mom, she said to me: “Look boy, you are a man now. We have given you the values you need. We’ve educated you as far as we could. This is your time to go find your purpose. Craft your future.” Instead of seeing myself as homeless I saw myself camping. I thought: This is the outdoors. I must blend in with the situation, keep myself clean and presentable. Growing up we used to herd cattle. Sometimes we would sleep in the bush. Those memories came back. It’s all about the mindset. Poverty starts in the head. If you say: “This is a camp. What can I do to survive?” Then the mind starts searching for solutions. I tapped into creativity. Even today, if I face difficulties, I think back to that period when I overcame homelessness and today I am fine. There was a time I was hungry for a week. I was walking along Milnerton Lagoon. I used to sleep at a container depot in Brooklyn. The soap kitchen was not operating that week. I started digging in bins for food. Somehow my ancestors said: “No, you can do better. You studied, you have knowledge to survive.” I was walking along and found three bottles of Vim 99 cleaner and some fragrance stones. I started selling those. You can imagine in Milnerton, a white suburb, no hawkers are allowed. That was not a barrier to me. I came up with a pitch: “Hi, I’m Meshack Nchupetsang from Mafeking. I’d like to show you fragrant stones that will make going to the toilet a pleasure.”
I REMEMBER BUZZING at this house and I hit that lady with my tagline and she said: “Come in.” She let me in. She said: “How much is that?” I said: “It’s 50c each.” She took out R100 and said: “I have been looking for these.” I moved from house to house and after a few hours I had made many sales. I discovered I am a business man. This is my calling and I have never been hungry since.
"What a relief it was to sleep under a roof in a bed."
AFTER THAT I bought a Gatsby (submarine sandwich), sat at Milnerton beach with a full view of Robben Island and chowed that dite like a Honey Badger. Have you ever seen how a Honey Badger eats a python? That’s how it was, man. From there, I went back to the soup kitchen. The woman who ran the place had been observing me. She said: “Meshack, you’re always clean and never drunk, tell me more about you.” She told me about the night shelter in Westlake. It was called the Arc City of Refuge. I stayed there. What a relief it was to sleep under a roof in a bed. They were connected to work opportunities. I got a job at Tokai plantation. That’s when I fell in love with Tokai Forest. We were clearing alien vegetation. From there, the Arc had to move due to development. I moved to the informal settlement and put up my shack. I was then eligible to apply for an RDP house which I eventually got. Then I could look forward to building my future.
I HAD VARIOUS JOBS including at a recycling depot and met people. One of them was a woman whose husband ran an IT company. I went for an interview and started working there as a logistics administrator in the office. Then September 11 happened in the States and it resulted in lack of business for us. I got retrenched and realised job security was not for me. I then started business research. That’s what happened after being homeless. I had to find a way to rise from the ashes.
* Contact Meshack at 078 279 6460 / email@example.com and see On Bike on Facebook.
PHOTOGRAPHS BY Marcel Joubert