Paving his way from homeless to own business

Business owner, Vangai Rice has overcome illegal immigration, homelessness and isolation.

Vengai Rice has overcome illegal immigration, homelessness and isolation but now years later, as the owner of his own business based in Hout Bay, he can say it was all worth it.

“Yes, the tunnel is dark, but at the end, there might be light,” he says.

For those who don’t know his story, Mr Rice, 40, comes across as an ordinary man trying to make an honest living. However, just over 12 years ago, he was a beggar on the streets of Cape Town.

“My name is Vengai. We used to be called Mupunga. It was a Shona name. But because the white settlers didn’t know how to pronounce our surname, he asked my father what Mupunga meant in English. My father said rice, and now that is my surname. Everybody calls me Rice.”

Mr Rice, who now lives in Samora Machel, near Philippi, lost his job in 2006, the same year he lost his father.

When the government was hit by sanctions, the jewellery manufacturing company, Aurex Holdings was forced to retrench
3 000 workers. With Mr Rice now expected to be the breadwinner for his eight family members and children of his own, his only option was to flee Zimbabwe.

“It was hard to get a passport because of politics in Zimbabwe at the time,” said Mr Rice.

In order to escape to South Africa, he had to travel illegally by foot and cross the Limpopo River. He, along with the other refugees, made a human chain by holding hands.

“There were many of them that tried to make it, but they died on the way. The most difficult part is leaving them behind,” said Mr Rice.

When he came to Cape Town, Mr Rice was homeless for the first few months. It was this period of his life that opened his eyes to the xenophobia in South Africa. “I wasn’t taking a bath, not combing my hair. The clothes I was wearing were dirty. If I approached someone who doesn’t know my story, they perceive me to be mad or a drug addict.”

Life started looking up after Malcolm Watkins from Grassy Park took Mr Rice in and taught him brickwork, painting and other skills that would later lead to the creation of Rice Home Maintenance, a building and construction company.

“I call him my father now, we’re like family. He took me off the streets and found me a shack. I was so happy, I almost shed tears,” recalled Mr Rice.

While working for Mr Watkins, Mr Rice was saving money to send home and pay for his tertiary education. He completed his certificate at Northlink College in Belhar and passed the trade test, in order to be qualified. The dream of starting his own business was the driving force behind all his hard work.

After a quiet period of having no work, Mr Rice started applying for gardening jobs.

Jennifer Hume Wucherpfinneg, a Claremont resident, decided to employ Mr Rice as a gardener once a week. After a few months of working for her, she finally sat him down and helped him get his dream started. 

“She’s the one who helped me to buy my own bakkie and register my company. She bought the bakkie and put it in my name. All of the smalls jobs I had, I saved money bit by bit, until I could pay her back,” said Mr Rice. “We’re still very close, and keep in contact often.”

Years later, Mr Rice has employed eight workers.

“As a black person and as a foreigner, it wasn’t easy to get clients. You have to earn that trust, it isn’t handed to you on a silver platter,” said a smiling Mr Rice.

For all your interior and exterior renovations and maintenance jobs, contact Mr Rice on 078 217 0217 and find successful project pictures on his Facebook page.