MASERU - Tebogo* Mokoena is ‘small time’ barbershop owner in the city of Maseru. His shop, which is made of loose or recycled material, consists of plastic and cut-off tree stumps making the shop’s skeleton in the form of what is locally known as a ‘phephesele.’
It is located near Sefika High School opposite Pitso Ground Police Station and the Flea Market area. This place is commonly known as the Bus Stop area or ‘Ha-Stopo’ because of its proximity to the bus and taxi ranks.
Mokoena is tall in height and dark in complexion and weight-wise he is fairly slim and light - one of the reasons I chose to use his shop instead of the others in this area in my research of the informal sector is because of his cleanly shaven head and neatly cut beard, which together with his smart sense of dress, give him the impression of being a ‘metro-sexual’.
Unlike other barbershops that are lined across the road in this area, Mokoena has opted to use a bright red colour as part of his shop’s infrastructure giving it a distinctive colour from the rest of his competitors which usually opt for black. This bright crimson red colour immediately catches the eye of potential customers, serving as what one would call ‘unintentional advertisement’.
The first thing I realize when I enter his shop is that he has placed a beautiful plastic mat on the floor and there are two white chairs and two hair clippers on the table, but with only one barber. On this table Mokoena has places a large mirror in order for his customers to view themselves and place any complaint thereafter if not pleased by his final work.
In this shop, a haircut can range from M15 to M30, depending on the type of cut and style the customers prefer, and the available styles are displayed on a poster for the customers to choose from. Sometimes Mokoena even cuts beards for a low price of only just M5. The tools he uses are usually in the form of clippers, razors, sterilizers, hair products such as hair sheen, after-shave and soft brushes.
Mokoena tells me that he started his business as a survival strategy after the tragic death of his father who was the main breadwinner in the family and he could no longer afford the expensive tuition fees of the tertiary institution he was attending at the time, where he was studying to become an accountant. He sees his situation as a temporary setback in life and tells me that one day he will go back and further his studies.
Mokoena started his business with two other childhood friends as they all grew up together in the village of Mohalalitoe. Their initial capital was M600, which was enough to buy them even one clipper and some hair products.
Starting up this business was not an easy task for Mokoena as he could not just go to the bank and acquire a loan, so he and his friends accumulated the capital by doing some odd jobs such as offering work as ‘garden boys’ around their neighbourhood. He came up with the idea of starting up a barbershop upon realizing that he had a natural talent of cutting hair and saw it as an opportunity to make quick and easy money.
Mokoena and his friends were able to acquire the lease to for the piece of land they occupy from a friend of an acquaintance of theirs, who had formerly used it before them but had no further use for it, and ‘sold’ it to them at a cheap price. It is not so easy for one to find a space for rental in the busy Bus Stop area, and if one does – it normally costs an arm and leg!
What is very appealing about their location is the fact that they are within close range of Sefika High School that has a ‘no hair policy’ for its students and thus they make up a huge chunk of the customer base. Mokoena and his partners work in shifts and sometimes even work as a pair, depending on the amount of customers there are on that day.
“Batho babangata ha likolo li buloa le ka month end,” he says meaning that many customers come when schools are open and on moth-ends. According to him business is slowest during weekends, especially on Sundays when people are either at home or at church, but their worst time of the year comes during school holidays when they cannot access their Sefika High School market.
Since Mokoena and his friends work as a partnership they usually save the money they make during the weekdays in a safe and split it equally amongst themselves on the last day of the week. This money is barely enough to cover their living costs but they fortunately do not have to worry about transportation as they commute daily to and from work on foot.
It seems the three friends have formed a strong bond together. In the upcoming weeks and by the third week of my visit, I already knew both of his partners at face-value. Mokoena even goes as far as offering me a discount on one occasion when I tell him that I am short of M5 in order to get a haircut, claiming that he had no use of my M5.
Mokoena bemoans the difficulties of his job to me, one of them being that he has to leave his home very early in the morning in order to serve his customers in question, the students of Sefika High School by 07:00 am. “Ka seven kesentseke le monakesebetsa,” he says, which is in contrast to most jobs in the formal sector where work usually starts at 08:00am.
He also complains about some of his customers who usually take advantage of his kindness and try not to pay the full price. When asked if he needed any permits from the Maseru City Council for his business, Mokoena says that the only people, who use permits, were the small business owners located in the market, pointing to one market stall just opposite his shop.
He tells me that the police never harass him, claiming that they have no reason to, since his business does not disturb traffic in any way or form. Mokoena even goes as far as mentioning to me that even some police officers in the station come to him for a haircut.
Mokoena wishes that the government would do more for him and others like him in terms of helping them in the improvement of infrastructure, as well as through facilitation of business support programmes that are mandated to encourage small business development. More especially, he says, financially, through acquisition of loans tailored for people like him and the initiation of educational schemes that encourage continued business sustainability such as book-keeping and tips on how to transform a business from a small to a large business venture. This, he says is vital for the wellbeing of the country as well as its citizens due to the high levels of unemployment currently prevailing. Hefurther points to the newly built spaza shops made of corrugated iron at a nearby taxi rank, emblazoned with the red colour of a mobile service provider, saying that he wishes that government would have constructed something similar in his area.
In terms of financial security Mokoena says he has none, not even in the form of insurance and he cannot go to a bank to obtain a loan. In the occurrence of a natural disaster, his business is unlikely to survive and this might spell the end of, or collapse for his shop as well as that of his partners.
Mokoena’s story is no different from many that of a lot of people who end up in the informal sector due to some form of tragedy that or a lack of income that resulted in them having to leave school with only a few, and sometimes no skills at all. This might be viewed as a problem for some who naturally assume that people in the informal sector are usually destitute or helpless, but in actual fact these people are born with the natural talent to turn the tide of their horrific conditions.
The people are able to use locally available raw materials, natural talent and ‘street smarts’ to make a like a living in a world that is highly industrialized and fill the gap that is left by industry to produce commercially viable services.
*Not his real name. Tsitso L Monaheng is a social and cultural correspondent.