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Two Flimsy Pages – The Difference Between Disaster And Fortune

Poet Rudyard Kipling once wrote: “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you…” Mining entrepreneur Tim Tebeila lived it.

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How do you come back from this? You’ve lost the life savings of scores of poor people who trusted you; the company that was the key to your fortune has abandoned you; your dream of building a mining empire is in tatters and you are broke. What do you do? Go back to the office and go to sleep? Surely not. Tim Tebeila was used to hardship. He was born, the third of seven children, to a laborer in the remote village of Sekhukhune, in Limpopo, in the north of South Africa. From an early age, he walked barefoot through the mountains to school—15 kilometers each way.

“It was very tough. In winter you had to wake up at four o’clock andevery day you were still late. I was lashed for being late every day for two years,” says Tebeila. As he grew up, Tebeila hustled a living selling apples on the streets. “I think entrepreneurs are born, they are not made. It is a talent, like being a soccer player, but you have to nurture that talent.” To make his life even more complicated, Tebeila was drawn into politics and became one of the leaders in the South African Youth Congress. At nights, often he would sleep in the mountains near his home to avoid arrest.

At the dawn of democracy in South Africa, in 1994, Tebeila decided to quit his job to chase his dream of becoming a mining magnate and set up a company, Sekoko Resources. In those days there were very few black entrepreneurs in mining. “My dream was always to own a mine. My dream was to build a conglomerate similar to that of Anglo American. My belief was very simple; when the Oppenheimer family startedAnglo American they started the same way I did. Not by buying other companies, but getting their ownrights and developing them.”

Getting these mining rights proved a nightmare a million miles from the dream. Tebeila was turned down 10 times, and every time he rolled onto the couch in his Polokwane o­ffice and wept. In 2002, he used his last R100,000 ($13,500) to pay consultants in pursuit of yet another mining right. He found out too late that the money was non-refundable and ended up losing both the rights and the cash.

In 2004, he identified the asset he felt could make his fortune and prayed for better luck. Soutpansberg was an estimated 200 million tons of metallurgical coal, under 11 farms, covering 8,000 hectares, near Mussina on his home soil of Limpopo. On April 19, 2005, the government granted Tebeila a license for the site and he was set to chance his arm with consultants yet again. The bigger problem was that Tebeila did not have any money left to explore and the banks were refusing to lend. He needed R1.5 million ($195,000) for exploration and struck on the idea—as was fashionable in latter years of black economic empowerment—of gathering the money from the people who lived in the villages near where he grew up.

So on a crisp winter’s morning near Bela Bela, in the heart of the country’s northern Waterberg coalfields, hundreds of curious villagers gathered to hear what their brother planned to do in return for their life savings. “I remember it was a very cold day and I had a stomach problem… There were many people there that day, old people, disabled people and even chiefs from the community. I told them I needed their money and could make them all rich,” says Tebeila.

The next day, a blind woman shuffled into Tebeila’s offi­ce and handed over R15,000 ($1,950) in cash—her life savings. “This touched me a lot and it showed belief in the project. The chiefs followed and they represented the community. My feeling was at least we have got people who are backing my dreams and people who believe in my dreams. After all the long stress of turned down applications, this was going to be it.” Full of hope, Tebeila paid R600,000 ($78,000) to a firm of geological consultants and R900,000 ($117,250) to drillers to explore for coal at Soutpansberg. Little did Tebeila know that his worst day—like the coal itself—was lurking just beneath the surface.

The alarm bells started ringing when Tebeila spent weeks chasing up the paperwork from the consultants. To his horror, he found out that the consulting firm—which had been riven by strife—had dissolved almost overnight. To make matters worse, the geologist had fled to Australia with the exploration report under his arm. It meant Tebeila was mired in a project without information, money or hope; where he was landed with being the geologist, lawyer, environmentalist and engineer of a “I couldn’t phone a blind person, who had given her last money, to tell her that I had lost everything.”

“I felt I was down and I would notwake up. I felt really bad. This was my second loss. I got that money out of struggle and it had gone. I was very down, but I never thought of quitting. Every time I had hardship, I always went and slept in my office. I went back and slept on my couch. I slept for four hours. I do this because it is both meditation and praying for an answer. I woke up with the solution.”

The answer lay in a laboratory in nearby Witbank. Because Tebeila was hands-on during the exploration he knew the laboratory used by the consultants and the people who worked there. He sped to Witbank, more in hope than expectation.

In Witbank, lady luck at last cracked a smile on the Soutpansberg coal project. The laboratory was able to salvage two pages of exploration data for Tebeila. Luckily, the two pages contained the all-important drilling data. A lifeline for the coal mine; for Tebeila these flimsy pages were manna from heaven.

The struggle was far from over. Tebeila spent five months trying to sell the idea of a coal mine with his two pages in hand. There was a glimmer of hope when the Brazilian resources giant, Vale—the driving force behind Mozambique’s mighty Moatize coal project—showed interest, but there was a language barrier. Vale needed to send the proposals to Brazil for translation into Portuguese, but this was going to take months and Tebeila neither had the time nor the money.

What did he learn?

“I think I have learned the art of perseverance and how it works. I learned to persevere no matter what. I learned to stick to my dreams. I want to build a new Anglo American and I am doing that.”

At last, the sun broke through the clouds for Soutpansberg. Tebeila got a phone call, while he was driving, from Coal of Africa— an established player in the South African industry.

“Coal of Africa made me an off­er to purchase 74% of the assets for R70 million ($9.1 million). They also pledged to spending R100 million ($13 million) to take the project to a bankable feasibility study. “It’s the biggest deal I have ever closed on a cellphone while I was driving. The following day, they signed. Two years later, they o­ffered me R20 million ($2.6 million) for the remaining 26% and gave me the capital to finance my present project, Waterburg Colliery, which will mine up to 15 million tons of coal-a-year by 2019.” Sekoko Resources survived it all, diversified into iron ore, and is set to reach turnover of R10 billion a year ($1.3 billion) by 2019. And what of the people who handed over their last bundles of cash way back in 2005? “They got their dividends. They got all their money back and they made 300% back on what they gave. Some built houses out of that money. I felt very proud,” says Tebeila. So, coal’s well that ends well.

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Agriculture

Green-Sky Thinking

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In Johannesburg, city-dwellers like Linah Moeketsi have taken the future of sustainable farming into their own hands. Where land is becoming scarce, they look to the skies.


Doornfontein is one of Johannesburg’s older inner-city suburbs with decaying buildings and dingy alleys that wear a dour, monochrome look.

Daily commuters and street surfers jostle with delivery vans and mountains of metal scrap but the grey of the concrete city makes it hard to believe that there could be a patch of green in a most unlikely location.

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Above the humdrum of life here is a rooftop hydroponics farm looking down on the city, but upwards to a new route to restoration and urban preservation.

Atop the eight-floor Stanop building – offering a breath-taking view of the city and the landmark Ponte Towers in the distance – one woman has made it her mission to turn a grimy grey terrace into a green lung on the city’s skyline.

“City life is taking on a totally new direction… even people who think they couldn’t one day farm, find themselves on rooftops,” Linah Moeketsi tells FORBES AFRICA.

Moeketsi grows herbs, used to treat non-communicable diseases (NCDs), in a 250m x 500m greenhouse on the building’s terrace. But her rooftop farm is sans any soil – it uses a hydroponics system.

“I think because we are in the city and we would like to produce for people in the city, hydroponic farming is one of the answers because you can actually harvest more than twice the produce, and the growth rate is quicker and there is produce that you can have throughout the year that people demand because it is in a controlled environment,” she says.

On a windy Wednesday morning in October, we meet Moeketsi at her aerial green facility, a couple of days before she is to send some of her plant produce to the market.

She talks about her journey as an offbeat farmer. It all started when her father fell ill in 2013, when doctors failed to correctly diagnose his disease.

“They couldn’t see that he was diabetic. He didn’t show the signs of diabetes, but he had this foot ulcer that just wouldn’t go away,” she says.

“The future of city farming is great simply because we have more and more young people getting into this space. Even though it’s farming, they are looking at it from a very different angle.

Moeketsi decided to do her own research, so she read up books on African medicinal plants and used some herbs that belonged to her late mother, who had been a traditional healer.

“It took me a good eight months to help my dad and I actually saved him from having an amputation.”

The news of Moeketsi curing her dad’s diabetes using herbs spread. Sadly, her father died in 2016, at the age of 87. But she is proud to have helped prolong his life.

“So he passed away in his sleep, not sick, nothing, he was just old. But he was always grateful; he was like, ‘even when I die, I’m going to die with both my limbs’, so we would make a joke about it.”

READ MORE| Businesses At The Heart Of A Greener Future

After her father’s demise, Moeketsi rented some land and turned her knowledge on natural herbs into a fully-fledged farm. However, when the owner of the land returned, she was forced to vacate.

Land was always going to be a problem in the city. But instead of giving up, Moeketsi looked to the skies.

“Because of this passionate drive for an answer, I found myself researching what’s happening outside Gauteng and South Africa, and I saw in Europe, they were farming on rooftops,” she says.

In 2017, her dream became a reality when she secured a deal with the City of Johannesburg as part of an urban farming program, and started the rooftop project a year later.

When we visit her greenhouse, we are welcomed by the sweet lingering scent of herbs. It’s hot and humid, and two fans whir away to cool the air.

Moeketsi walks around the greenhouse wearing dark glasses and a white jacket, with a syringe in hand – she could easily pass off as a medical doctor.

She elaborates on the hydroponics system. There are four pyramids, each attached to their own reservoirs of water. On each pyramid, different plants, ranging from spinach, lettuce, sage, parsley, basil and dill, rest on beds with pipes connecting them to the reservoirs. Moeketsi plucks out one of the pipes and inserts the syringe; water spouts out of the tube and she returns it to the bed.

“Twice a day, you have to check that water is actually going through the pipes, because that’s how the plants get water and nutrients,” she explains, as she unblocks a pipe using the syringe. She says it’s one of the best ways to farm using little water.

“When you put in certain plants in the greenhouse, you know you are guaranteed sustainable farming because you can produce those plants and harvest them,” she says.

Moeketsi adds that this allows her produce to stay consistent season after season.

“So, from that point of view, it makes the city more sustainable in terms of food produce that is easily accessible and cost-effective for the consumer because not everyone around here can afford the high prices of food but they can at least afford what we sell, whether it is at R10 ($0.5) or R15 ($1).”

As Moekesti continues to tend to the plants, a farmer she works with walks in and begins filling up the reservoirs.

Lethabo Madela has known Moekesti for almost six years.

“When you look around Johannesburg, there is no space, so rooftops have saved us a lot, especially those of us that love farming,” says Madela. “I’m learning a lot and I think she [Moekesti] changed the whole concept of farming for me because I used to farm vegetables. I didn’t know culinary herbs or medicinal herbs.”

Moeketsi speaks of other farmers around the city who have taken to the rooftops to farm plants such as strawberries, lemon balm, spinach and lettuce.

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In a suburb called Marshalltown, a 10-minute drive from Moeketsi’s farm, Kagiso Seleka farms lemon balm also using hydroponics.

He produces sorbet and pesto from his produce which is then used to make ice cream.

“It [hydroponics] is great for farming sensitive plants in terms of temperature. Lemon balm does not like frost. But it’s better to grow even out of season so you can set a higher price,” he tells us.

However, he says hydroponics farming is a luxury not many farmers can afford.

“It [hydroponics] does have a bit of a higher capital upfront, but you get a higher yield and higher quality, so people are willing to pay more. Hydroponic planting saves about ninety five percent of water soil farming in a water-scarce country,” says Seleka.

READ MORE| Local Solutions Can Boost Healthier Food Choices In South Africa

“We do have water shortages, and I know people are on the whole ‘organic trip’ but, is it more important to have an organic plant versus a water-saving environment?”

The Program Coordinator for Agriculture at the City of Johannesburg’s Food Resilience Unit, Lindani Sandile Makhanya, says there certainly are more rooftop farmers in Johannesburg now than ever before.

Converting idle terraces into avenues of profit is becoming a norm. There are new rooftop farms being set up every day, offers Makhanya.

He regularly visits Moeketsi’s farm to check on the progress and collect produce to sell.

“Urban farming in Johannesburg is rising, mainly because the idea of producing our own food is very important because most people are moving to urban areas and therefore it stands to reason that we have to try to produce as much as possible,” says Makhanya.

“[There is growth] even in animal production, although we are moving away from the bigger numbers, but we are involving the smaller ones; because of the space issue, they are increasing overall.”

For Moeketsi, her farm has changed her life and given her hope for a better future. In addition to the teas, tinctures, ointments and medicinal products she processes from her plants, she plans to include more by-products such as syrups in the future.

“The future of city farming is great simply because we have more and more young people getting into this space. Even though it’s farming, they are looking at it from a very different angle,” she says. “That is why the city is changing and rooftop farming is going to get bigger and bigger.”

Clearly, farming in Africa is covering exciting new ground.

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30 under 30

Applications Open for FORBES AFRICA 30 Under 30 class of 2020

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FORBES AFRICA is on the hunt for Africans under the age of 30, who are building brands, creating jobs and transforming the continent, to join our Under 30 community for 2020.


JOHANNESBURG, 07 January 2020: Attention entrepreneurs, creatives, sport stars and technology geeks — the 2020 FORBES AFRICA Under 30 nominations are now officially open.

The FORBES AFRICA 30 Under 30 list is the most-anticipated list of game-changers on the continent and this year, we are on the hunt for 30 of Africa’s brightest achievers under the age of 30 spanning these categories: Business, Technology, Creatives and Sport.

Each year, FORBES AFRICA looks for resilient self-starters, innovators, entrepreneurs and disruptors who have the acumen to stay the course in their chosen field, come what may.

Past honorees include Sho Madjozi, Bruce Diale, Karabo Poppy, Kwesta, Nomzamo Mbatha, Burna Boy, Nthabiseng Mosia, Busi Mkhumbuzi Pooe, Henrich Akomolafe, Davido, Yemi Alade, Vere Shaba, Nasty C and WizKid.

What’s different this year is that we have whittled down the list to just 30 finalists, making the competition stiff and the vetting process even more rigorous. 

Says FORBES AFRICA’s Managing Editor, Renuka Methil: “The start of a new decade means the unraveling of fresh talent on the African continent. I can’t wait to see the potential billionaires who will land up on our desks. Our coveted sixth annual Under 30 list will herald some of the decade’s biggest names in business and life.”

If you think you have what it takes to be on this year’s list or know an entrepreneur, creative, technology entrepreneur or sports star under 30 with a proven track-record on the continent – introduce them to FORBES AFRICA by applying or submitting your nomination.

NOMINATIONS AND APPLICATIONS CRITERIA:

Business and Technology categories

  1. Must be an entrepreneur/founder aged 29 or younger on 31 March 2020
  2. Should have a legitimate REGISTERED business on the continent
  3. Business/businesses should be two years or older
  4. Nominees must have risked own money and have a social impact
  5. Must be profit generating
  6. Must employ people in Africa
  7. All applications must be in English
  8. Should be available and prepared to participate in the Under 30 Meet-Up

Sports category

  1. Must be a sports person aged 29 or younger on 31 March 2020
  2. Must be representing an African team
  3. Should have a proven track record of no less than two years
  4. Should be making significant earnings
  5. Should have some endorsement deals
  6. Entrepreneurship and social impact is a plus
  7. All applications must be in English
  8. Should be available and prepared to participate in the Under 30 Meet-Up

Creatives category

  1. Must be a creative aged 29 or younger on 31 March 2020
  2. Must be from or based in Africa
  3. Should be making significant earnings
  4. Should have a proven creative record of no less than two years
  5. Must have social influence
  6. Entrepreneurship and social impact is a plus
  7. All applications must be in English
  8. Should be available and prepared to participate in the Under 30 Meet-Up

Your entry should include:

  • Country
  • Full Names
  • Company name/Team you are applying with
  • A short motivation on why you should be on the list
  • A short profile on self and company
  • Links to published material / news clippings about nominee
  • All social media handles
  • Contact information
  • High-res images of yourself

Applications and nominations must be sent via email to FORBES AFRICA journalist and curator of the list, Karen Mwendera, on [email protected]

Nominations close on 3 February 2020.

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Entrepreneurs

The Life And Wisdom Of Richard Maponya

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He was one of the big names in business in Africa; as gentlemanly. as he was shrewd. He fought the odds and apartheid to stake his place in business and inspire millions of his countrymen to do the same.

Richard Maponya – the doyen of black business in South Africa – passed away in the early hours of January 6, after a short illness. Maponya turned 99 on Christmas Eve near the end of a long and fruitful life that saw him dine with the Queen, laugh with Bill Clinton and chauffer his old friend Nelson Mandela. Mandela asked Maponya, who owned a car dealership, to pick him up at the airport in Johannesburg after his release from prison in 1990.

Ï picked him up at the airport and that was the most frightening time of my life. We were chased by people on foot, helicopters, motorbikes and cars. Everyone just wanted to touch Mandela. They could kill him just trying to touch him,” Maponya recalled to Forbes Africa in a cover story in March 2017.   

Mandela was a close friend of Maponya since the 1950s. The future president, then a young lawyer   helped Maponya set up his first business against the restrictive apartheid laws that shackled black business.

Maponya wanted to open a clothing store in Soweto, Johannesburg; the authorities said no. Mandela lost the fight for the clothing store, but did manage to secure him a license to trade daily necessities. This opened the way for Maponya to start out with a milk delivery business that was to prove the foundation of his fortune.

More than half a century on, Mandela, then a former president of South Africa, beamed with pride, in 2007, as he opened the first shopping mall in Soweto.

Maponya Mall had taken the canny businessman a good deal of patience to put together. He acquired the land in 1979 – the first black man to secure a 100-year lease for land in Soweto – and spent many more years building up the mall.

“Ï fought for 27 years for that mall and was many times denied; they actually thought I was dreaming. When Nelson Mandela cut the ribbon to open the mall, that was the highlight of my life,” Maponya said years later.

It was a mile on a road less travelled by Maponya in a long journey from the tiny township of Lenyenye in Limpopo in northern South Africa where he was born. He moved across the province to Polokwane to train as a teacher and then, like many young men of his generation, moved south to Johannesburg in search of his fortune.

In those days, the gold mining city was booming, but only the few saw the fruits. Maponya was blocked at every turn as he tried to make his way in business; he won through making a fortune from property, horse racing, retail, cars and liquor.

Maponya mentored many black entrepreneurs and inspired many millions more he had never met. One of them was Herman Mashaba, the former mayor of Johannesburg, who made his own fortune with hair care products.

“To myself and the people I grew up with he was an inspiration to all of us to get into business…If he had started out in business in a normal world there is no doubt he would have been even bigger than he was,” Mashaba told CNBC Africa.

Maponya will be mourned by the millions who were inspired to follow him and by a business world that is richer, in more ways than one, for his nearly a century of hard work in which retirement was never an option.

“People who retire are lazy people. You retire and do what? Bask in the sun?  I am not that type of man,” he said in 2017 at the age of 96.

He could never be.

By Chris Bishop  

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