Made it, with five minutes to go

Gone are the days when Tshibvumo Sikhwivhilu,30, and his partner Elmond Khoza,31, would conduct their solar business, Lamo Solar, out of the boot of their car. Today the two are the proud owners of one of the bigger solar technology companies in South Africa. Things changed for the better when they came across the Eskom Foundation’s Business Investment Competition (BIC) on Facebook in 2016. They decided to put in their application and managed to send it in just five minutes before closing time.

“That became a real leaping frog for our solar business. We were identified as the engineering and construction winners. That came with a good R100 000, which was a lot for our small company,” he said.

He said the winnings went into procuring some of the equipment which they are still using today and has allowed them to specialise.

“Another portion went to my landlord so that we could continue operating from the office and not from the boot of our car,” Sikhwivhilu said.

Lamo Solar currently employs 12 people and they provide renewable energy solutions to specifically rural under-privileged areas.

Sikhwivhilu is an electrical engineering graduate from Wits University with capabilities in design, analysis and problem solving as well as critical thinking. He is currently completing his Master of Business Administration (MBA) at the Wits Business School and is investigating the economic viability of distributed generation of renewable energy in rural parts of South Africa.

He said things were not smooth sailing at first, especially as a small micro-owned business and providing technological solutions such as solar technology which requires substantial capital.

“It was hard for us to get the necessary trust from our potential clients. You’d walk into a client’s home, office park or building and explain that the solution they require to provide electricity and to start saving on their electricity bill will cost them some odd R500 000. Then they start looking at you and think that ‘this one is taking chances with us’. However, for us the biggest trophy was putting our brand alongside the Eskom brand and telling our intended and potential clients that we may look like fly-by- nights, but we have an award from Eskom for the work that we have done,” Sikhwivhilu said.

He said they did not only win, but they also received eight months training at the Eskom contractor academy.

“At the time I knew nothing about submitting a tender and that training came in very handy because after I completed it, we managed to get a sizeable tender from the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, which was for a megawatt solar facility. So, I cannot begin to emphasize the journey, the growth and the skills dispensed to us by the Eskom Foundation’s BIC.

Sikhwivhilu said small businesses have got the potential to help transforming the  country and the BIC makes this possible.

BIC spells ‘growth’

A major thrust of the Eskom Development Foundation is to give SMEs an opportunity to grow their businesses through its Business Investment Competition (BIC).

With the right support small businesses have the potential to transform the country’s economy.  But to access funding is not easy – which is where the BIC plays a role.

Manana Maboe, BIC programme manager, says the competition opened on 9 September.

“SMEs which have been in operation for at least two years still have a fortnight to enter the competition, which will close on November 6. It is open to registered SMEs in the engineering/ construction, manufacturing, agriculture/agri-processing as well as trade/service sectors,” Maboe said.

She said after the closing date there will be face-to-face adjudication where the SMEs will represent their cases. The winners will be announced on December 4.

The overall winner will receive R300 000, winners in each category R131 250, the first runner-up R75 000 and the second runner-up will walk away with R50 000.

“The winners and the finalists will then be part of the Eskom Foundation’s ‘business connect’ on December 5 and 6. This is for networking and match-making purposes. We will connect them with government departments, big businesses and other prospective clients. The event will include top speakers, business experts who will advise them on new and prevailing trends. They will also get an opportunity to showcase their businesses,” Maboe said.

The applicants should submit an online application at

Listening to the experts

Access to marketing is one of the biggest problems for small businesses in South Africa. This view was expressed last Thursday during the Sowetan Dialogues with the Eskom Development Foundation. It was held at the Gold Reef conference centre in Johannesburg.

About 120 entrepreneurs attended the event and had an opportunity to listen to a panel discussion on ‘Turning South Africa’s economy around through the success of small business.’

The panel consisted of Pavlo Phitidis, CEO of Aurik Business Accelerator, Donald Mabusela, Customer Care at the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), Andason Chibvamushure, business advisor from the Small Enterprise Development Agency (SEDA), Shingisanai Bvunzawabaya, Senior Consultant Strategic and Operational Advisory Services for SMMEs at Murongi Consulting and Tafadzwa Madavo, COO at Riversand Incubation.

The discussions, which were led by MC Victor Kgomoeswana, started with questions and concerns from the audience. The entrepreneurs complained about the difficulties of getting tenders as the result of  corruption, and added that not everyone is looking for funding but needed assistance with marketing.

Kedibone Kgathe, 37, from Fresh Bakery in Nellmapius near Mamelodi, complained about the difficulties of getting funding. He has been business for three months and was producing 100 loaves a day.

Phitidis said  building a business goes way beyond the product. “The product is a small thing of what makes up a business. There is nothing that will ever motivate a funder to back up anybody who says ‘help me because I am trying’ or  ‘I am struggling’. If you rely on that for help and assistance it will never come. You need to collect the numbers to demonstrate the demand,” Phitidis said.

Chibvamushure said the ladder was designed with steps for a reason. “Imagine if we see the ladder without the steps, it makes it difficult to be usable. For you to grow your business, you need to start on the very first step. As SEDA we always say to entrepreneurs: come, sit down with us, let’s talk and see which steps you need to follow so as to grow. In a lot of cases entrepreneurs want to jump steps, then they find themselves going nowhere. Also, research is important for an entrepreneur as the business industry is constantly evolving,” he said.

Madavo said business was a number’s game. Entrepreneurs need to question themselves continuously and translate everything into numbers. This was echoed by Bvunzawabaya, who said every business is based on numbers.

It was concluded that entrepreneurs were under-utilising social networks which were available for free. It emerged that social media can also grow a business by loading up a WhatsApp status about the business and posting it on Facebook.

The entrepreneurs were impressed with the knowledge they got from the discussions. Henry Shushu  (40) of Orule Projects, said it was the second time he attended the discussions. “Today was  different as I learned that I need to ask myself as to why am I doing business. I have learned that it will not help to sit  and wait for government. We need to do things ourselves,” Shushu said.

Sibongile Masia, 49, founder of Sibongile Petronella Masia Pty (Ltd), said the discussions were very helpful as they don’t always know who to talk to when they need advice about businesses. “It was good that they brought the panel together from different backgrounds. One really needs to know more about one’s business before going out looking for funding,” she said.

Helping job creation by helping SMEs

Helping small businesses is one way to help with job creation and one of the aims of the Eskom Foundation’s Business Investment Competition (BIC).

Speaking at the Sowetan Dialogues, the Foundation’s CEO, Cecil Ramonotsi said: “The competition aims to  encourage entrepreneurship by recognising and rewarding promising small businesses as well as providing a platform for them to become part of a community of like-minded entrepreneurs.

“As the foundation we are responsible for various programmes and we believe in making a positive contribution to job creation. This initiative is a great example of what we want to achieve,” he said.

The (BIC) is aimed at black-owned small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in the manufacturing, engineering and construction, trade and services as well as agriculture and agri-processing sectors.

Registered SMEs who have been operating for two years or longer, can enter the competition. The overall winner will receive R300 000 while winners in each category will take home R131 250. The first and second runners-up in each category will win R75 000 and R50 000 respectively.

The prize money will help to address one of the problems small businesses face.

According to the SME landscape report conducted by Adclick Africa in 2018 and launched by SME Africa, access to funding is a major stumbling block for SMEs with only 6% of them indicating that they have received funding from the government.

About 85% of SMEs who were surveyed said they believed that government was not providing them with enough support.

Also, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, SMEs account for about 60% of employment and between 50% and 60% of value added and are the main drivers of productivity in many regions and cities in developing countries.