Thope Lekau

11/17/2011 09:02 am ET

When opportunity knocked at Thope Lekau's door, she turned it into a bed and breakfast.

As we sit at her kitchen table, eating some of her legendary freshly baked cake, Thope tells us about the debilitating reputation South African townships have for being dangerous places to visit.

"Tour companies bring visitors here but don't stop," she explains in a warm accent. "They just let tourists take photos through the bus window like they are in a zoo."

So Thope decided to change that. In 1999 she turned her modest two bedroom home--in the township of Khayelitsha--into a bed and breakfast, complete with home cooked meals, walking tours of local townships and lively stories of South Africa's checkered past.

She had very little start up capital and constantly dealt with people telling her that no one would want to stay in a poor township, especially with Cape Town so nearby. Her first guests were regularly warned not to bring their wallets for fear of being mugged.

But Thope persisted and her Kopanong Bed and Breakfast became a hit. Tourists from Canada to Australia now flock there eager for a much more authentic experience than any city hotel could provide. It's even been profiled in Lonely Planet.

Thope is no stranger to perseverance. As a child she and her family were forced by the government to move into the townships, where--like so many others--they struggled to make enough money to survive. Life was not easy as she often had to be a kind of surrogate mother to her siblings while her parents were away at work.

Years later she helped to document for legal action cases of arson on behalf of anti-Apartheid activists whose homes were being burned down by government-supported vigilantes.

So it's no surprise that Thope continues to look out for others. She has hired neighbourhood women to work for her and invited other local merchants to set up shop at her bed and breakfast.

Thope tells us she is motivated by what she aptly calls her "cake philosophy." Tourist dollars are like a cake, she says. In order for her whole community to benefit, everyone must get a slice.

"I cannot afford to eat it alone while people are hungry next to me," Thope says. "The aim is to see the money through my bed and breakfast circulate around Khayelitsha for the economy to grow."

Now guests of the Kopanong can buy crafts from local vendors, eat from the townships best produce stalls, and even be entertained by Khayelitsha's many cultural performers.

But her and other townships remain poor. Unemployment hovers at 65 per cent and many struggle to cope with HIV/AIDS. They are still largely populated by blacks, a remnant of Apartheid-era segregation.

Thope says she has no intention of becoming a highly profitable hotel manager. Instead, she wants to help the townships help themselves.

That selfless attitude caught the attention of the Washington-based Ashoka organization, which awards and funds social entrepreneurs around the world. Thope was named an Ashoka Fellow in 2003 and since then has been training women from all over South Africa to start community-based businesses of their own.

In addition to the basics of entrepreneurship, Thope teaches them about female empowerment, self-sufficiency and self-reliance. More than 100 women have been trained to duplicate Thope's cake philosophy in their own townships.

That has made her a local legend.

Despite all she has done in her life, Thope remains humble. Instead she prefers the spotlight to remain on all the women of South Africa, who she sees as pivotal to her country's development.

"We've been pillars, leaders, mothers, nation-builders and educators," she explains. "Sharing our expertise, knowledge, empowering each other and engaging in life-long learning will make such a difference in our communities."


South Africa