Want to learn more about Soweto? Lebo Soweto Backpackers is the name to remember. Lebo Malepa, the proprietor, has spent 32 years in Orlando, Soweto. Because he knows it like the back (and front) of his hand, he is well qualified to show visitors and tourists that experiencing Soweto can be a fantastic experience.

Malepa established the business in 2003 and is justifiably proud to be the owner of one of South Africa’s few black-owned backpacker businesses. Unlike his peers elsewhere in the country, he packs them in through providing visitors with the innovative concept of enjoying the Soweto sights on the saddle of a bicycle. “This is an important factor in bringing them back for more, not to mention the additional business generated through word of mouth.”

“Visitors stay at a hostel situated in Orlando West, from where they engage in guided cycling tours through the township. We visit places like the migrant worker’s hostels, Meadowlands, Hector Petersen Museum, Nelson Mandela’s and Bishop Tutu’s homes, a traditional healers’ visit, and many more before we finish it off with a relaxing cold drink at the local shebeen.”

Trips outside of Soweto are also arranged. Malepa arranges tours of Johannesburg’s CBD, the Apartheid Museum, the Gold Reef City theme park, mine tours, the Pilanesburg game reserve, the Cradle of Humankind, and the Lion Park. A Pretoria tour includes the Union Buildings and the Voortrekker Monument.

For those who do not cycle, guided tours around Soweto can also be arranged by car or on foot. But Malepa says the bike tour is the most popular – and is gaining popularity.

“Soweto,” he maintains, “is a very friendly place, where the people interact in the street and with the neighbours. It is an environment conducive to meeting people and learning their customs. Our guests all comment at the end of their stay on how safe and welcome they felt in Soweto.”

Amy Fallon from Australia wrote back to Malepa raving about her experience with the Backpackers. “Soweto was definitely one of the highlights of my trip. I just wanted to say thanks and let you know how much I enjoyed it. It was such an enlightening and educating experience to be able to stay in the township. You really enabled me to see things through different eyes. I am sure I will be back to see you on my next trip to SA.”

Another tourist, Thibault Hatton from France, also enjoyed his experience with the Soweto Backpackers. “This has been my second time in Soweto, with many others to follow. Soweto feels like home. June 16 was fantastic and the bike tour taught me so much, I assumed I knew Soweto already but the tour made me realize that I didn’t.”

Malepa is pleased to be part of the South African Institute of Chartered Accountants’ Black Entrepreneur Initiative (BEI). When he approached the BEI for assistance in starting his business, he was taken under the wing of Gary Nelson, Primedia Face 2 Face CEO, and Joshila Hari the group’s Finance Executive. Nelson undertook to be Malepa’s mentor and for Hari to provide financial advice for the embryo business. Nelson became involved with the BEI on the basis that Primedia Face 2 Face has the business expertise to help small businesses get off the ground.

“We wish to share our expertise with Malepa. From a strategic point of view we will help him financially. From a sales and marketing point of view he will undergo training for nine months with the ultimate goal of getting his occupancy rate from 40% to about 70% to 80% in order for him to be profitable.

“From a mentoring perspective, Malepa as the protégé needs to take ownership of the project by taking our advice and using it to make his business a success,” says Nelson.

Hari adds: “We felt the need to share our expertise with small businesses to help build the economy. We met Lebo and, after several fruitful meetings, together decided on the best strategies to be put in place. We look at values, marketing strategies, available resources and the target market.”

Nelson sees Malepa enjoying much heightened demand for his services in 2010. “Until then, however, we shall help him to raise his profile by getting him involved with as many tour operators as possible.”

Malepa says that, while it is exceptionally difficult to establish a successful business, it can be fun when one has a passion for what one is doing. “I am grateful to Gary for his support and look forward to a long-term relationship.”

His advice to others who wish to start a business: “Look for opportunities around you first and then try to gain the support of the community because no man is an island. You need people to believe in you and support your decisions in order to succeed.”

Soweto is a sprawling township, or more accurately, a cluster of townships on the south-western flank of Johannesburg. Soweto was created in the 1930s, with Orlando as its first township.

The BEI provides members with an opportunity to share skills and become involved in enterprise development. The initiative is aimed at companies that meet the BEE Scorecard’s enterprise development requirements and which have an established business with an annual turnover of between R1 million and 5 million.