The Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education (EDHE) programme is on a mission to cultivate entrepreneurial students, entrepreneurial faculty and entrepreneurial universities. In line with that mandate, programme leaders invited four previous winners of the annual EDHE Intervarsity finals to share important learnings and insights with prospective entrepreneurs at the Studentpreneurs Indaba that concluded at the University of the Western Cape (UWC) on 5 September 2023. 

The annual Studentpreneurs Indaba supports student entrepreneurs by giving them access to critical knowledge, opportunities and networks to aid their business endeavours.

Through the Entrepreneurship Intervarsity, EDHE aims to identify, recognise and showcase the top student entrepreneurs from South African public universities. Now in its fifth edition, this event provides studentpreneurs with a platform to exhibit their skills, talents and entrepreneurship flair to a broader audience of investors, business leaders and mentors. The competition consists of four categories, namely, Innovative Business Ideas, Existing Businesses in Tech, Social Impact and General. In 2023, another category, of Research-Based Businesses, will be added to the Entrepreneurship Intervarsity, in a bid to encourage the commercialisation of research.

Exponential growth after winning EDHE Entrepreneurship Intervarsity

Ms Chido Dzinotyiwei (right) is a Co-Founder of Vambo Academy, a platform that offers access to learning resources and teaches indigenous languages including ChiShona, IsiNdebele and IsiZulu. She said witnessing the start-up grow has been empowering. It currently boasts 12 languages, accessible through a tutor offering virtual one-on-one sessions, or through the use of self-learning tools.

Dzinotyiwei won in the category of Existing Business – Tech in 2021.

She told her peers at the Indaba that the business was born from recognising a market gap in teaching indigenous languages. She understood that proficiency in indigenous languages did not just enable conversations; it also empowered people to participate commercially in the markets in whose languages they are proficient. 

She said since the competition, she and her partners have been continuing on that trajectory, over time adding more languages representing South Africa, the southern region, and now planning to expand to East Africa. The Vambo Academy has also started partnering with tertiary institutions.

Even though they have encountered challenges along the way, the resources and networks accessed through EDHE chiselled them through those hurdles. For these reasons, Dzinotyiwei said the Intervarsity exceeded her expectations.

Mr Mvelo Hlophe (left), is the Founder of Zaio and the 2019 winner in the Social Impact business category. Hlophe also scooped the 2019 Studentpreneur of the Year award – making him the first winner of this award in the year that the competition was first introduced. He said the company had since slightly pivoted from the original model. Whereas they initially offered digital skills training in coding and assisted students with securing part-time jobs, now they target companies, equipping their employees with digital and technical skills. They also work with incubators and non-profit organisations within and outside South Africa.

Hlophe said one of his best takeaways from the Intervarsity is the interaction among peers in entrepreneurship, that EDHE facilitates. 

Having relocated from Cape Town to Johannesburg in 2022, he reconnected with the entrepreneurs he had met through the competition – relations which have since opened other doors for him and the business. Not forgetting the already established professionals and businesspeople they met as the competition progressed, Hlophe said those also played a pivotal role in their growth. He advised the studentpreneurs to approach them with candour and strive to build a rapport before they can expect to strike deals.

Mr Denislav Marinov (below), Founder of Amnova Tech that develops and manufactures products using 3-D technologies, also lauds the EDHE Entrepreneurship Intervarsity as a fantastic opportunity. He agreed that the peer-to-peer networking is an awesome element in the contest.

He said Amnova Tech prides itself on rapid yet sustainable production. They serve clients in agriculture, the automotive and medical industries as well as the Internet of Things.

Marinov, who contested in the Existing Business – Tech category in 2019, said their objective is to localise manufacturing and enable Africa to industrialise ethically and sustainably, all while pushing to make a global mark. “We want to bring manufacturing back to the continent because we have the resources, the workforce, and yet we ship resources abroad and then buy products back at ten times the cost,” he said.

Speaking on life after the Intervarsity 2019, Marinov said they have since acquired more people. Amnova Tech is now established in Randburg, and they plan to set up a production plant and showroom in Cape Town.

For Mr Matimba Mabonda, the current holder of the Studentpreneur of the Year title, exposure to EDHE equalled being connected to a community with plenty of coaching opportunities. The Founder of Lola Green, a manufacturer of durable construction products made from recycled material, said EDHE helped him position his business brand. They are currently piloting the production of pavers and building blocks.

Mabonda (right), who won the Intervarsity in the Innovative Business Ideas category in 2022, said winning the final round of the competition took practising and reciting his pitch daily. That is the advice he offered the contestants in the 2023 competition that has now reached the regionals stage. That practice meant using his family, friends and classmates as his audience, who, in turn, provided feedback by asking questions and giving additional inputs. He said those recitals reduced his stage fright as his confidence grew. 

He revealed that after the EDHE Intervarsity, the Lola Green idea has gone on to win other entrepreneurship contests. He said engaging in such spaces is mainly about creating a business network, which he believes will build him into a dynamic entrepreneur.

Utilising the prize money

These entrepreneurs utilised their winnings in diverse ways. Vambo Academy used it to add the Swahili language, hence their ability now to tap into the East African market. At Zaio, the money enabled their acquisition of interns, thus capacitating the business further. Amnova Tech used the cheque to buy equipment and machinery while the prize money helped Lola Green to refine their products. They still have a chunk of their winnings and intend to use the rest in lab-testing their prototypes.

Opportunities extending from EDHE networks

Dzinotyiwei and Mabonda got the opportunity to compete with other African student entrepreneurs for a 10-day residency programme in Switzerland, which they won in 2022 and 2023, respectively.

The Swiss trip was a reward for presenting a winning business idea at the Academia-Industry Training workshop of the Swiss and African Science and Business Innovators (AIT-SASBI) programme in the two consecutive years. SASBI focuses on science-based student start-ups, particularly those related to clean-tech and ed-tech. It connects students with relevant industries and partners to help them develop their business ideas for the marketplace. Through this programme, Switzerland and the selected African countries (Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda and South Africa) promote and advance entrepreneurship within higher education and raise awareness of cross-border opportunities.

Dzinotyiwei and Mabonda attested to that reality, with the former saying the addition of Swahili to Vambo Academy followed the Swiss trip. Mabonda revealed that he is in talks with Swiss-based organisations as they plan to take Lola Green forward.

Both students called the Swiss trip a life-changing experience and implored the studentpreneurs to remain connected to the EDHE network.

Nqobile Tembe is a Communication Consultant at Universities South Africa. 

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