Sifiso Ngobese

Hurdling the speed bumps

Words: SETUMO-THEBE MOHLOMI
Photo (right): Sydelle WIllow Smith

Sifiso Ngobese’s road to successful social entrepreneurship has been far from smooth

Sifiso Ngobese is a Red Bull Amaphiko Academy graduate who spotted an opportunity to provide recycling trollies to street reclaimers, and then to sell advertising space on the side of those trollies.

But his road to success has not been smooth, and Ngobese has learned plenty along the way.

THE RED BULLETIN: What hurdles have you have faced and overcome?

SIFISO NGOBESE: Sometimes not believing in myself. Because of the number of “Nos” that I received; the number of people telling me, “Your idea won’t work”; even within family, people say, “You’re educated, why don’t you go back to work? Get a job, get a wife, have kids.” It was hard – there were times when I didn’t have enough to put petrol in my car. But having qualities such as tenacity, perseverance, persistence and fighting spirit are how you overcome it. But you’re not going to self-motivate all the time. Sometimes you need to cry, pass out and wake up the following day to challenge life.

Sifiso Ngobese

People say: “You’re educated, why don’t you go back to work? Get a job, get a wife, have kids.”

How did you stand out academically in a school you describe as “dodgy”?

I think a lot of teachers believed in me. I was perceived as a good boy. I had a lot of mischief but I kept it very well under cover. If you work hard, teachers tend to recognise that. It wasn’t a dodgy school per se, it was one of the top schools back in the day.

Sifiso Ngobese

© Warren van Rensburg

But it went bankrupt because of corruption and some of the sponsors pulled out and it just went down the drain.  And unfortunately I was caught up in the process of it going down the drain. There were times when we had no teachers at school; we didn’t study at all. We would probably go out and have a beer.

What challenges did you face at the University of Johannesburg?

Mainly finances. Luckily I qualified for a bursary which required that you raise your registration fee and then your tuition and accommodation would be covered.  Raising the registration fee was a nightmare. If your parent said, “I don’t have money, dude”, you had to go to family and borrow money. Luckily I got the money, registered and paid it back bit by bit to family members. And I’m very grateful to my family for that.

And working in corporate finance?

I was wet behind the ears. I didn’t understand how the corporate world works. I used to be a banker and I used to wear these green pants with a purple shirt and a grey tie. Even small things like being able to hold your own in a conversation, those are soft skills that are very important for a lot of young professionals. Sometimes it depends on the kind of schools you went to, or on the grooming you had from your parents. I think some of those things I taught myself. I’m glad that I went through a place that was very harsh, very straightforward. How I overcame it was by taking a step back and observing.

Tell us about being a young entrepreneur in the green industry, where green is seen as something white people do in South Africa.

Personally, I don’t think it should be black or white. It’s a societal thing. There is not a strong culture of recycling. I’ve seen lots of opportunities within the sector and people are making good money within the green space. I’m not directly linked to the green space because I’m more of a media company than a green company. It’s just that those two are intertwined in my business.

If you think of abomagereza, they are entrepreneurs and they are taking advantage of these opportunities. The mere fact that a guy can wake up at 4 o’clock in the morning to go through my rubbish bin demonstrates a lot of entrepreneurial qualities: tenacity, hard work, perseverance. It’s just that they need guidance, they need a bit of structure. And that’s what we do within this project.

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