The founder of one South African student start-up that won a trip to a 10-day residency programme at the University of Basel in Switzerland, in June, has called the trip an eye-opener presenting endless possibilities for his venture.
Mr Matimba Mabonda (second from right, below) is a Master of Science, Chemical Engineering student at the University of Cape Town and the founder of Lola Green, a company that converts waste plastic into eco-friendly bricks and roof tiles. These fire-resistant, durable products offer a solution to their currently circulating competitors associated with high greenhouse emissions. For that reason, Mabonda sees Lola Green as a viable response to the United Nations’ Sustainable Goal 13 – that seeks to combat climate change.
The trip to Switzerland was a reward for presenting a winning business prototype at the Academia-Industry Training workshop of the Swiss and African Science and Business Innovators (AIT-SASBI) programme that doubled as SASBI’s Spring Conference in South Africa in February 2023. The conference was co-hosted with Universities South Africa’s Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education (EDHE) programme, an SA partner in the SASBI programme alongside participating associations in Kenya, Ghana, Nigeria and Rwanda.
Mabonda was one of South Africa’s two students chosen alongside two others (one from Rwanda and another from Nigeria, respectively), to go showcase their businesses in Switzerland. The four were picked among a total of 10 who had pitched their businesses at the February conference in South Africa. The competing businesses were all aligned to the theme of Social and Tech-driven Innovation for Impact.
SASBI, which focuses on science-based student start-ups — particularly related to clean-tech and ed-tech — connects students with relevant industries and partners to help them develop their business ideas for the marketplace. Through this project, Switzerland and the selected African countries promote and advance entrepreneurship within higher education and raise awareness of cross-border opportunities.
Attitude change and heightened belief in growth
Mabonda says the Swiss trip evoked in him increased belief in EDHE’s Entrepreneurship Intervarsity, which saw him scoop the Studentpreneur of the Year award for his Lola Green business in 2022.
He says this exposure transformed his outlook on entrepreneurship – from perceiving innovation and disruption as not being wholly embraced and supported with funding, especially in South Africa — to now appreciating real growth prospects for his enterprise.
The young man says while discussing collaboration and expansion possibilities for Lola Green with his other African counterparts in Switzerland, he began to appreciate just how welcoming of innovation some countries on the continent are. He however accepted that the solutions he is offering may not necessarily resonate with everyone.
Experiencing life in Switzerland
The 30-year-old says experiencing life in Europe was indescribable yet exhilarating. For one thing, seeing the efficiency in the public transport system was both fascinating and a cultural shock. “There, 11:07 is 11:07,” he says, laughing.
His itinerary (from 18 to 27 June) entailed visiting start-up hubs, attending business pitching sessions, hearing out investors and listening to entrepreneurship narratives of other nations, including Korea. He says the visit exposed him to vast networking opportunities – essential for successful entrepreneurship.
As he flew back home on 27 June, he came to the realisation that even though he and his peers had represented a developing continent at the University of Basel, they were competitively clued up on entrepreneurship. He felt confident about what he already knew, for instance, on conducting market research to support a business idea. At no time did he feel out of place or inadequate, he says.
The Giyani, Limpopo-born man says his interactions in Switzerland confirmed what he already believed — that one’s environment does influence the success of their start-up — negatively or positively. He learnt to not be afraid to adapt or pivot when circumstances so dictate.
He also learnt that it is acceptable to keep working on one’s innovation, understanding that “it would get off the ground one day because it is happening elsewhere, and it is a daily reality for someone,” he says. He also learned that instead of fixing one’s gaze on one business model, it helps to be versatile and try other ideas, staying confident that, at some point, something will work out, “mainly because we are addressing a problem.”
Overall, Mabonda says seeing ground-breaking inventions in Switzerland was completely inspiring.
He says although investing in innovation can be regarded risky, his passion for ingenious solutions keeps him going. He has learned, over time, to focus on the problem he is trying to solve — instead of the solution. He says that assists when pivoting is required. One obstacle that is a reality in South Africa, his home country, is red tape. He sees partnering with other entities as one way to manoeuvre around red tape, especially “where you see possible growth for your enterprise.” He also emphasises the need for flexibility in entrepreneurship, noting that a fixation on solutions and timeframes can cause frustration when things do not work out as intended.
All in all, he feels that the visit to Switzerland exposed him to people who approach business differently – by planning, doing, seeing results and then improving. “That was very helpful.”
Gratitude to EDHE
He salutes the EDHE team for making this trip a seamless experience. From his visa application to briefing him on what to expect in the destination country, the team held his hand and ensured that everything worked out.
He also credits the programme for the successes in his journey as an entrepreneur, saying he was able to avoid certain pitfalls along the way, because he was thoroughly equipped. Regarding networking, he simply calls the EDHE team “brilliant.” He credits constant feedback from different people on one’s business model as one of many enablers. “EDHE offers that.” Thus, Mabonda has no doubt about success prospects regarding Lola Green.
“With the scourge of unemployment in South Africa, EDHE plays a vital role in encouraging us, young people, to pursue entrepreneurship and to impact the challenges of our time,” he says. “Since my involvement with EDHE, I have realised that we young people matter; and that we can make a change.”
Nqobile Tembe is a contracted Communication Consultant for Universities South Africa.