Durban scientist Bathibile Mpofu’s small business is a textbook case of how successful entrepreneurs have the ability to spot a real problem in the world and come up with a solution that inevitably results in a successful business idea.
Mpofu, 37, had originally wanted to be a doctor, but the lack of proper equipment by way of a laboratory in her school’s science classroom shattered her dreams.
Now she is making strides in fixing this problem by bridging the gap between under-resourced schools and the opportunities a career in science can offer disadvantaged children.
Instead of becoming a doctor, she has designed and developed the ChemStart science kit for school pupils, which she sells to companies and NGOs that distribute them to needy township and rural schools, and she sells directly to parents.
Her branded product has resulted in her winning multiple awards – she won the Total Startupper of the Year Award, came third in the recent Engen Pitch and Polish competition and third in in the SAB Foundation Social Innovation and Disability Empowerment Awards, also winning a prize for being the audience’s favourite project out of 24 contenders.
Mpofu matriculated at Impumelelo High School in Mahlabatini near Ulundi, and when she didn’t make it into medical school she registered for a BSc degree, majoring in chemistry and cell biology at what is now the University of KwaZulu-Natal.
She then worked as a technician in the laboratory, preparing science experiments for students while she studied for her honours degree.
“When I worked at varsity I could see a lot of learners struggling with science, meeting science experiments for the first time – which was something that I understood because because that’s what happened to me,” Mpofu said.
“The first year was so overwhelming, and in the first session you get to the lab, they allocate you your lockers and give you a list of items in the locker and say check if you have got everything. But you do not know what a volumetric flask is and what a measuring cylinder is. And at your very first session you are already feeling left behind and it is like that for the rest of the year,” Mpofu said.
“In 2015 I started a mobile lab. I bought chemicals and glassware and went to schools and showed them science experiments.
“But then I thought the impact of it is actually not much, because it is still me doing the science experiments, and learners are not doing it, and it is a one-day thing. I thought maybe I should create a kit based on the curriculum so that learners can do the experiments themselves.”
Mpofu then went on to work as a research scientist for the Technology Innovation Agency, which funds entrepreneurs’ projects, where she focused on helping entrepreneurs with the development and analysis of their products.
But when she won the Total Startupper of the Year Awards, which injected R600 000 into the business concept that she had been developing on the side, she took the leap and quit her job of seven years to pursue her business goals.
From scratch, she designed a chemistry experiment kit that has 52 different experiments – one a week for the whole year – suitable for Grade 10 to 12 pupils. The kit comes complete with a manual she authored and will eventually also be sold with videos. She sold her first kit to a science club, Science Spaza, in Pietermaritzburg.
“I am trying to get to the Department of Education, because there are also larger kits – a whole steel cabinet of science equipment for the classroom – that teachers can use to do experiments,” Mpofu said.
She said that as far she was aware competitors made the cabinet kits but there was nothing on the market quite like her small kits.
She is also investigating supplying her kits to private schools around the province.
“The reason this is important to me is that growing up I was a bit of a sharp child, and my parents said to me, you will grow up and become a doctor, and I believed that and that’s what I wanted. But because high school education didn’t prepare me for that and I didn’t perform well at varsity and I didn’t enter medical school, I felt this all happened and it’s not really my fault.
“Working at varsity, seeing many other students (doing science) change careers, I just felt it’s not right and I could relate to the problem, so it has now become my mission.
“I help young people become scientists,” Mpofu said.
She has sold more than 750 of her science chemistry kits and taken on a staff member to help with the workload.
She recently moved into business premises in New Germany and is now planning to focus on developing science experiment kits for physics and measuring kits for maths.
“We want to create videos of all the experiments so learners can watch them, and the longer-term vision is to reach a point where every child in South Africa can say ‘I had my own science lab’,” Mpofu said.
“The solution is here now… it’s just a matter of it getting it into the person’s hands,” she said.