It is 05:00 in the morning at a busy Johannesburg taxi rank. At the rank, busy street vendors have already set up shop, among them is 28-year-old Itumeleng Lekomanyane who just reported for duty. He sells sandwiches, to just about anyone interested, five days a week.
It is a daily hustle that comes with plenty of glares and stares from strangers criticising how he makes his money.
“I’m a street vendor,” he says. “That’s what they call me and there’s a lot of stigma and stereotyping that comes with being one.”
He says, “people do not see this as a real job, but just because it does not require a degree of some sorts doesn’t make it any less of a profession.”
Lekomanyane has been hustling on the sidewalks of Egoli since 13 August 2019. The sandwich business was started in a desperate attempt to make ends meet and to honour his commitments as father to his little girl, who was three years old at the time.
Lekomanyane started the food enterprise called Sandwich Nton Ntons with R800, which was actually meant as a contribution to his monthly child maintenance payment. Instead of paying short, Lekomanyane devised another plan.
The birth of a young street entrepreneur
On the morning of Tuesday, 13 August 2019, Lekomanyane rose at 02:00 to start preparing sandwiches. He sold them at a local taxi rank and for that day he was only able to sell ten sandwiches.
Today, the savvy street vendor has five stations scattered all over Johannesburg and earns about R20 000 per month.
“I never thought that I would be at this point in my life telling the media about a sandwich business. My growth, expansion and where the brand is now, I never thought that it would work out like it has. I never expected it,” he says.
Now, every morning Lekomanyane wakes up at 02:00. He has a strict early-morning routine that involves building sandwiches for his clients.
“My sleeping patterns are no longer the same, but its fine. I’m willing because I need to hit the streets at 05:00 to makes sure I catch those early commuters. They bring a lot of money in,” he says.
There, he arrives to a group of street vendors who have already assembled their stalls, boasting with displays of fat cakes (magwinya), packs of scones, sweets, chips and plenty more.
Street vendors supporting other street vendors
But despite the abundance of competition, Lekomanyane has still managed to outshine most of his competitors. Despite his business being fairly new, he has garnered major success and recognition.
Lekomanyane says, “Out there, I compete with people pushing cheaper or the same products. I hear stories of people that have been doing it for over ten years, but they have not achieved much.
“I think other street vendors are too comfortable with where they are and what they have. I never want to feel comfortable. I think my manner of approaching business sets me apart,” he states.
“Black youth of South Africa wake up! There’s opportunities out there for you.”
Lekomanyane believes in supporting the people that wake up as early as he does to earn a living selling street food.
Some of his inputs (fresh produce including tomatoes, lettuce, cucumbers and red onions) are supplied by vegetable street vendors only. For larger orders, he buys from the Johannesburg fresh produce market.
“I don’t believe in buying from big retail stores. There’s a lot of stereotyping when it comes to street vendors, but you’ll be surprised. Most of them sell the freshest stock out there. The street vendors are also much cheaper than retail supermarkets,” he explains.
Every vendor’s nightmare
The street entrepreneur has had a difficult journey up the ladder of success. On the first day, Lekomanyane was filled with fear and shyness. He did not know how to approach people. He scraped together some courage and was able to sell his first ten sandwiches.
On day two he went back to the same taxi rank only to be apprehended by taxi rank security guards.
“They asked, how could I just come into their house without knocking, there was a process I needed to follow,” he laughs. “I was told to pay a once-off registration fee of R700 and weekly payments of R50.”
Lekomanyane later discovered that it was a scam. Other vendors told him that there was no such thing as paying registration fees.
Once, after making a decision to target corporates and setting up shop close to a Standard Bank building, security guards again chased him away. At the time, customers who read about him on Twitter drove out to where he was and arrived to a chaotic scene.
“Security guards were busy chasing me away and throwing my stock on the ground. The clients came and they saw the chaos and decided to come to my defense. It was crazy, I was just standing there observing all of this,” he says.
Luckily, after all the commotion, Lekomanyane was permitted to sell there and the Standard Bank station became his biggest income generator. Since then, he has also set up two shops outside the SABC building in Auckland Park, employing four people along with his business partner, Sammy Diphoko.
Now the successful street entrepreneur plans to start working on his dream of owning an “empire of food trucks” that he wants to station at sports events and festivals.
And while he dreams of bigger, better things, Lekomanyane wants people to be inspired by his journey and do something with their lives.
“Black youth of South Africa wake up!” he encourages. “There’s opportunities out there for you. You don’t have to sit at home unemployed and struggle. Take responsibility for your life and let go of your ego.”