Our Great Stories

Inspirational conservation and social projects. Most can be met if traveling.


See all Great Stories by Roddy Bray
See all media by Roddy Bray in the Multimedia Library

How can a wiry-haired surfer, who works 4 hours a day, have started more than 70 businesses and social initiatives in South Africa?  Charles Maisel is making a huge impact, especially in very poor communities where, typically, other projects falter and fail.

Charles Maisel is one of South Africa's leading innovators

Innovation is at the heart of what Charles Maisel does. He loves the diversity, the excitement and freshness of a life spent creating one remarkable project after another: when asked his favourite of the dozens of business and initiatives he has started, he says "my next project is my favourite”.


Photo © PaulGodard.com - Charles Maisel - Innovator - Great Guides The more quirky the idea the more he enjoys it: he has started lavender farms and processing in the bleak township of Lavender Hill; he taught a small group of women to pluck chickens in the way leg-waxing is done, which has given one former township chicken-plucker her own business selling the wax (and saved 100s of women a lot of plucking).

Yet he hardly mentions other projects that have become massive... Men On the Side of the Road has been a powerful way for unemployed casual workers in South Africa to gain qualifications and access work. Black Umbrellas is a national scheme to support entrepreneurs, with a current budget of 25 million rand a year. He is not one for boasting, or resting on his laurels.
Men On the Side of the Road became a massive skills and employment project


His mantra is ‘read the newspapers.. they are a bible of opportunity’. His test of a good idea is ‘did you get it while reading the newspaper?’ Ideas on a surfboard, or on the loo, are likely to fail, only what is ‘buzzing’ in society will take-off. He reads 10 papers a day. This is his discipline and something he says an innovator must practice. He is not trying to see ‘gaps in the market’. He wants to see what is there and ripe for innovation. If vandals are destroying school blackboards, why not paint the entire classroom in eco-friendly blackboard paint (and give every child chalk too, since many cannot afford paper and pens)? If people in townships love tripe, why not start a franchise called "I Love Tripe” (he did, and sold the first 100 portions in 45 minutes). If shack fires are destroying people’s documents, why not get insurance companies to sponsor fire-proof boxes (500,000 distributed in 6 months). And pre-fabricated, pay-as-you-go township street gyms (sold 30 in the first day).



Charles’ gift is that he sees things in a lateral way: a picture of angry, demonstrating youth holding fighting sticks, demanding jobs... Charles sees this image and immediately starts planning a company that organises township stick-fighting competitions (it now employs 35 people and has become a huge success). Or, he might read a story about how government cannot afford to fix potholes in the roads. So he starts a company that builds roads using rock shaped into massive rectangular blocks (as the Romans did); this employs lots of people and the road will not need maintenance for 300 years. This company is now doing multimillion rand projects in South Africa and Rwanda. Photo © PaulGodard.com - Charles Maisel - Innovator - Great Guides
Tar roads in Africa often fall into disrepair



Photo © PaulGodard.com - Charles Maisel - Innovator - Great Guides Charles is not an entrepreneur, still less a ‘social entrepreneur’. He describes himself as a ‘Social Artist’. He looks at the world and he sees opportunity. A wine farmer lamented that his staff were only really busy at harvest time each year.... Charles looked at the vines and saw the leaves ‘why not make dolmades?’ (stuffed vine leaves popular in Mediterranean cuisine). The farmer now buys leaves from surrounding farms and he has a thriving business! For Charles this story is emblematic of what he does... he can ‘see the leaves’, the potential in everyday things that the rest of us seem to miss.
The farmer could see the vineyard.. Charles could see the leaves


Artistry is part of his success. He sees what is already there, connects it to an idea and makes it visible to the rest of us in an exciting way, just as an artist does. His ideas are ‘unique, innovative, evocative’. But he is not only an artist... he is careful to test his ideas, and not afraid to wander into a township and ask two guys to see if they can draw a crowd stick fighting (they did – 1000 people in 15 minutes). And he has a bold personality and large networks: he is not afraid to get his ideas into the media in a big way, nor to call up businesses and philanthropists and ask for their sponsorship on a big scale. They trust him, because his ideas work, always. As soon as a team is in place he walks away and doesn’t get involved any further. Then it is on, to the next idea, whatever it may be.

Author: Roddy Bray
Published Date: 25 Nov 2011
Location: Southern Africa | South Africa
Themes: society | social development, business

Petra Vandecasteele on 20 Dec 2011

Hi there!

What a great story, love every bit of it. It just shows that there are really amazing people doing amazing things. Thank you for sharing!