Words and photography by Tseliso Monaheng
When Sifiso Ngobese quit his good job at Investec his mother, Sibongile Ngobese, was angry. “He quit his job, saying he wants to do something else,” says Sibongile. There’s no money to start a business, so what would he do?”
Sifiso, who lives in Soweto, had always wanted to be an entrepreneur. But it took him graduating with a honours degree in econometrics and working in a corporate environment for six years for him to finally pursue that dream.
Three years ago he started his business, Abomakgereza, which provides trolleys for informal garbage collectors. The tough and spacious trolleys are safe and durable, unlike the bags or home-constructed pallet carts made by the collectors who scrape a living cleaning up the streets. These informal recyclers then take the rubbish to recycling plants, which are often many kilometers away.
Sifiso’s trolleys are paid for by public health adverts, and the whole project recently received backing from the South African government — as well as widespread media coverage.
Anyone who has started a social business understands what it’s like to explain what you’re doing to your parents. Here’s how Sifiso won her mother over and they came to see eye-to-eye.
Sifiso: It was long overdue. I studied econometrics and economics, and I did my honours in econometrics. I went to work at Investec and I went into risk management, but I don’t think it was my kind of thing. But I loved the culture of the bank; the entrepreneurial spirit, and I was motivated to do more because of that. I always had a passion to become an entrepreneur. I took a bold step and quit my job to focus on what I really wanted to do.
The whole idea of the trolley came about from helping out this lady who used to come to my mother’s house. She was a garbage collector, and after hearing her story that she was collecting recyclable goods in order to feed her three children, I had to get involved.
I built a dummy trolley for her, then I realised that I was creating something that wasn’t sustainable. That’s when the whole branding idea [came about]. I thought, “How about we ask companies to advertise on the trolleys?” I ran with the idea. That was about three years ago, and now we’ve got a much safer and functional trolley. Much more slick as well.
Mrs. Ngobese: I could see that he was stressing when Abomakgereza was starting; he still couldn’t say exactly what it was. I started seeing a trolley outside the house, but I didn’t want it around because it consumed space. If he had money and wanted to help out people in need, I’d understand. But he wasn’t working, there was no money, and even the little we had wasn’t enough.
Where did you get material for the first prototype?
Sifiso: It was a four-month project. I used to get a stipend from working with my mom at the tuckshop. I’d save that and buy the material month-end.
Once the trolley was done, I had to brand it as well. Because if you go to clients and you’re just pitching on a concept, they won’t buy into it. My thinking was to provide something tangible, something that I could showcase. The prototype had many challenges; the trolley was too heavy, the guys couldn’t use it because of the material that we used, so I had to go back to the drawing board.
At the same time, I was trying out another prototype. We’d won some funding from the Industrial Development Corporation. We had to go through two prototypes to get to the final one and everyone is happy with the current design.
Mrs. Ngobese: He sent me one picture.
Sifiso (to his mother): I did the first one right here at home.
Mrs. Ngobese: He bought the materials. I wondered, “Where is he getting the money for all this? And how does he pay the people who help him put it together?” I was flabbergasted, I won’t lie. So time went by. He sent me pictures of a trolley sponsored by Nedbank. I could see that the trolley was beautiful, but who would buy it? The garbage collectors?
How did you try to make your mother understand what you wanted to do?
Sifiso: Sometimes you just need to make your own bold move as a young adult and say, “I’m chasing this dream. You’ve raised me, I respect you, I love you. However this is my baby and this is my vision.”
Chances are she won’t understand at the initial stages, but it’s also your responsibility to say, “Listen, a lot of people have supported me throughout the years, and therefore I need to make sure that I deliver.”
You can’t be having a vision or a dream and not put the right steps, the right energy, the right effort behind it, and the right mindset. She didn’t understand, as she said, but at the end of the day it was my decision.
Looking back over the past three years, can you see the progress?
Mrs Ngobese: Yes! He’s able to provide for some things now, and I’m thankful to God for that. Even when he goes overseas to Israel, to China, I don’t mind waking up to pack for him and to see to it that all his stuff is ironed well. I’m the one who asks, “Do you have your passport? Do you have your ID?” I’m very happy, I won’t lie. I’m really thankful to God. Maybe there was something I wasn’t understanding as a parent. Usually, when your child says that they want to start a business, you want to see a big building. He’s strong. He sets his mind onto something and he does it.
How does that make you feel after all the ups and downs you endured?
Sifiso: It’s a huge blessing. Leaving a job, a comfortable lifestyle and going into the wild and facing life by yourself is a huge challenge on its own. If you don’t have a solid support structure, it’s going to be even more difficult. Luckily, I have a phenomenal family. My mom is supportive. My two brothers as well. Even though they didn’t agree with my decisions, they supported my dream and my vision.
Additional photography by Mesuli Macozoma
Originally published on Red Bull Amaphiko