It was no surprise when Mr Matimba Mabonda (left) was named overall winner of the EDHE Entrepreneurship Intervarsity and EDHE Studentpreneur of 2022, and walked away with R120 000 to put into his business.
His winning Innovative Business Idea (he won both in Category One of the competition, and the overall title) is so ingenious and so completely sustainable – he wants to manufacture bricks from waste plastic – that everyone at the Intervarsity Finals could see this revolutionary business grow and soar.
The Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education (EDHE) programme, which organises the annual Entrepreneurship Intervarsity, is a facility of the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) implemented in partnership with Universities South Africa (USAf).
The 30-year-old University of Cape Town (UCT) Chemical Engineering Master’s student outperformed 24 national finalists from all 26 South African universities – drawn out of the initial 1682 successful submissions across the system. There were 866 entries in his Innovative Business Ideas category. UCT contenders, winning in three of the four categories, earned bragging rights and the Winning University 2022 title.
Pitching his business idea to a panel of five judges last Thursday, Mabonda began by saying: “Existing material production methods have a huge negative impact on the environment. This is problematic in light of climate change.” He added that statistically, the construction material industry is responsible for 11% of the Green House Gas emissions, something that the sector plans to reduce by 40% in the next eight years – by 2030.
Mabonda’s company is Lola Green – named after a character called Lola in a song he wrote and loves to play on his guitar. Green emphasizes the core of his business.
Innovative use for plastic waste
Lola Green uses plastic waste to manufacture durable construction products. Mabonda said: “We took our roof tiles and brick MVPs (minimum viable products) to the market to test our assumptions, and we are redesigning our roof tile as per the feedback received, with a strong interest in bringing the brick to the market at an early date. Our bricks are eco-friendly, durable, and fire resistant.
“This market is valued at over R369 billion and with a serviceable, obtainable market of R40-billion, we seek to tap into 2% of it.
“We are initially targeting eco-property developers as they continue to seek relevance in their field by switching to green and sustainable construction products. This gives them access to benefits such as tax and rebate incentives as well as a global green outlook.” Lola Green is unique in that there is a quick lead time due to the relatively short production process. A brick can be produced in under five minutes using no cement and no water. This, the studentpreneur said, sets his company apart from both direct and indirect competitors.
How they intend to make money
“We have a business-to-business revenue-generating model. Waste plastic is sourced from waste pickers and plastic packaging corporates.
“Our production cost per unit is R1.69 and with a markup of 78%, our gross margin is 56% and we expect to break even in a year and a half.” The first MVP was made in 2021. Mabonda and his team are in the process of de-risking his product with UCT. They are also building their first house in Johannesburg which will be the prototype; they plan on commercialising in early 2023.
He said: “We’re progressing well on local and global pitching platforms and need R3 million to get our business going.” He plans on spending his R120k win on improving the design of their products. “Our production methods to date have been manual and inefficient. A small version factory would help optimize our prototype methodologies.”
One of the judges, Mr Sakhile Xulu, Managing Partner at Seed South Capital, called Lola Green “a great product” adding that Mabonda’s had been “a world-class presentation”.
However, he said going to market could present problems because of existing competition in the space. “What would you do to educate the market on the importance of going green? Is your product better in terms of cost than existing products, and is green an added benefit?”
Mabonda responded that they had segmented their target market into three sections and decided to go with low-hanging fruit. “Your eco-property developers are already in tune with that. We didn’t want to start with the guys who are using carbon-intensive products. We encountered resistance when we approached them so started with a market that was more responsive.”
Another judge, Ms Chantal Lee-Ann Terry, General Manager and Head of Operations, Fetola, congratulated Mabonda, saying: “The product is amazing. It is the future.”
A third judge, Mr Lukhanyo Neer, Chairperson at Heavy Chef Foundation, said it was a really good concept. He asked about the cost of sourcing waste and the cost of manufacturing the brick as compared to that of his competitors. Mabonda explained that they used existing waste pickers who had legitimate businesses that sort and separate the waste. Lola Green also sources from solid waste.
Mabonda’s triumph was witnessed by an audience that comprised Intervarsity 2022 finalists and their supporters, including representatives from university departments driving the entrepreneurship programme. EDHE staff, USAf’s senior officials, universities’ executive leadership as well as senior representatives of DHET, the sponsor department, were also in attendance.
Affordable product with a shorter turnaround time
“When we work out the cost at a production rate of 2,9 million bricks a year, at a production cost per unit of R1.69, we compare with existing bricks prices and find that we are affordable. Your premium face brick costs around R6 and we cost R3 per unit. If you consider economies of scale, more bricks will push our price down. Also, we will not rely on electricity but operate on biogas. We plan to be off the grid.”
Yet another judge, Ms Michelle Chavkin, Founder of Michelle Chavkin Attorneys, asked if there were any other competitors in the eco brick space and, if there were, how Lola Green prices compared with them. Mabonda said: “We’re higher against some, and lower against others. But we are quicker in our production time. Our bricks take five minutes to make, to be ready for use. Our competitors have a turnaround time of up to seven days.”
Mabonda is passionate about sustainability
In an interview after his win, a delighted Mabonda explained that he was passionate about sustainability. “It ties to our resources on earth from any angle. My family calls me a ‘hoarder’. I never let go of waste material, always thinking there’s value in your dustbin, in solid and organic waste. I’m wired in that way; wanting to understand the life cycle of our daily materials, considering the diversion of waste from landfill to resource.”
Regarding Lola Green, Mabonda says he feels that he is onto something great. “This is a chance to clean the environment: by removing waste material from landfills and by decarbonising the construction material industry. Our efforts over the past year have been encouraging – we’re working hard at sensitising people about green building.
“We need collaborative action with relevant stakeholders – government; communities and corporate partnerships – for us to take off.”
His parents, who did not have formal education, did ‘piece jobs’ most of their lives. He says he watched his dad, who works in construction, “work hard, building houses and plastering; standing in the hot sun the whole day. So, specifically armed with my chemical engineering background, I began exploring ways to add value to the construction industry.
“From an end user’s perspective, I realized they could do with lighter materials to make their job easier ergonomically. So, I decided to find ways to make my father’s job easier by looking at the type of building materials used. This led me to discover the growing demand for sustainable construction products. The world, and this specific industry, is starting to see the importance of operating sustainably. I began experimenting with different materials to see which ones could be synthesized without compromising the quality of the craft.”
The Mabonda family moved from Giyani, Limpopo to the south of Johannesburg when he was a teenager. Early schooling for young Mabonda was at Bvuma, Loloka Village in Giyani. He attended high school at Altmont Technical in Protea South, Soweto.
“I wanted to discover my true self and stretch my limits and UCT’s reputation was interesting and aligned with my thinking, so that’s where I went.”
Saving the planet, he says, is of critical importance.
Decarbonising the planet
“The decarbonisation of our planet resonates with me – with chemical engineering at the core. There’s a chance to save most of what remains, and I want to be part of that. The effects of global warming are undesirable. I do not want to look back and ask why we did not do better. Also, now that I’m aware of the problems, it’s hard to look away. This is our home; I think it’s worth taking care of.”
For young entrepreneurs, he has this message: “Entrepreneurship is about problem-solving. There’s no such thing as a born entrepreneur. Not sticking only to your area of study increases your chance of success. Develop a collaborative mindset; discuss your idea with friends and colleagues.’
Mabonda said EDHE was a platform to network with other entrepreneurs. “I want to thank the whole EDHE team at UCT, especially Sustainability & Impact (Careers), Nadia Waggie, new venture support manager at the Research Contracts and Innovation, Niall Naidoo and Lecturer, Professional Communication Studies, Alison Gwynne-Evans.
“Also a HUGE thank you to my supervisors, Dr Malibongwe Manono, Professor Kirsten Corin and Dr Lisa October who were supportive from day one. They helped me win best presentation for my Master’s in the Southern African Institute for Mining and Metallurgy Mine Impacted Conference 2022.”
Charmain Naidoo is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.