Gumbi, 43, today runs the multiple business award-winning Isivuno Container Business, a highly successful Pinetown company that converts 6m shipping containers into in-house designed small homes, offices, classrooms, crèches and ablutions for sale and rent.
Gumbi is one of two trail-blazing Kwazulu-Natal entrepreneurs who are working in the innovative fields that have made the cut as finalists in the national 2018 Entrepreneur of the Year competition.
Her business supplies municipalities, corporates, SMMEs and rural communities and was selected by the Zambian government to supply ablution facilities with showers and waterless toilets during a cholera outbreak. It offers an innovative, quick-fix solution to the dire shortage of infrastructure and service delivery in both urban and rural areas.
Isivuno has won several awards over the years, including the regional award in the 2007 SAB Kickstart Business Competition, the national award in the 2008 competition and the Regional Business Achievers Award of the Businesswomen’s Association of South Africa in 2012.
Gumbi matriculated at Ogwini Comprehensive College in 1990 and went on to obtain a BSc in home economics, followed by a higher diploma in education.
Her dream was to become a dietitian but she ended up accepting a teaching position at a high school in Lamontville, where she worked for a year and a half on a contract.
“Our contract ended and I started applying for jobs,” Gumbi said.
She got a job as a KwaZulu-Natal business development manager with Finasol, a USAID-funded organisation involved with developing banks in rural communities. Five years later she joined a small Clairwood-based telecommunications firm selling shipping containers fitted with telephones.
“That was where I realised my marketing flair, because I was doing very well and meeting my targets every month. I kept on getting the marketer of the month award every month, until I was awarded a trip to China,” Gumbi said.
“I got to see what the Chinese were doing with containers. They were building flats, houses, beautiful shops and internet cafés and there was just so much creativity that was being applied with containers and I realised one could adopt the same concept in South Africa.
“I also realised that there was a shortage of black people involved with the supplying of containers. I came back and wanted to start a company of my own,” Gumbi said.
“Coincidently, when I was marketing (still in my day job) I came across a client who was with one of the development banks, who asked me why I wasn’t starting something of my own, because I was doing so well.
“I had gone with a marketing pitch to market the product to him,” Gumbi recalled. “He said, ‘Gosh, you are so good, why are you still under someone?’”
So Gumbi approached Ithala Development Corporation to apply for funding and in 2005 she opened her business on a 2000m² plot of land in oThongathi (Tongaat).
“We bought our first few containers. We had one we used as an office, one we used as a change room for our staff and we had a few that we had converted as samples for our clients to see,” Gumbi said.
Today Gumbi employs between 30 and 40 staff and supplies her products countrywide to municipalities, government departments, entrepreneurs and corporates.
Frustrated with delays in delivering finished products to clients due to trucking firms not keeping their pick-up date appointments, she eventually expanded the business to launch a logistics division, TBN Logistics.
The company moved to premises in Pinetown in 2009. Gumbi said it had not been easy establishing the container refurbishment business in a predominantly male-dominated field.
“I battled a bit in terms of getting recognised because people did not associate such a business with a female. People always asked me for the boss. I’d tell them ‘the boss is not in, he is gone out’ and then people would realise I am the decision-maker here,” Gumbi said.
Another challenge has been managing cash flow, as the business is highly capital-intensive and is impacted by fluctuating rand/dollar exchange rates.
Gumbi is passionate about contributing to local economic growth and social sustainable development.
The highlight of her business experience has been seeing customers satisfied with the end product.
“In addressing the various challenges that our clients present us with, we have created a number of innovative products.
“These include a waterless ablution facility to address ablution challenges in rural and underdeveloped areas, the popular waterborne or waterless shower/toilet combo, and doctors’ consulting rooms to encourage people to get tested and know their HIV status. We have even converted a shipping container into a cinema before - the possibilities are truly endless,” she said.
Gumbi’s advice to women in business is that success is “a question of staying in your lane and knowing what you want and what you are doing and doing it best, because consistency pays. Competitors are rife out there so one should stay focused and persevere, because being in business is not easy.”