Siyabulela Mandla, township entrepreneur, has empowered himself and his companies with knowledge, hard work. Photo: Supplied

JOHANNESBURG – If there ever is a master chef of entrepreneurship, Siyabulela Mandla fits the bill. The 37-year-old who describes himself as a township entrepreneur says his success in modelling businesses can be distilled into what he calls a triple E strategy entrepreneurship, enterprise and employment.

“That’s kind of my DNA… my business philosophy,” he says.

“You must have the ability to navigate. You need to consider the environmental impact of the business and also consider the longevity and cycles of the business – it is not a short-term outlook. I don’t believe in getting into businesses with a lifespan of only three or five years. A business must create jobs.” 

But do not be fooled into thinking that this success came easy. It came through sheer hard graft, determination and self-empowerment. 

He had to defy his background of being a product of a township in Nelson Mandela Bay, Port Elizabeth. He says like most products of  township, he almost did not get the opportunity to go to college. His  parents did not have money.

However, he managed to get work as a machine operator and cleaner at US-based firm, Visteon South Africa. The automotive supplier focused exclusively on cockpit electronics.

But Mandla wanted more. After just three months, he asked a production manager if the company would fund his studies.

“To my surprise he came back on the same day, and he said I could register for whatever I wanted to study and they would pay for it on one condition, never fail,” Mandla says. “And then I went on to study.” 

His career path opened up leading him to hold different positions from being a machine operator to production team leader, technical assistant, technician and then becoming an electrical engineer. 

“I started to get interested in business. I enrolled at the Nelson Mandela Business School and did an advanced business programme. And that was my way of testing my business acumen because I was always very technical. As a young boy I used to make cars out of wire. After that I enrolled for an MBA.”

“The lady who enrolled me for my MBA told me I was going to fail. I think it was based on the fact that I was technical. I think there is a myth that if you are technical you can’t transcend and understand business. She almost scared me, but I decided to do it anyway.” 

Mandla said that he thought that if there was something written in a book he could read it and learn it. “The story ended very well. She became my biggest supporter. At graduation, I reminded her that she had told me I was never going to make it. She just laughed! We are still good friends today.”

After graduation, Mandla wanted to give back to his community.

He started a car wash, approached the local municipality to use a vacant building to create jobs and give people an opportunity, who had no training. 

He also wanted to raise money by entering competitions, winning his first R100 000 at SAB KickStart Business Competition in 2011.

He also entered the Seda stars business competition that year and won that as well. Later on he became a National Gazelles SME programme winner. This month, he was a finalist in the Entrepreneur of the Year Business Competition.

Successes led to a string of businesses – 469 Carwash & Café, 469 Bar Lounge & Butchery, Patapata Lifestyle, and Kasi Craft Beverages in Motherwell and New Brighton.

In 2013, Mandla decided he had climbed the corporate ladder. 

He left Visteon to go into waste collection in the township.

“I started a company collecting waste in the township to collect and buy,” he says

A friend introduced him to Brian van Niekerk, who headed Rhino Plastics, and got exposed to the manufacturing side of the waste business. 

“After talking to Brian, I decided to approach the Industrial Development Corporation (IDC) for funding to become part of the company,” he says. “It was a marathon process for a year to convince them.”

He struck a deal with the IDC and started a new company trading as Rhino Manufacturing.

Mandla also came on board as managing director with a 41% shareholding as part of the business restructure of Rhino Plastics with the remainder held by Rhino Plastics, headed by Van Niekerk.

The company recycles plastic waste that is converted into pellets, which in turn are melted down and used to manufacture new plastic products.

It also manufactures film for the construction and agricultural sector, irrigation piping for the farming sector, high-density polymer pressure pipes and industrial packaging.

He says he wants to get Rhino Manufacturing involved in fibre optics and to manufacture recycled garden furniture. They have a client in Zimbabwe.

“There is a huge opportunity to sell our products in Africa.”

He also sees opportunity in the public sector, not just private.

When asked about how he manages his time as an MD as well as owning other companies, Mandla says with so many business in play, he says you have to have a business model and people to run those businesses. It all starts with education, he says.

“I cannot emphasise it enough!”

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