Siyanda Mbele (25) is an award-winning furniture designer based in Durban, KwaZulu-Natal. His business, Pinda, produces luxury pieces that fuse modern and African design elements. This amalgamation was borne of Mbele’s desire to express his identity as an urban South African who wants to stay in touch with his roots as a Zulu man.
“I am Zulu, but I am a modern guy; I do modern things,” he says. “I also perform traditional practices – if there are traditional ceremonies at home, I’m there. So I wanted to fuse the two. We’re all like that; we are all split.”
Disillusioned by being taught primarily about European designers, Mbele says he wanted to turn things on their head. “While studying interior design, I realised we were learning a lot about European designers and very little about the history of design in Africa or South Africa,” he says. “I was tired of what the Europeans were doing. I was more interested in developing our existing traditional stuff.”
As most entrepreneurs know, starting a business is tough and requires sacrifices. To keep the dream of his company alive, Mbele had to work part-time as a lecturer and freelance. “You can’t really wait for funding, so you need to find ways to fund yourself. If I need to make new product prototypes, I need to self-fund,” he says.
They say it takes a village to raise a child – in Mbele’s case, it took financial contributions from his entire family for him to realise his dream. Seeing his passion and love for creating beautiful pieces, his family was happy to help him pay for materials. Mbele and his three siblings were raised by their paternal grandparents because their mother’s family couldn’t afford to raise them.
“The business was fully funded by my family for the first two years. When I had to do exhibitions, one aunt would pitch in R1 000 and the other aunt would pitch in R500. My late grandfather would pitch in R3 000, so everyone would help as a family,” he says.
Mbele says he’s aware of the lack of transformation in the design space, and that the industry hasn’t really had a black furniture designer. “Sometimes when I exhibit, people ask me, ‘Where is your boss?’ and ‘Who is your boss?’ He believes that sometimes people expect someone white or older to be the designer of his work.
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Despite all the challenges, he says he’s always kept his head down and followed his passion. “I knew that if I didn’t focus on that, I’d have gone crazy. I wouldn’t have done what I’ve done,” he says.
Although it took Mbele two years to sell his first piece, during that time, he was building a reputable brand that people could identify with.
“Furniture is quite a committed buy – it’s not like you’re going to be buying tables every day, so you need to make that conscious decision,” he says.
Mbele says initially his plan was to sell to middle-class consumers, but the high price of manufacturing and sourcing material in South Africa meant he couldn’t afford to lower his prices.
“Production and manufacturing in this country is expensive, and push the price up. So it became a niche, upmarket product, not because I wanted it to, but because of the expense of manufacturing.”
Mbele says some international clients have to reach deep into their pockets to buy his work. “Some overseas clients who have a table that goes for R40 000 have taken from their savings, so it becomes an investment piece.”