BATHU : THE STORY OF HOPE, HERITAGE AND AUTHENTICITY.
The eyes maybe the window to the soul, but the shoe on foot is the window to just about everything else. Theo Baloyi is the founder and CEO of Bathu.
Bathu is an African created brand that aims to ensure Africans can proudly affiliate with the brand. What does this statement mean to you as the founder of Bathu?
For me, more than anything else it means that we as Africans need to start advocating our own brands for our own heritage. I believe we have managed to incorporate a proudly African told story in a different way, into a product which is a sneaker. Ultimately this means that a lot of Africans can now start thinking about taking pride in their own stories and how they take those stories and incorporate them into products and services that they can export to the rest of the world.I believe as Africans we need to start showing up to the rest of the world with authenticity, heritage and value add. As an African it is important for me to be able to take a story that has been in existence in Africa for the longest time and incorporate it into a product that a lot of people love with a story that resonates with so many. I am glad that Bathu has been one of the businesses that has done that exceptionally well. To marry a story into a brand that many people love.
Authenticity is a key word. Do you feel that Bathu is authentic as an African brand and it appeals to Africans and non-Africans because of its authenticity?
100%. I love the fact that you mentioned the non-Africans because authenticity and stories are very subjective to interpretation based on context, be it geographical or philosophical. The way I interpret authenticity as a guy who lives in South Africa is different to maybe how a guy that lives in Kenya would interpret authenticity. However what I can guarantee you is that when a story is authentic and makes sense then you don’t have to come from that part of the world to know that story is authentic. Authenticity is essential, as it can be a main point of contact to a lot of people irrespective of where they come from. We often hear about American stories that are incorporated into products or big businesses, regardless of not staying in America we can sort of sense authenticity in those stories and in those products. We then consume the products or services because we can relate to their authenticity and the confidence that authenticity brings into our livelihood or our day to day living. I think it’s very important that you really advocate authenticity because you don’t know who will relate and resonate with your authenticity or which part of the world or which region in the world will really understand. It’s very important that everything needs to be intentional, authentic and most importantly of service to your consumer and stakeholders in the business.
Bathu is an African created brand that aims to ensure Africans can proudly affiliate with the brand.
What informed your urge and desire to become an entrepreneur?
My purpose. I believe that most importantly before I became an entrepreneur I was a product of opportunity. The reason why I am saying that is because throughout my corporate journey and entrepreneurial journey I have been awarded great opportunities; I have been mentored by great leaders and often times that helped propel me to the next level of my life and career or get into the next position and really grow my corporate experience. Especially with PWC where I spent about 5 years. Often times when I came back to South Africa; I came back to a township called Alexander (In Johannesburg, South Africa), where many people live in poverty, are unemployed and have lost hope, especially predominantly the youth. When you hear their stories it’s not because they are lazy, but because not all of them have been awarded the opportunities that some of us have been awarded. What really propelled me or gave me an urge to jump into entrepreneurship was that purpose and desire to come back home and start a business that could inspire people, create impact and create jobs. This speaks to our message as Bathu, which is the unwavering desire to reignite hope and create sustainable jobs. I often say this, that I have quit one job that provided for me and my family to start a business that employs 300 more people. I think that idea of doing something that has more value and has more impact in communities gave me an urge to jump ship and start my own business.
Technology and innovation are key product and service drivers today. What is your take on tech and innovation and how have you incorporated it into your brand?
When we started, we were very clear on building a shoe brand that Africans could proudly affiliate with, but one of the things that we really identified was the importance of product craftsmanship and product development and coming up with innovative solutions in our products that are going to help add value and convenience to our consumers. We did a lot of research and development, to not only develop a sneaker brand that Africans can proudly affiliate with but also incorporate the relevant technology in our products.We are earth friendly, environmentally responsible and try to ensure our products don’t leave a negative carbon footprint. Responsible fashion is a key tenet for us. If you look at our mesh edition sneaker, the principle that we came up with at the time was to have sneakers that are colourful with colour injected in a sole and having stripes on the sole. We have never seen a sneaker like that so that was appealing to consumers as they had never seen a design like that and I personally believe that was a ground breaking innovation on our end.
You talk about the colours and relevance. I just noticed that you have a Ricky Rick (late South African Musician and media personality), new edition out. The question then is when you look at your market who do you try to be relevant to and who is your market?
Let me just put a disclaimer that it was not a Ricky Rick edition: (May his soul rest in peace). I know Ricky and we met before for business purposes, what we did (as Bathu), was we just decided to do a tribute for his recent passing in remembrance of him. We produced a shoe which was not for retail or any sort of commerciality. It was a tribute piece, just like any other person who does canvas painting for example, so we decided to do a painting but on a shoe and that was it. Relevance is really important to connect with our consumers and our target market. We are not selling to a person who is in need of shoes or a person who buys sneakers once a year, we are selling to a consumer who has got an appetite for fashion, cool factor and who has a few thousands to spend on a great product. A person who is going for dinner, lunch or a party has a great outfit and just needs a pair of sneakers that are different to complete their outfit or to be compatible with their outfit. That is the consumer we are selling to. We are not selling to someone who has got a tight budget and only buys sneakers once a year. Equally so, we are selling to a consumer who invests in products that speak to their sense of purpose, their dreams, their mission and their ambition.
Do you feel the success of Bathu is an example of how Africans are happy to support local brands that have products of an international standard?
Bathu is actually a good case study to the fact that a lot of people are now ready to invest and buy into African products. A lot of people are now going for supporting businesses that know what they are doing for communities and brands that they feel speak to them through their brand stories. We just need a lot of work across sectors being technology, hospitality, infrastructure and other areas to find ways of doing business that is close to us and most importantly that we can be innovative in and sell to the rest of the world. Africa attracts a lot of foreign investment for that reason because there are a lot of opportunities that lie in our continent, we now need to be able to take every component and venture into our history or take our history into a product that we can export so that we can attract even more foreign investment. It starts with us going out and selling investment opportunities. We need to prove that there are actually consumers for our products and the best way to do that is for Africans to buy African products and services so that we can take those, pocket them and sell them to the rest of the world.
Over the next few years the population in Africa is expected to boom, we will probably have almost half of the population of the youth in Africa so is that an opportunity that you see for African businesses to exploit in a positive way?
First and foremost if we want to do it properly and do it right we still need the right corporate governance in Africa as a whole.
We are very rich in a lot of resources, talent, innovation and in numbers too but I don’t think we have the right corporate governance to exploit those opportunities in the right manner and scale them to the next level. There are a lot of things that have happened in Africa from corruption to only having rich companies growing etc. However if we play a fair game, I think there are a lot of opportunities that can be explored but it’s a matter of how do we go about it in an inclusive manner, fairness and with the right corporate governance.
What key events do you feel have shaped you and shaped your life. Are there any specific events or general events or thoughts that have shaped your ideology and your thinking?
I always talk about how I started the business without even knowing where it was going. I just had a passion and a purpose, I followed my inner voice but little did I know that the inner voice was going to lead to the employment of 300 people. With that being said, some of the best moments that I have seen are the great things that happen within Bathu. Often-times people talk about Theo Baloyi and Bathu and an inspirational story but there are many other inspiring stories within Bathu. At Bathu, we have people that started off as packers who are now warehouse supervisors, people who started off as drivers and are now heading up e-commerce, people that started as receptionists but are now in marketing, people who have bought homes for their loved ones and erected tombstones for their late ones. Witnessing that growth and seeing people moving forward is priceless. I think those events really shaped me, because I was not fired where I was working, I still had great relations with my former employer but I took a leap of faith to be of service. And that leap of faith has benefitted a lot of people, so those events really shaped me as an entrepreneur to always be of service.
When you talk about service and how people’s lives are being changed through your actions, sometimes it’s easy to forget that entrepreneurship is not easy, it takes time to build a brand and a product. It’s important to highlight how difficult it is to get to a certain point. Do you have anything to share and say I have had one or two difficulties to get to this point?
I believe in building a business that is sustainable in driving change and creating impact. Sustainable in making sure that our vision is well executed at all times, sustainably and consistently throughout. With that being said, the right governance in your business is important and it is one of the biggest challenges that I have had. The way we started in Alexander in a room, people had an idea about our business and even when we corporatised it, and scaled it and made it sustainable people still wanted to maintain that approach. Some people that I have employed in the business know that we started in a Township, a Kasi, in a room and now to introduce policy and processes for people to adapt to was a big challenge for us. To say we are running a business in a Township but we are not going to end in a Township, we are running an entity that will grow to become global business was a big challenge.
What do you feel has been central to the success of your brand?
Being of service and serving with purpose. We always say this and we have shown it many times in our business, we believe in people before profit and we have always advocated for that in all that we do. We are always of service in everything we do so that has always been the centre of the success we have had thus far.
What are your key principles as an entrepreneur?
Integrity and great values; I believe in doing business with good people because one thing that I have realised is that people can be great professionals but terrible people in character, so that is very important in business, you need to understand the difference between the two.
You have won numerous awards but what has been the highlight of your career so far?
When I look at the mission we have as a business which is to ignite hope and create sustainable jobs one thing that I have realised is that the biggest highlight was when we got the biggest transformation champion of the year prize at the BBQ awards because that speaks to our mission. We were awarded for being the transformation driver and lastly we got the job creation campaign of the year which also speaks to our mission. Those two are highlights in my career because it goes to show that our mission is actually put into action and we are not just saying it for PR. We are fulfilling our mission and we are being awarded for the change we drive in communities.
What type of leader would you describe yourself as?
I am a very inclusive leader in the sense that I drive that in everything we do in our business we are inclusive in our approach, we try not to leave our employees, our stakeholders or our management team behind. Everything we do from strategy to execution to even operation we try by all means to be inclusive. For example when we collaborate with a brand our people are informed beforehand, before we even announce it we make sure that everyone in our business is informed about it. For example me being on the cover of Tribe Business Magazine, before we even put it out on social media, the team already knows about it. We are inclusive in the technicality of things. We don’t surprise our employees by just announcing things randomly, so in each and every milestone and big step we are inclusive and I think that embodies and highlights the leader that I am.
What do you feel are key traits and characteristics needed for modern leaders and entrepreneurs to be able to thrive?
We live in an era of social currency, social media and trends. An era of a lot of ills, social and emotional ills etc. Therefore it’s very important that we actually try in everything that we do, to be intentional and drive purpose. I am about purpose and making sure that whatever one does, your approach has an impact on people in the business, people in the communities and most importantly consumers. Try to drive purpose more than anything else. People that you work with, your stakeholders and consumers need to be able to engage with you directly or indirectly and must be able to engage with your product and service and feel like there has been a change of variant in that exchange of energy, product exchange and conversation and experience. They need to be able to walk away and feel like there has been a change and its progressive and its leading them somewhere. I think that’s where the biggest philosophy or characteristic lies that we, as entrepreneurs and modern leaders need to know that collectively we can do that. I can imagine if I’m sitting in a boardroom with 10 people and 5 of them walk away feeling that and another entrepreneur sitting somewhere in Kenya doing the same to 15 more and another one sitting in Durban doing the same thing to 2 more, it will become a progressive continent.
What has kept you going during your tough times as you established Bathu?
The reason why I started this business is purpose, I always think about the people that wake up every day and rely on my purpose or rely on my energy. Should I decide to say I don’t want to do this anymore, what’s going to happen to those 300 people? That’s what drives me every day.
Do you feel sometimes youth is a disadvantage, being younger in business or is it an advantage?
What’s the reaction when you are trying to work with old school people or with older people, for example someone who has been in business for 50 years?
It’s a very good advantage for youth to be in business now, mainly because when you look at the older people, we as youth have more opportunities and resources than they had. There is a lot in our favour from technology to opportunities. Often when you get involved or do business with older people sometimes there is a huge misalignment, their traits, beliefs and philosophies are completely different or are not relevant to the society today and how we do business. At times how they used to do business is completely different and that philosophy does not work anymore today. Therefore that can be a challenge in that regard.
What do you find scary and fascinating about the future?
The fact that we have never been here before, this is the first time. For me personally I feel like we are actually at the point where we can determine a lot of things, we can determine the next ten years depending on how we take the current situation because we have never had this kind of pandemic and that’s scary but also exciting because no one has ever been here. No one can say that maybe in 1970 or 2000 we went through Covid-19 and this is how we did it. No one knows, there is no formula so we are all at the reset button and it’s exciting that we are all at the reset button and can determine how the next 10, 20, 40, 50 years will look like.
IN THE KRAAL WITH Theo Baloyi
New York and Cape Town
CAN’T LIVE WITHOUT…?
Pap and beef stew
YOUR BIGGEST INSPIRATION?
The late Dr. Richard Maponya
YOUR GREATEST REGRET?
The fact that I didn’t start my
“Be authentic, be purposeful.”
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