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Out in the cold – power crisis forces enterprising ice-cream shops to brink of closure

Out in the cold – power crisis forces enterprising ice-cream shops to brink of closure
Thandeka Dlathu of The Scrummy Ice Cream in Randburg|Thando Makhubu of Soweto Creamery in Jabulani.Photos:Felix Dlangamandla

This is a tale of two gourmet ice-cream businesses in Johannesburg facing the grim prospect of shutting their doors indefinitely amid higher stages of rolling blackouts, as they grapple with unaffordable alternatives.

‘I am just hoping for a miracle,” said Thando Makhubu, owner of the Soweto Creamery, established in 2020 using the R350 grant, and which was praised by President Cyril Ramaphosa in his 2022 State of the Nation Address.   

In that speech almost a year ago, Ramaphosa acknowledged Makhubu’s success as well as others who had used the grant in a similar way.

“Mr Thando Makhubu from Soweto received the R350 grant for seven months last year, and saved it to open an ice-cream store that now employs four people.”

Thando Makhubu of Soweto creamery in Jabulani is feeling the pressure following continuous load shedding on 17 January 2023.Photo:Felix Dlangamandla

Following praise and social media marketing, the business in Jabulani grew exponentially and employed five people. 

However, when Daily Maverick visited the business at Makhubu’s home this week, it was quiet with not a person in sight, and chairs and tables unoccupied. 

Months after the business took off, Makhubu decided to invest in a generator for about R16,000 to secure his stock amid rolling blackouts. Little did he know that Stage 6 load shedding would mean keeping it on longer – for which he had not budgeted and which eats into his profits.

“Two weeks ago there was a time when we didn’t have electricity for like 72 hours and then we spent just over R1,000 on petrol, a cost which we had not budgeted for. We had to spend that money otherwise we were going to lose all our stock – as you know, ice-cream has to remain frozen because once it loses its frozen form, it is spoilt,” he told Daily Maverick.  

Less than a year after investing in a generator, Makhubu says that for his business to survive under Stage 6 blackouts – which is meant to last four hours but can go up to 12 – he needs to invest in inverters, solar panels and lithium packs. This will cost at least R100,000, which the business does not have. He says he cannot save towards this either since he often has to fork out money to run the generator, among other costs.   

“If it continues like this, we will have no choice but to close down because we will be working from break-even then to loss.”   

​​Read in Daily Maverick: “National shutdown threat in protest against Eskom’s rolling blackouts and tariff hikes — Ramaphosa cancels Davos trip

To get the money, Makhubu says he is considering more photography work and taking a major salary cut despite being a father to an 11-month-old. He fears cutting staff salaries because it will hurt their morale.  

“It’s not that my team does not understand, but we are already working under difficult conditions, so cutting their salaries will kill morale, and the type of business we are running requires that we always smile.”   

Sales down, bills pile up

Thandeka Dlathu of The Scrummy Ice Cream in Randburg is feeling the pressure following continuous load shedding on 17 January 2023.Photo:Felix Dlangamandla

Makhubu’s story is similar to that of Thandeka Dlathu, the owner and founder of The Scrummy Ice Cream in Diepkloof, Soweto and Randburg, which needs between R100,000 and R150,000 a month to stay afloat. This includes rent, salaries, back-up power and stock.  

Dlathu said that despite investing in back-up power, sales at her Randburg shop have dropped by 75%, which means she is behind in paying rates and salaries.  

“My bills are piling up, I’ve had to cut a few people, and I’m behind with salaries.” 

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Faced with operating at a loss, Dlathu said they had opted to buy fast-moving stock. “We literally work on how much we have and what we can buy. It’s bad, I won’t lie, I mean, we’ve also had to cut some of the things in our menu because we just cannot afford to buy the stock.” 

Asked how this had affected her personal life, Dlathu wept as she told Daily Maverick: “My child could not go to school when they reopened because I did not have the funds.

“My mental health is extremely disturbed because you are unable to eat properly, you don’t even care about food. Secondly, you don’t sleep at night because you have not paid people’s salaries and therefore you ask yourself, ‘so, tomorrow, what if they leave me, what am I going to do?’”   

Read in Daily Maverick: “Government plans to focus on six ailing power stations to resolve the electricity crisis” 

The uncertainty caused by rolling blackouts also makes it difficult to source funding for small businesses. This too had given Dlathu sleepless nights as she had no one or nothing to turn to. 

“It’s difficult to get funding with a bank statement that is looking all wrong. Nobody will fund you because they don’t trust you with their finances; they wonder if you are going to be able to pay them back, are you really a stable business,” she said.  

While hundreds of other small businesses had shut down, for Dlathu this was not an option, despite the odds against her. 

“A part of me feels there is light at the end of the tunnel. Maybe there is something I need to learn as an entrepreneur during this season of darkness, literally, as hard as it is. I believe there is no smooth journey.” 

Dlathu said prayer and her Christian faith kept her going, but admitted she was on a difficult and lonely journey.  

“There are days when I do not want to wake up, when I don’t feel like going to my shop because I feel it’s depressing because there is no electricity half the day, and how am I going to make sales in four hours?” she added.   

Dlathu said there appears to be little willingness from the government to tackle the load shedding crisis immediately, so she is considering selling her two vehicles and using public transport in a bid to save her business. 

“It is not ideal but I do not have much of a choice.”   

Read in Daily Maverick: “Eskom gets tariff hike while Ramaphosa ‘deeply regrets’ Stage 6 rolling blackouts” 

Her sentiments on this apparent lack of willingness were echoed by Makhubu:

“The government isn’t respecting us as the citizens of South Africa. We often hear officials say democracy is for the people by the people, but it seems like it’s for them, by them. It’s like we only matter during elections and after that, not so much.”

Citizens needed to act or “we’ll find ourselves living in a banana republic”. DM

Read more articles here about the impact of load shedding on Daily Maverick readers’ lives, and how people are finding alternatives to keep the lights on.

South Africans make a plan in the face of never-ending electricity blackouts:

Helpless, anxious and depressed — how Eskom blackouts hit ordinary South Africans:

Daily Maverick readers give a first-hand account of how load shedding has played havoc with their businesses:

Put to the test: Daily Maverick readers offload their woes about studying when load shedding hits:


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Candice Harrison Train says:

    As an artisanal gelato shop owner at 44 Stanley Street, I feel for both of you. Just this week alone we have had a thirty hour blackout and lost all our stock. Our inverter batteries couldn’t save us because they were flat from 4.5 hours of stage six load-shedding. We can’t churn our ice cream during load shedding because of the wattage requirements. It is incredibly hard to quite literally watch your business melt away. In this heatwave, our businesses should be thriving.

  • Karen G says:

    Dear Thandeka Dlathu and Thando Makhubu – please do not vote for the ANC in the next election – this ANC led government is the reason your business is failing.

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