In a bid to earn funding for their Uber-style startup — for consultants, not cars — Nomuntu Ndhlovu and her then business partner entered into a pact in 2016 to quit their well-paying Johannesburg jobs. Ndhlovu gave notice on Friday and heard nothing from her friend all weekend. “She called me on a Monday and said she was moving to London,” Ndhlovu says. The young entrepreneur, then 25, dealt with the shock by planning her own trip — only she was headed to the tiny village of Steenbok to see her parents, a place she never could’ve guessed would present her with a far better business opportunity.
In impoverished, rural Mpumalanga, Ndhlovu was reunited with a childhood acquaintance, Siyabonga Tshabalala, who asked if she’d tweak the business plan for his fledgling waste management and recycling business. She improved the plan so much that Tshabalala offered her 30 percent of the business, SiyaBuddy, eventually upping her stake to 40 percent “to make sure she stayed,” Tshabalala says.
She did stay, and today SiyaBuddy is one of very few companies extracting value from waste in rural South Africa, where only 10 percent of trash is recycled, with the rest getting burned or buried. What’s more, the firm expects to add another income stream to what it earns from sorting and selling waste to firms in Pretoria and Johannesburg. In the next year or two, SiyaBuddy plans to start converting waste into electricity and biodiesel, thereby saving the government money, creating jobs and benefiting the environment.
Because Ndhlovu’s artisan dad and teacher mom were always running side businesses, there was “no such thing as a work-free weekend,” she recalls. Meanwhile, she excelled in school, and the family eventually moved to larger Malelane so she could attend a high school with “white teachers and access to computers.”
James Brown, a director at AIA, was struck by Ndhlovu’s natural confidence and ability to “dive into the details and add real value.” By the time she left in 2016, he recalls, she had been a team leader on numerous projects (oil and gas, public sector, engineering) and — as Tshabalala would soon find out — had mastered the art of writing a kick-ass proposal.
IN RURAL SOUTH AFRICA, RECYCLING IS VIRTUALLY UNHEARD OF DUE TO THE GREAT DISTANCES PEOPLE MUST TRAVEL TO REACH A BUYBACK CENTER.
At just 22 years old, in her first year at AIA, Ndhlovu was inspired by Rich Dad, Poor Dad (a book about the importance of financial independence) to purchase a rental apartment in Hillbrow. The property, she says, caused “a lot of headaches,” but she went on to buy two more apartments. In 2015, Ndhlovu spearheaded a bid with other investors to buy up an entire block. She’d done her homework on the property but neglected to check up on the selling agent. When he took off with their deposit, Ndhlovu had to sell two properties in order to pay back her fellow investors.
Fast-forward to 2016 and the beginning of her involvement at SiyaBuddy. “Almost as soon as Nomuntu came on board,” says Tshabalala, the company landed its first funding (some $380,000), from the government-owned Industrial Development Corp., and secured premises on a 49-acre landfill site on the outskirts of Steenbok. “What we’re doing is nothing new in the West,” says Ndhlovu. “We collect, sort, bale and sell.”
And SiyaBuddy hopes its plans deliver even greater benefits. The company has secured access to a second landfill site and is now focusing on “maximum beneficiation,” says Tshabalala. The company currently recoups value from just 60 of the 700 tons of waste that arrive at its site every month, but this is set to change when its plans to install a waste-to-energy plant bear fruit. In South Africa, the biggest challenge with turning waste into energy sources is access to waste, says Markus Esterhuyse, the founding director of renewable energy specialists NGR Resources. “But Siyabonga and Nomuntu already have that sewn up.”
If money isn’t the obstacle, SiyaBuddy’s remote location surely is. It costs around $1,000 to send a single load of waste to Johannesburg or Pretoria, where all of the beneficiations takes place. And Esterhuyse says they’ll have trouble selling electricity to the grid from their current site. Not surprisingly, Ndhlovu and Tshabalala have ideas to address both concerns. “We’re thinking about running our trucks on biodiesel,” says Ndhlovu, and they’re planning to set up their waste-to-energy facility in the (much larger) municipality of Mbombela.
In writing Ndhlovu’s final performance review, Brown pointed out just one weakness: a tendency to “let things slip if she’s not continuously challenged or engaged.” Judging by her ambitious plans for SiyaBuddy, it doesn’t sound like that’ll be an issue anytime soon.
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