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By Hein Kaiser


Foodie fuelled by passion and ambition

Lebohang Lekotoko's business aims to create a stepping stone for other people.

There’s no business like the food business. It’s got all the drama of a Hollywood thriller, the artistic intricacies of an impressionist painting and the satisfaction of a meal well devoured. Passion and commitment drive it all for people like Lebohang Lekotoko, who invested her life savings into making her dreams come true and, consequently, those of others.

Lekotoko is the founder and principal of the NDS Chefs Academy, now in its 11th year. Its roots founded in her concern for students that are turned away from traditional tertiary institutions due to various reasons. It was a problem that hounded her after seeing firsthand how dreams could be shattered when she was employed at Vaal University of Technology. It was a turning point in her life, and changing the lives of others, a journey she embarked on.

At her academy, that caters for both novices and employee education, Lekotoko focuses on both the practical and theoretical. “This programme enables to give the students both the college and workplace experience in equal parts. The students can bring together what they have learned in formal classes and implement it in the workplace. It also provides the students with higher education that they may otherwise not have received,” said Lekotoko.

She holds a Diploma in Food Services Management, a B-Tech and Master’s in the food sector and believes that it’s all about creating a stepping stone for people, and opening the doors of opportunity where they may have once been shut.

“Statistics show that the industry of hospitality is the fastest growing globally with no sign of slowing down. The hospitality industry in South Africa was estimated to be worth more than R20 billion in 2023 and is expected to reach close to R25 billion by 2028, “she noted, and this is why she said her focus remains firmly on achieving the same objectives that she had set out to so many years ago.

Lekotoko’s own path is marked by resilience and absolute faith, influenced by the formidable women in her life, her mother, and her grandmother.

“I embody determination, deeply rooted in faith and a profound care for the well-being of others. My strength is replenished by the joy and love I see in those around me. My character has been shaped by the formidable influence of two remarkable women in my life, my mother, Princess Anne-Shielah Makhado, and my grandmother, Rosinah Sebobochi Makhado. Their legacy is the foundation of who I am; I wouldn’t have had it any other way. Together, they encapsulate the essence of my being.”

Their commitment to the well-being of others inspires her every day.

She runs a small, core team that makes up the fibre of the business.

“I am responsible for 10 employees, each of whom supports an average of four people. This responsibility is my primary motivation. Additionally, witnessing students from humble backgrounds, initially with little understanding of the culinary and hospitality industries, achieve that moment of clarity and start earning a livelihood post-qualification, is immensely fulfilling for me,” she said.

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A day in Lekotoko’s life is quite varied, she said, handling everything from operational management, student and parent affairs, human resources, maintaining the curriculum, running the finances of the school and, of course, marketing it to attract new students. Her days are demanding, and she said that after hours, she switches off, and puts her own wellness front and centre.

Innovation in education is a constant pursuit for Lekotoko and she encourages employers to invest in the skills of their staff through further learning. She is a great supporter of internships.

“The difference is students who study through internship have someone, an angel parent paying for their school fees and enjoying the benefits of the employer having a vested interest in the success of the completion of the qualification,” she said.

Lekotoko took the idea of learning even further when she recently collaborated with the Empact Group, where she graduated from the company’s Enterprise Supplier Development programme a few years ago. She wanted to give back after, she said, the company helped her build NDS Chefs Academy. Empact is a corporate services company that offers everything from food services through to pest control, and much in-between.

Her idea was to enable their employees and their families, kids included, to pursue further education and develop either new careers or mid-life career changes to hospitality. The initiative blended, just like in her formal courses, academic learning with practical experience. To graduate, participants had to pass a gruelling, Master Chef-like in situ exam complete with pressure and taste tests.

She is presently mulling expanding the school by establishing a new branch in Limpopo, particularly in Louis Trichardt and the deeper regions of Venda, areas abundant with tourist attractions. “My ultimate goal would be to evolve into a university dedicated to hospitality studies,” she said.

Lekotoko is as dynamic as she is energised. “For female entrepreneurs aspiring to launch their own ventures, I advise daily reflection and guidance from your higher power. Maintain integrity in all your transactions, ensuring fairness to clients, staff, and others. Embrace the commitment to work harder than anyone else on your team,” she shared as some of the secrets of her success.

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