Tebogo Mabye: Life As A Young Black Barista & Coffee Shop Owner

by | Aug 16, 2021 | Hustle, Latest, Pioneering, Profile, The Plug | 0 comments

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Tebogo ‘Tebza’ Mabye (26) – founder & owner of Hillbrewed Coffee Co. – was one of the entrepreneurs badly impacted by the recent looting that swept through the country. However, he remains undeterred in his quest to take his business to greater heights.

By: Thanduxolo “Thandz” Buti
Images: Supplied

Hillbrewed & Co. sits in the heart of Johannesburg, in the newly built shopping centre, Jewel City. The coffee shop caters to modern and general city dwellers. Since Tebogo first launched three years ago, it’s been gaining a reputation among coffee lovers.

The Barista says the name Hillbrewed is a homage to Hillbrow, where he grew up. He had the vision to open an intimate space for people to share experiences over coffee.

“I feel so proud!” he says as he takes me through the space. “I feel like we were able to build something solid, something great. When I first found this place, there was nothing – everything you see went through my hands. It’s my baby. I am also proud of the community it has created.”

Tebogo – affectionately known as Tebza – possess an undeniable zeal and tenacity that sets him apart from the rest. With his distinctive looks, freckles, and a great following on social media, some may easily cast him as an influencer. But he shatters all the perceptions with his business acumen.

“When you see people coming in and talking about the place, it makes you realise that it’s not just about you anymore because there was a time when it was all about me,” he shares. “Through this space, I feel like I am no longer standing alone; I am part of a bigger community.”

Tebogo’s coffee shop ‘Hillbrewed’ is gaining popularity among coffee lovers. [Images: Supplied]

We talk to the entrepreneur and Barista about his shop and rising above all obstacles.

BL: You talk so much about this shop belonging to the community; did that make it easier to rebuild after the looting?
TM:
In the beginning, I thought I had to do each and everything because it’s my baby, but because now it belongs to the community, they have come together to help in rebuilding it. They have been pushing for the brand not to die. It’s amazing!

BL: Take me back to the day they looted and vandalised the shop – what was going through your mind?
TM:
I remember it was my birthday on the 5th of July, I had just turned 26, and I was on holiday slash business vacation because I was also going to source beans in Tanzania. Coming back from that trip, I had many ideas I wanted to implement. The day after I went to check on the staff and the store, the riots began. At that moment, the most important thing was safety for all of us. We did not get harmed, but our equipment and the shop were damaged.

After the fact, one thing that went through my head was that ‘damn! We have to start from scratch’. We had already experienced a knock during level 5 – 4 lockdown, running on about 20% of our income, which cannot sustain a business. So the looting was just the final blow. That day I was experiencing so many emotions, but with the support and love from the community, I knew that we would rise again. All we had to do was trust and believe.

BL: As a young man from a notoriously crime-ridden area, how were you able to dream beyond your environment?
TM:
I grew up in Hillbrow, and my dreams were narrow. We did not have excess immediate references of successful people in various fields. There was a lack of knowledge and inspiration to help us achieve whatever dreams we had. You become so exposed to the environment around you, which is not as conducive, and you have to look outside your surroundings for inspiration.

From as young as eight, I displayed a passion for entrepreneurship. I used to shadow my uncle – who used to own a container on Saturdays and Sundays. At school, I worked at a tuck shop and sold sweets on the side. I also became involved in a lot of organisations and extra-mural activities. I joined each and every one of them because I wanted to build a network of people. I learned so much about myself and people. I also got access to people I would not have had access to. Now I am an entrepreneur, and all those connections I built help support me in one way or another.

“In South Africa, we don’t have a shortage of ideas or passionate and driven young people. The only thing that we are lacking is support structures on all levels.

BL: What do you think is blocking other young people from pursuing their dreams and seeing their ideas into realisation?
TM:
In South Africa, we don’t have a shortage of ideas or passionate and driven young people. The only thing that we are lacking is support structures on all levels. We grew up in a system that doesn’t allow us to dream beyond our environment. We lack that support that even if you fall, there is always someone who will be there to catch you. We also don’t have access to capital or funding. You can have a dream, but without funding or proper backing, it won’t go anywhere. Resources are everything.

I worked for five years and used my pension to open my first shop. But some people don’t have that; they have nothing but the idea. That makes the process harder because with every penny they make through their business, they have to feed themselves and their families. That can be a vicious cycle. These are some things that stop us from just surviving to thrive as entrepreneurs. And we end up being depressed because we live in survival mode for a long time.

BL: Was there a defining moment that proved to you that ‘Hillbrewed’ was something attainable?
TM:
There were many people that helped to make this dream a reality. I remember when I got the first opportunity to open up this shop through a landlord of Ellis House, in Ellis Park. He had opened a coffee shop and needed someone to run the shop. I talked to him, and I told him who I was, and he allowed me to take over the space. That was the moment I realised that people believed in me. As I continued, other people started getting attracted to the vision.

Many people felt inspired by the space and saw it as a beacon of hope for the community. Even my friends and peers take pride in me for opening up my coffee shop at such a young age, 23 years old at the time, without any knowledge of running a business or as a Barista. I am self-taught, I never went to school for this, so when I got recognised as one of the best baristas in Joburg that was proof that I am on the right path. We tend to exaggerate the big steps. But it’s never the big steps; it’s the small steps that eventually lead to success.

Tebogo loves sharing his love for coffee with his community. [Image: Supplied]

BL: How did your love affair with coffee begin?
TM:
There is something about coffee that makes for great moments. Some of the best conversations I have had started over coffee. Growing up, we only drank instant coffee, that was all we knew to be ‘good’ coffee. I was first exposed to ‘real’ coffee when I was 15 by a Chinese lady visiting South Africa for the 2010 world cup. She saw me making instant coffee and said I must stop putting that in my body because it’s toxic. She gave me a French press plunger and that was the beginning of the love affair.

I realised that many black people had never experienced ‘real’ coffee. I took that on as a challenge to educate my community about what I had learned about coffee.

BL: What do you hope to create for yourself and your community through your vision?
TM:
I still want to turn the dream into something bigger and more beautiful. I want to create something that has not been done before, especially by a black entrepreneur. I see this getting to a point where it runs for itself, and I don’t necessarily have to be around for it to run efficiently. I also want to activate other spaces around this brand and create many experiences – events, shows etc. Why can’t I be the pioneer who creates our very own Starbucks in Africa? I also want to create a space for people who wish to learn more, whether it’s about coffee or just networking with other people. All of us are on a learning journey. So, this is about emboldening young entrepreneurs to follow their dreams. I believe that if we can be our safety net, then we can achieve something far greater.


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