Brian Mokhachane is on a mis­sion to build an em­pire. But as the brains (and heart) be­hind the Soulart Foun­da­tion – a so­cial en­ter­prise which cre­ates cov­eted de­sign items out of found ma­te­ri­als – he’s de­ter­mined to make those around him rise too.

Kul­wane Mo­hapi is iron­ing an un­fin­ished black coat. As he ex­pertly presses a seam, he talks about what it was like to grow up poor in Soweto, a place where his hunger for cre­ativ­ity wasn’t sim­ply dis­re­garded or dis­cour­aged but ac­tively den­i­grated. He talks about how he used to pore over fash­ion mag­a­zines at Ex­clu­sive Books, dream­ing of see­ing his own de­signs fea­tured on the cover, and how he used to take apart old clothes so that he could see how they were con­structed.

And now he stands, a tape mea­sure slung loosely around his neck, well on his way to see­ing his am­bi­tions re­alised. All thanks to his se­lec­tion as part of the 10-mem­ber team Mokhachane em­ploys to de­sign and sew the back­packs and cloth­ing that are snapped up by ea­ger tourists and lo­cals alike at Jo­han­nes­burg and Cape Town’s fash­ion-for­ward mar­kets, gifted proudly by cor­po­rates, and sold as a trib­ute to African flair in Am­s­ter­dam and Lon­don.

Not that any of this has come with­out a fight. Mokhachane may well be a shrewd en­tre­pre­neur – he cred­its his busi­ness acu­men to the two years he spent as a tour op­er­a­tor, a ca­reer his par­ents in­sisted he study so that he would have some­thing to fall back on. But he is, and al­ways has been, an artist at heart. “My mother was a do­mes­tic worker, and her em­ploy­ers’ daugh­ter was an artist. She used to send paints and brushes home with my mom, and I couldn’t wait to get home from school so that I could start cre­at­ing,” he re­calls.

It was a pas­sion that never left him. When the buzz around Soweto be­fore the FIFA 2010 World Cup turned to how en­trepreneurs could make money from the event, he im­me­di­ately thought about how he could use his artis­tic skills. There was no doubt that he had the abil­ity – it was the bud­get that was a prob­lem. With­out funds for pur­chas­ing can­vases, he in­stead used old news­pa­pers to cre­ate pa­pier mâché art and dis­carded of­fice files to make jour­nals, draw­ing on a re­source­ful­ness that had been cul­ti­vated dur­ing his youth when cars made out of wire hang­ers made a sub­sti­tute for ex­pen­sive toys.

Of course, the boom times fol­low­ing the World Cup couldn’t last, so Mokhachane found him­self look­ing for new ways to

make money from his tal­ent. Fas­ci­nated by the process of man­u­fac­tur­ing, he bought a sewing ma­chine and taught him­self the art of tai­lor­ing, wear­ing his own de­signs to gauge de­mand – which, as it turned out, was sig­nif­i­cant. Not con­vinced that it would make eco­nomic sense to start a cloth­ing line, Mokhachane in­stead started cre­at­ing the back­packs which have be­come Soulart Foun­da­tion’s trade­mark.

It was his in­volve­ment with Red Bull Amaphiko, a plat­form for so­cial en­trepreneurs, which al­lowed him to take the busi­ness to the next level.The pro­gramme acted as a cat­a­lyst, en­abling him to take part in var­i­ous projects which, in turn, helped him to hone his vi­sion for the Soulart Foun­da­tion. He also re­ceived a boost when the brand was fea­tured as part of De­sign Ind­aba’s Emerg­ing Cre­atives, giv­ing him ex­po­sure to an in­ter­na­tional au­di­ence.

Lever­ag­ing th­ese de­vel­op­ments, his first step was to cre­ate his dream team of peo­ple whose val­ues res­onated with his own. Th­ese in­clude pas­sion be­cause, he says, when you haven’t made a sale in two weeks, the only thing that’s go­ing to keep you go­ing is your love for what you’re do­ing. He also val­ues per­se­ver­ance, and the re­fusal to ac­cept the con­straints of your cur­rent re­al­ity.

Th­ese qual­i­ties have seen Soulart Foun­da­tion grow and grow – but Mokhachane isn’t sat­is­fied just yet. He’s aim­ing to es­tab­lish an open-air learn­ing cen­tre in Soweto where more young peo­ple can learn and share skills. “It’s about cre­at­ing a legacy project, so that Soulart Foun­da­tion can con­tinue to pro­vide em­ploy­ment for years to come,” he ex­plains. He’s cur­rently in ne­go­ti­a­tions with the City of Jo­han­nes­burg to ob­tain per­mis­sion to es­tab­lish the cen­tre, but there’s plenty to keep him busy in the mean­time. For in­stance, he’s in­ves­ti­gat­ing col­lab­o­ra­tions with other brands, and there are op­por­tu­ni­ties to be ex­plored in New York and other in­ter­na­tional cities.

Mokhachane takes a prag­matic view. Although ex­pan­sion is most cer­tainly on the cards, he’s de­ter­mined to build ca­pac­ity and en­sure that all Soulart Foun­da­tion prod­ucts are of the finest qual­ity be­fore he takes the next step. But take it, he will. “South Africa is not big enough for us!” he quips – although be­neath the hu­mour, he’s se­ri­ous about tak­ing the brand fur­ther.

He’s also se­ri­ous about mak­ing sure that all those around him ben­e­fit from the brand. “I be­lieve that my art was given to me by a higher power.The idea is sim­ply be­ing ex­pressed through me. Be­cause I have this gift, I need to con­trib­ute, to up­lift my lit­tle cor­ner by trans­fer­ring skills to as many peo­ple as pos­si­ble. This is what I want to be re­mem­bered for.”

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