Rags to riches series feature entrepreneurs across Africa, who faced the odds to create something great. This is an unconventional feature. But then again, the most interesting success stories are unconventional.

This is the story of Desmond Mabuza, born and raised in the relatively poor neighbourhood of Soweto. Desmond became the only black South African to own and successfully operate two high-end restaurants that serve his country’s rich, famous, politically and socially-connected people.

Originally trained as a civil engineer in the United States, Desmond returned before the end of the Apartheid era to start a small civil engineering firm.

After some years of practice, he abandoned engineering and invested the money he had made into the fine dining restaurant business, an industry only white South Africans were known to dominate and succeed in.

Despite his lack of experience in this market, Desmond was neither discouraged by the colour of his skin or the daunting challenge ahead of him.

He went on to open his first restaurant in 2001 (at age 28) and currently owns two remarkably profitable and well-run restaurants – Signature and Wall Street – both situated in Johannesburg.

Let’s explore the opportunity in his market and how he took advantage of it…

Johannesburg is the provincial capital of Gauteng, the wealthiest province in South Africa, having the largest economy of any metropolitan region in Sub-Saharan Africa.

The city is the economic and financial hub of South Africa, one of the world’s leading financial centres and accounts for up to 20 percent of the country’s economy alone.

In a recent survey conducted by MasterCard, Johannesburg was the only African city to make the list of the top 50 cities in the world.

As expected, the city is awash with some of the biggest shopping centres and high street fashion malls on the African continent. This makes it a major target for luxury shoppers, business travellers, tourists and entrepreneurs. Most of the world’s biggest brands have their African offices in Johannesburg.

Seeking to exploit the opportunity in this money-packed city which is home to the rich and famous, Desmond decided to start a restaurant to cater to the fine dining needs of the city’s elite. The idea was to launch a high-end eatery that is exciting, tastefully furnished and offers the best food, wine and service to its customers.

And the idea really worked!

Just a little over three months after it opened its doors to the public, Signature Restaurant received more than 10,000 customers!

The restaurant brands itself as:

‘the most exciting and fashionable restaurant in Sandton, offering a unique mix of exclusivity, flexibility, sophistication and design. It boasts an exquisite menu, with a local and international wine menu for even the most discerning palate. Time intended to be spent with family, friends or colleagues celebrating life; birthdays, business deals or enjoying a romantic night out.’

The Signature experience is a blend of sophisticated cooking, imaginative ideas and respect for ingredients.

Less than a year from its opening, the restaurant won the Best of Johannesburg’s Readers Choice Award and many others.

Following the momentum of his two successful restaurants, Desmond is focused on rolling out his unique brand across Africa.

In an interview with the BBC, he disclosed his intentions to open new outlets in Nigeria, Ghana, Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo. It’s no surprise he has chosen these countries given their rapid economic growth and the rising spending power of the middle class.

Desmond currently has more than 100 staff working at his restaurants and admits business has been financially rewarding.

All it takes for anybody to achieve greatness, and tell an “unconventional” success story is to be courageous enough to look beyond their present limits (whether real or perceived) and start exploring opportunities!

Your current situation cannot determine the outcome of your future. Success is a blend of imagination and commitment. Who knows, you may even be featured tomorrow.

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