Sihle’s Brew: From part time gardener to owning a coffee empire

When the founder of Sihle’s Brew wrote his final matric exam paper he was starving.

It’s that same indelible hunger that made Sihle Magubane vow to never return to that place in his life.

The 36-year-old’s journey reads like the script of a biopic – a classic tale of “from nothing to something”.

At a relatively young age, Sihle had to navigate the struggle of survival after a series of events forced him to take on the responsibilities of an adult.

His domestic worker single mother Thoko Zungu died after suffering an asthma attack when Sihle was 16 years old. As a result, he instantly had to assume the role of a parent to his two younger siblings, Buhle (now 34) and Simo (now 31), at their Sydenham informal settlement home in Durban.

“My mother and father were separated but they never actually divorced. He was living somewhere else at that time,” Sihle explains when we meet him at his Barista Love coffee shop in Johannesburg.

“It took me two weeks to bury my mother because I didn’t have enough money for the funeral,” he adds.

Thoko had been in and out of hospital before she passed away, which meant Sihle had to take on odd jobs to put food on the table.

“I used to work part time as a gardener from Monday to Thursday and then at a pizza shop from Thursday to Sunday,” he says.

But the money he’d saved from those jobs still wasn’t enough. Sihle said he had to stop feeling sorry for himself and asked for contributions from community members, finally laying Thoko to rest shortly after.

When an opportunity to work at the Hilton Arts Festival making coffee and cleaning presented itself, his life changed forever.

“I tasted cappuccino for the very first time and that’s when I fell in love with coffee,” he says, although the high caffeine content kept him up for four days.

“I used to drink instant coffee, but this was a different experience for me,” he adds.

From then on, his mind was made up that he’d pursue a career in the coffee industry.

“I met a gentleman called Roberto Monterrage while I was working there and he said I needed to relocate to Johannesburg if I wanted to pursue a career in coffee,” he says.

Armed with the lingering taste of cappuccino and a dream, he worked relentlessly to rewrite his life.

Sihle heeded the advice of Roberto – who at the time was the manager of the company Sihle worked for during the festival – and packed up for the City of Gold as soon as he was done with his matric exams at Wiggins Secondary School.

“Roberto organised a job for me at the Brightwater Commons shopping centre and that’s where I started my barista training, and the following year I was promoting coffee in store. I was then approached by Pick n Pay and appointed as a product specialist for five years.”

He registered his company in 2012, when he realised there was more he wanted to do in the coffee world.

Since then, he’s been training baristas and running mobile coffee stations for corporate functions and other events.

Sihle’s Brew currently shares shelf space with internationally renowned coffee brands in certain Spars, Food Lovers Markets, coffee shops, barbershops and even Crawford Preparatory School, but there’s still more on the cards for the young company.

“We are opening five coffee shops in collaboration with GO Health Club. One will be in Cape Town, three around Johannesburg and the other in Durban,” says Sihle. “We’re also going to create an amazing healthy instant coffee brand for Nigeria and South Africa,” he adds.

He has also trained 20 baristas for free so far since he founded his company.

“I was trained at no cost and I’m giving back in the form of training. If we can't hire them, we find them a job.”

Sihle says coffee has changed his life completely.

“I went from a gardener to a businessperson. I laugh sometimes when I think how coffee and milk can take you a long way.”