Thabang Molefi has led a rollercoaster life, living on three continents and winning awards as she surged towards her ultimate goal of providing health therapy for her people, writes Sue Grant-Marshall
Thabang Molefi trained as a health and skincare therapist in London, then sailed the high seas, practising her skills on American cruise liners before deciding to return to her Soweto roots in more ways than one.
She took her hard-earned dollars, amounting to savings of nearly R700 000 in 2002 and, with her characteristic determination, invested in her first Roots Healthcare Centre in the place where she was born and raised.
She could have opened just a skincare centre, or a massage parlour, and turned that into the success Roots is today.
But her healing hands and determination to provide natural and ethnomedicine, also known as traditional medicine, would not allow for that.
She combined everything in her centre in order to care for both the external and internal requirements of people’s bodies.
She uses iridology, an alternative medicine technique that employs patterns, colours and other characteristics of the eye’s iris to determine information about a patient’s systemic health. So she uses a person’s eyes as windows into the body’s state of health.
Once that’s established, she is often able to accurately diagnose a client’s condition, which is commonly diabetes, hypertension or high cholesterol; and, depending on the severity, she might refer patients to clinics or hospitals.
Molefi will, however, suggest to those she feels able to treat that they modify their diets, often to restrict their intake of pap, sugar and sour milk. She also provides herbs that are appropriate for various ailments.
These she imports in bulk from Germany, submitting them to the Medicines Control Council before mixing and packaging them for her clients. They range from willow bark and peppermint tea to stinging nettle and skullcap.
Molefi didn’t take the easy, superficial route for her Roots Healthcare Centres because, according to her, there is a huge need for affordable healthcare, particularly in rural areas.
She says: “Western medicine is too costly for many of my people and that is why I studied at the Indigenous Medicinal Plants Training College in Khayelitsha, Cape Town.”
Molefi opened her first little centre in Soweto’s Irvin Khoza complex, offering iridology assessments as well as providing free talks on health at churches and in community centres.
As the first curious clients trickled into her centre, so the word spread and today she has three centres – Soweto, Spruitview and Walkerville – plus nine branches across South Africa that she services through her mobile Roots Healthcare Centres.
Molefi and the staff she has carefully trained over the years pack her iriscope, circulation-boosting machines, detox machines, massage tables and herbs into trailers, and set off for community and church halls, even visiting tiny, off-the-map places such as Ntintini in KwaZulu-Natal.
When she first moves into an area with a mobile centre, she will have been there beforehand, giving talks to the community. The initial 20 or so people seeking care will have doubled or tripled by the time her mobile centre next comes around.
She and her staff keep records of people’s conditions and monitor their improvements, maybe suggesting detoxification or extra care, along with
Molefi did a LifeLine counselling course to enable her to deal with vulnerable people.
“One woman had a gangrenous leg, but didn’t want to go to a clinic before I managed to persuade her. Others are HIV positive and they need medicine. I know my limits,” she says.
This plucky, and in the past sometimes too trusting, entrepreneur nearly went under after her business was infiltrated by gangsters who made off with money she’d invested in her venture.
But she was saved by her excellent business plan, which twice won her cash prizes in the SAB KickStart competition. The competition’s provincial level saw her win R40 000 and she went on to land the national prize of R150 000.
In 2008, she won a Shoprite Checkers Woman of the Year award in the business entrepreneurs category.
In spite of these achievements, she’s always modest, takes every opportunity she can to further her knowledge – whether in the fields of business or health – and realises every failure is something she can learn from.
Today, she makes a point of using the services of local businesses to support her in essential functions such as accounting, laundry and security.
She can boast a multimillion-rand annual turnover, though is reluctant to do so because, she says, “most people do not understand the difference between turnover and profit. They are very different”.
Her husband, Kali Molefi, gave up a good job in banking to join her nine years ago, when she was “struggling” with her business.
They now have three young children.
Naturally, Molefi’s live wire brain is buzzing with a multitude of plans. She’s just written a book, Dollars to Soweto (published by Trafford) and hopes a play depicting her entrepreneurial struggle will tour the country to inspire others to follow in her footsteps.
In time, she plans to franchise her business.
Another of her dreams is to open a health hydro spa in Walkerville, where she lives with her young family.
She has already bought the land for it, but still needs funding. Given her history, though, that shouldn’t prove insurmountable.
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