Noun – “An unsought, unintended, and/or unexpected, but fortunate, discovery and/or learning experience that happens by accident” as defined by

Life is a series of serendipitous moments… moments that spring up amid the mundane; moments that seem almost magical, but they’re tangible.

And that’s how it felt when I came across an online store. I knew I had to know more, not just about the products, which looking amazing, but more so, the ethos, environmental sustainability and the story behind it all. I reached out to Viki Maharaj – owner of “let’s do chai”. Here’s our conversation – which is proof of why this is a story worth telling and sharing.

Let me begin with a confession… when I first came across your business on social media, I thought it was about chai, meaning tea. But I was wrong. So what exactly is the c.h.a.i in your business?

So I have a confession too… the name “lets’s do chai” is something I have held onto for almost 10 years now and it forms part of a much bigger dream. Whether it was a catch up with friends or a meeting in the corporate world, “let’s do coffee, became an integral part of my vocabulary.  On the back of this line, I coined the business name however being of Indian heritage and growing up drinking tea, I had to put my own spin on things.

I was so determined to use the name for my store, however the original tag line was “chat.colour.create.” I realised that the name would not instantly convey what the new offer was.
I spent hours writing down ideas, what the store would be like, categories of product we’d stock and then one day, looking down at these pages, I realised that I had found the solve and could keep the name. The acronym C.H.A.I came about as a default rather than a purposeful design.

The product range is made up of 4 categories i.e. clothing. homeware. accessories. inspitationery  – I fused inspirational + stationery to make “I” work!

How was the idea for your business born?

2020 was a very challenging year, for everyone. I went through months of restructuring, section 189s, being demoted, taking a 25% salary cut, whilst still working 14-hour days, from home. I would pray every day to find something better and leave. Well, the universe granted my wish in the most unlikely way – I was offered a mutual separation agreement and found myself without a job from December 2020.

After the initial shock and anger – I accepted that I got what I asked for. After more than 20 years, I could no longer bring myself or even convince myself, to work in corporate. I am though, a sole provider, so I did not have the luxury of doing nothing…I had dreams for days but I could not fathom how to bring them to life when I had just enough money to cover my bills for 3-4 months.

I had already spent most of 2018 being unemployed – during that time I started a small craft business and subscribed to a company selling wood blocks..never did anything with them and forgot about it.

In January 2021 I got a chance email from this same company announcing that they had changed their name and their offers.

Looking at my list of ideas and their offers felt like serendipity – they had everything I was looking for. More importantly, their product was being sourced from small communities, whose livelihood was adversely affected, as they were dependent on tourists to buy their artisanal products and fabrics. After much discussion and planning I found my sourcing partner who also made it possible for me to help artisans, small groups of women and their families, to sustain their livelihood.

Tell us a bit about yourself and how much of your own personality is reflected in your business?

I am a university “drop-out”. After an unsuccessful first year of BSc, my Dad told me not to waste my time or his money, find a job and payback my student loan. The first job I could get was in a leading retail store, paying R6 an hour. I studied Retail, PR and Advanced Management on a part-time basis. Over time, I progressed and spent years working as a buyer for ladieswear and then homeware, where I developed an absolute love for colour, prints, fashion and travelling. I was offered an opportunity to go into marketing – this shifted my career into a new direction and industry with an invaluable growth trajectory.

I am a proudly South African Indian. I am best described as a modern traditionalist. I am modern in my outlook, thinking and lifestyle however my values and beliefs have been shaped my heritage, culture and traditions.

I love all things Indian and especially clothes, jewellery, rich colour and designs. I would often fuse pieces together –pairing something traditional with a western twist. I wanted to showcase my ethnic side, in a modern way, whilst still looking “acceptable” in a corporate environment (otherwise our Indian clothes were limited to saris and kurthis only worn to weddings and prayers)

The ranges I have put together, is everything I would wear or use personally – it epitomises everything I love.

As a female-owned small business, you launched during Women’s Month. How does it feel to be a female entrepreneur during these challenging times in South Africa with record-high unemployment?

Launching just before Women’s Month was actually pure coincidence. I just knew that I was finally ready with the range, the operational aspects and a website with an online store. I also desperately needed to start generating an income.

Firstly, being a single Indian woman in South Africa, is no mean feat – I have had to overcome so many stigmas from colourism to living an independent life and being unmarried. In the weeks leading up to the launch, our country was also overcome with riots, looting and racial tension – I honestly feared that being a South African Indian business would be met with resistance.

In addition, over the years, as I have grown older, I stopped putting myself out there, shying away from the spotlight, becoming more private and very risk averse. Starting this business has turned all of this on its head.

I have taken the biggest leap of faith, using all my savings. Starting a business in these unprecedented times, with no other source of income, has been the most daunting endeavour I have ever embarked on.

Yes, I am driven by the need to survive!

I have had to overcome so much – more especially relating to my health. I am at a point where I do not want to just live and work. I want to rather thrive, pouring energy, long hours and hard work into bringing my own dreams to life. Being able to do this with integrity, honesty and in the most authentic way has been liberating. However, this has only been possible because I am blessed to have an incredibly strong emotional support system in the form of my family.

All your products are sourced from small communities. Please share more about the products, materials used and the skills involved…

Our products are mostly hand made.

Artisans use traditional techniques and tools to carve wood (Indian Rosewood) blocks by hand.

These blocks are then used for printing or turned into décor pieces.

Our fabrics are 100% cotton – made predominantly through a manual process of using a loom wheel or spinning/twisting cotton by hand. These fabrics are then block printed by hand, with organic dyes. After washing and drying, small groups of men and women stitch these fabrics into the beautiful, high-quality pieces we are offering. Our papier-mache and paper products are also handmade, using traditional techniques.

So, being ethically and environmentally conscious is important to you?

This is incredibly important to me – I am passionate about recycling (it is a rule in my home) and advocate that we reduce, reuse or upcycle wherever possible.

For the business, our approach encompasses slow fashion, which essentially means we do not mass produce and use sustainable materials, namely cotton, wood and paper.

What’s been the response so far?

The response has been overwhelmingly positive – it is rare for new small, unestablished businesses, albeit an online business, to make a sale on day one. We are almost a month old – our community, on the various social platforms, has been growing steadily and we have had consistent sales with great reviews from our customers.

With the COVID-19 pandemic, almost everything has shifted online. In the past month alone, I ordered three gifts for my friends, online, and I have never been an online shopping person. How exciting is the online space for a small business like yours?

I only ever used online stores to window shop. With the onset of COVID-19, I too had to turn to online shopping as I did not leave my home for the first 5 months (I am considered high risk).

COVID-19 forced a massive shift in consumer buying behaviour – decreasing the resistance and uncertainty associated with online shopping. Established businesses saw massive spikes in their online sales whilst smaller businesses who were not online, scrambled to catch up.

I did not have the capital outlay for a bricks and mortar store and I had never considered having an online business. This change in behaviour definitely paved an easier path for us to get started. The rapid rise in online businesses generated access to a lot of information – resources and platforms were within reach. I spent a lot of time on e-commerce forums and observing established businesses for insights and learnings – this was crucial to define our niche and help design our processes and customer experience.

What’s next for let’s do c.h.a.i?

In the immediate future we would love to see the store grow so we can expand the range of products. Our long term vision is to have a physical store.
The ultimate goal though, is to scale our business so we can create employment, especially to empower women.


An inspirational story indeed, and a business worth supporting! You can connect with “let’s do c.ha.i.” online and on social media

PS. Not a paid or sponsored post – call it my journalist instincts and passion to tell human-interest stories 💙

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