“Success is living a purposeful life”How the Red Bull Amaphiko Academy graduate Sifiso Ngobese gave something back and found success in an unlikely place – his trash
Social entrepreneur Sifiso Ngobese, 31, found his calling by working with recyclers near his local community in White City, Johannesburg. He realised that abomagereza – people who recycle refuse for a living – needed better equipment and a way to improve their lives. But before he could be in a position to help, he had to complete a personal journey of discovery.
THE RED BULLETIN: You started your career in investment banking and went through a ‘finding’ phase. What was that like?
SIFISO NGOBESE: Yes, exactly. I had to discover who Sifiso Ngobese is and what he’s about. I took my car, toured the country, met a lot of people and did a lot of community work. I fed the poor and went to schools to donate stationery to kids. I really felt I was a human being. I felt alive. But I realised it was not sustainable. It was nice to give a hand-out to a mother living in a shack in the Free State, but when that grocery pack is finished, that’s it. So I went into business.
What was that?
A fish and chips franchise with my two brothers. I ran that for two years and felt good about it, but something was missing.
I’ve always wanted to do a unique project that has a social impact, but that’s also a business venture. Something that can generate profit, but also touch people’s lives.
What happened next?
There was an old lady who used to come to my house every single Friday to collect recyclables from my trash. One day I thought, “Let me ask what she’s doing and why she’s doing it.” I was moved by her story: she was collecting paper so she could support her three children. People like her are known as abomagereza – they sort through the trash looking for paper, plastics and metals, and sell them to recycling companies. By the time that short conversation was over, I knew I wanted to do something to help. It took me back to that road trip – I felt the passion to get involved.
So you made a new trolley and donated it to her?
Yes, but the first trolley was a dismal failure. She said it was too heavy. To cut a long story short, two years later we created a safer and lighter trolley for abomagereza. We took into account many different views, including abomagereza and the Johannesburg Metro Police department. We also came up with an idea to make the project sustainable by displaying advertising on the carts, which would help empower abomagereza.
They are given new trolleys and equipment, but they also receive a share in advertising revenue if a company brands the side of their trolleys. These people often come from very poor backgrounds and live in slums or at dumps. We need to correct that and contribute something positive – that’s how the profit-sharing idea first came about.
What inspires you?
One word: legacy. I want to leave something I’ve built with my own hands. As a young black entrepreneur, I want to leave a meaningful legacy in my community. Ten years down the line, if a young boy comes up to me and says: “My father used to be part of the abomagereza project and it meant he could send me to school” – if I contributed to that, that’s a legacy.
You’re an alumnus of the Red Bull Amaphiko Academy, which is a launch pad and support programme for social entrepreneurs. How have you come to define success?
Success is being content and living a purposeful life. When children are born, they have a gift that needs to be handed over to the world. I think everyone has that gift. Giving back is part of success.
How would you describe your business philosophy?
Keep it simple. We put all kinds of things into food when sometimes the best meals are seasoned with just salt and pepper. I’m from Soweto, and it made sense to do this. I didn’t have to go to Sandton and speak with a twang. I just saw an opportunity. Maybe that’s the salt and pepper for me.