Tshibvumo Sikhwivhilu’s Lamo Solar specialises in harnessing the power of the sun for energy. Photo: Supplied
JOHANNESBURG - A health scare underground forced a young engineer to reconsider his views on global warming. Tshibvumo Sikhwivhilu, who is asthmatic, struggled to breath in a coal mine while doing his internship, motivating him to think of alternative ways of doing what he was passionate about while accommodating his health.

He says his experience forced him to explore an idea of starting a company that could produce renewable energy. Going green resulted in the establishment of Lamo Solar.

The company specialises in photovoltaic (PV) technology generated from the sun through solar panels. As chief executive of the business, Sikhwivhilu says Lamo Solar helps people save money on electricity bills and ensures that energy security is available.

“The core of our business is based on three things: Saving money, power security and responding to climate change across the globe. The heart of why we exist stems from a realisation of that.” Sikhwivhilu says his health problems were a contributing factor to sourcing alternative job opportunities that were based on engineering and in line with what he had studied.

“My first degree (BSc electrical engineering) was sponsored by a mining firm and I did vacation work in the mine. Because I’m asthmatic, I had breathing difficulties when I was underground and I spent a lot of time down there.” The company started when he and a friend developed interest in technology during their final year of studies at the University of the Witwatersrand.

Tshibvumo Sikhwivhilu’s Lamo Solar specialises in harnessing the power of the sun for energy. Photo: Supplied

Today, the friend, Elmond Khoza, is Sikhwivhilu’s business partner. “The course content was very much fossil fuel heavy,” Sikhwivhilu says. “The power systems that we were studying more rigorously were fossil-field based and there was very little content that would put emphasis on renewable energy.

“When we got a research project that was tailored around renewable energy, we grabbed the opportunity and conducted a feasibility study of solar PV technology on one of the roof tops of the institution.” But the biggest challenge for the young entrepreneurs was funding - a usual hiccup for start-up businesses.

But the struggle did little to deter Sikhwivhilu from fulfilling his dream of opening his own company. He says the Lamo Solar has since evolved from nothing, where they had zero capital, to a formidable business.

“We bought the tools and equipment that was required to roll out our solutions with the deposit money we got from our first client,” he says. “Our first client was referred to us by our professor. We made a proposal and he was happy, so he asked us to implement the solution.

“That provided us with an opportunity to learn a lot about technology from a technical and financial perspective and how it would contribute in the lives of ordinary people.” Sikhwivhilu says in order for a business to be successful, the question of what value it was creating for potential clients needed to be asked.

“Up to the point where small businesses are able to identify the value they are able to create and pass on to clients then they are bound to compete and run a successful business. We are very customer-centric, the clients’ perceptions post a sale matter the most to us because they become our agents and refer clients to us.” Almost every businessperson states that starting a business is challenging and many of them fail.

Lamo Solar is no different. Sikhwivhilu describes business as “sinusoidal” - it has its highs and lows, with good days and bad. But his team of five permanent employees and six temps keeps him going. “Many of our team members are married with kids; they are able to feed and sustain their families. I find great delight and pleasure to give them enough money to provide for their families.

“After the third month of our operation, that’s where we got a break. We celebrated that with all that we had because our margins were really low but we wanted to gain traction. “We have seen substantial growth in our business since then - almost tenfold.” The 28 year old from Khubvi village outside Thohoyandou says that when he was younger he never thought about going to university because there was no money for tertiary studies.

“I come from a family of three and we had two cousins who lived with us. With the stipends my parents earned, it was impossible for me to go to university. “When I was in Grade 12, one of my classmates had a bursary form. “We made copies and applied. That was our one-way ticket to university.”

Sikhwivhilu was one of the students who were awarded the bursary to further their studies. He came to the city in 2007 and studied towards a degree in BSc in electrical engineering.

Before starting Lamo Solar he had two failed businesses. “During the course of my studies I sold gadgets, and at some point I ran a spaza shop on campus. “I also made a lot of friends on campus and joined a number of student societies. I was a chairperson at the residential house that I stayed at for two years.”