These young innovators are troubleshooting South Africa

Meet a trio of talented people doing the kind of things that not only keep the cockles of your heart toasty, but that may end up changing the game for huge swaths of people in need

24 June 2018 - 00:00
Sifiso Ngobese.
Sifiso Ngobese.
Image: Supplied

It is easy to get swept up in some of the negative perceptions surrounding South Africa. Trash men are running around doing trash things, celebrity models are clogging our timelines with questionable views on Palestine and then crying when people take issue with them, and petrol costs two kneecaps per litre.

While all of this might make you want to reach for the nearest bottle of anti-depressants, the truth is that there are also talented people doing the kind of things that not only keep the cockles of your heart toasty but that may end up changing the game for huge swaths of people in need.

If you want proof of just how luminous the South African social innovation space is at the moment, pay attention to these names.


Founder of Unconventional Waste Solutions

You see them on our roads - informal waste collectors struggling up hills with bins full of recyclable material.

Former investment banker Ngobese noticed them too and, after speaking to one of them, found a way to help empower them, which led to the establishment of Unconventional Waste Solutions. It's a company that helps address the challenges faced by informal waste collectors by providing safer waste trolleys that double up as mobile billboards

Inspiration for the idea?

It came about after I interacted with a woman, Mama Poso, who is a waste recycler. When I understood what she was doing and why she was doing it - to put bread on the table - I built her a new and improved dummy trolley. This trolley became our first prototype.

How does it work?

My design makes trolleys safer for waste collectors. We also train waste collectors. I found that Poso's recovery process was inefficient, as was the daily running of her business. Most waste collectors don't utilise all the opportunities in the waste sector.

In scaling the Abomakgereza (informal waste collectors) project we realised the importance of training and skilling waste entrepreneurs. With the help of international MBA students we created a good basic training programme that re-imagines waste recovery as a business opportunity instead of a chore, necessary for survival.

We try and get our collectors involved in the waste economy - for example providing waste management services at events.

Five-year plan?

We're working with South African Breweries on a project in Tembisa and other regions in Gauteng. Our vision includes running the waste-management social enterprise in sub-Saharan Africa.


Founder of Senso

Part of being a successful entrepreneur involves spotting a gap in the market and plugging it with a clever solution.

This is exactly what Eastern Cape native Zuko Mandlakazi has done with Senso, a wearable bit of gadgetry that helps the deaf navigate the world.

Zuko Mandlakazi.
Zuko Mandlakazi.

How does it work?

Senso is focused on connecting people with people, and people with life-saving sounds. We do this through our flagship device, a wristband that interprets sounds as vibration and colour-coded LED lights.

How it works is that the user co-ordinates five specific everyday life sounds that are important, to different LED colours. For example, the sound made by a baby when it wakes up could be pink, the sound made by a safety evacuation alarm would be red, the sound made by a door being knocked or an intercom ringing could be purple and any forced entry sound, typically the sound of an intruder, could light up green.

When a baby wakes up and cries, the wristband detects that sound and translates it into vibration, making the LED light on the wearable band light up pink. The same applies for the other sounds.

Inspiration for the idea?

Growing up in the rural Eastern Cape, I saw how the community treated my aunt who is hard of hearing and lip-reads to understand what people around her are saying. Family and community members made an effort to ensure that she was taken care of, but when she came to Gauteng I worried. What if the building she was staying in caught fire while she was alone?

Biggest challenges in developing Senso?

Scarcity of skills. Competing with large companies to attract the same skills in the job market. And data - accessing information about deafness and those hard of hearing in African countries has been difficult. With the exception of a few countries, including South Africa, records and statistics are old and it's challenging trying to connect with NGOs working in deaf communities.

The next five years?

I see Senso becoming a global game-changer, a device accessible to the poorest of the poor in need of sound assist devices.

We haven't launched yet, but we've conducted focus groups and held exhibitions in a number of countries. We hope to launch later this year.


Founder of Sibahle

Black women deserve praise, but unfortunately the portrayal of said demographic in mainstream media isn't always positive. Musekiwa decided this was unacceptable, took action and formed Sibahle.

Ruramai Musekiwa.
Ruramai Musekiwa.

Inspiration for your idea?

I wanted to use creativity to transform African narratives in mainstream media. Using our beauty, our stories and our creative energy as Africans as a message to cultivate positive African stories through visual art, product design, publications, literature and ground-level activations specifically meant for African women and youth.

How does it work?

Our Sibahle projects include:

  • Sibahle Magazine, which showcases African creative talent;
  • The Sibahle Poster series, which celebrates phenomenal African Women;
  • A published African children's book called Tshomo Ya Tiisetso, which encourages literacy and the preservation of African languages; and
  • Ground-level activations like Sibahle Women's Network events. We're creating a platform which makes African creatives visible to the public.

Five-year plan?

I hope that Sibahle will become a global brand connecting creatives in Africa and the diaspora. I want to create events geared at women and curate exhibitions that will build inroads into African countries and the world. I also see an African-inspired product range including children's books, artwork and textile ranges in our future.