Richard Hardiman is using drones to rid the world’s seas of trash. He faced bankruptcy and depression before the project went from prototype to profit.
Rubbish in the world’s oceans has reached critical levels that threaten not only marine life but also our own future on this planet as we know it, as fragile eco-systems are eroded.
What is already out on the seas, estimated by National Geographic to be growing by almost a million tonnes per year, is lost, but South African entrepreneur Richard Hardiman has developed a drone to catch this waste at source – the harbors and ports of the world – before it hits the ocean.rubbish in the world’s oceans has reached critical levels that threaten not only marine life but also our own future on this planet as we know it, as fragile eco-systems are eroded.
The WasteShark has been in planning and product testing stages since 2015, but is now sold globally as a drone that can clear the water of waste and help halt what is a growing catastrophe on our seas.
It has been a long personal battle for Cape Town-based Hardiman, one that brought him to the edge of despair.
But with the product in the water in a growing number of countries, including South Africa, the United States, India, the United Arab Emirates, Netherlands, Germany and Sweden, his Rotterdam-based company RanMarine Technology is primed to be a leader in this niche field.
“The initial idea was not motivated by trying to solve environmental problems,” Hardiman tells FORBES AFRICA. “I was sitting at the Waterfont in Cape Town watching these guys out in boats with pool nets pulling the plastic from the water.
“It irritated me that there was a lot of trash and they were trying to solve the problem with a little net. In was inefficient and you could see trash being swept out into the open ocean.”
Hardiman, who worked as a radio host for much of his adult life, developed the idea for a drone that could mechanize the process, either controlled from the shore or on its own as a robot in the water.
“I built a prototype, literally in my garage, by sticking some PVC pipes together and did some research on the internet,” he says.
“I taught myself how to code on to my phone and came up with a small drone I put into my pool and started to drive around. It did what it was supposed to do.”
Hardiman had no luck finding early investors in South Africa though.
“The feedback was quite good, but if I’m honest my pitch was terrible,” he says. “In trying to raise money, the one thing I have learned is that your pitch needs to be perfect. If you cannot be precise with every answer to every conceivable question, it turns investors off.
“Although people love the environment, let’s face it, if they are putting money into it they want to see a return on investment.”
The ingenuity of the idea caught the attention of Accelerator though, a program to help start-ups based in Rotterdam. Hardiman began in the top 1,000 entries from around the world, eventually making it to the final 20 after an arduous series of interviews.
He was then required to make the journey to the Netherlands for the finals and by this time had sunk so much energy, time and money into the project that the married father-of-three had nothing left to fund the trip.
“I was completely broke, I had no money left. I was taking any job I could get. I was penniless,” he admits.
Hardiman eventually found a local investor who took a punt on the project and lent him the money to get himself to the Accelerator finals.
“He gave me enough money to pay for the trip and to survive for about six months. But when I landed in Rotterdam, his cheque hadn’t cleared yet, my credit card had zero funds in it and I had five Euros in my pocket.
“Each day for a week I would walk from my hotel to the [Accelerator] event, which was about five kilometers away, sometimes in the rain and snow.
“Everybody else was so well-dressed and I would arrive in a soaking wet suit.”
But the response to WasteShark was overwhelming and he made it into the Accelerator program, which meant leaving his Cape Town-based family behind to live in Rotterdam for the next three months.
“After the three months we had done really well and we got a pilot with the Port of Rotterdam, which is the largest port in the world. They put 100,000 Euros into what would be a six-month project.”
But there would be more hurdles for Hardiman to face and the worst was yet to come.
“I fell out with the original engineering firm and brought on another partner that proved to be a disaster. It just wasn’t the right fit. By the end of 2016, I was completely out of money again and we were only halfway through development.
“I came back to South Africa licking my wounds. We had spent a lot of money and it had not really gone anywhere. In terms of investors, I found that the Dutch love innovation, but they hate risk, so nobody wanted to come into the project early.
“I went into a deep spiral of depression. I’d gone from having money to no money again. I had half a product that I needed to make work because I had a family to support.
“But I found I just couldn’t get out of bed, I really felt like I had screwed up and let everybody down.”
A chance meeting at a children’s party led to Hardiman finding a local South African investor who liked the idea of the project and could see the potential. He returned to the Netherlands.
“I just needed enough money to get through to June 2017 because by then we would have finished the product development stage. Then we could start selling.”
A little more than a year on and WasteShark is becoming a feature of a number of ports and harbors, and Hardiman has now moved on to the next stage.
“We sold one, then another, and suddenly it just started taking off,” he says. “We have been inundated with interest from all around the world. It’s a new position for us to be in, from the phase of trying to get a finished product out to going into production.”
Hardiman says that while they could have gotten carried away with technology on the WasteShark, the aim was actually to make the drone as simple as possible.
“I had this vision of a guy on Lake Malawi using our drone and when I sat down with the group of engineers to plan the product, there were many fantastic ideas about what we could do.
“But I was firm in my mind that we need to cater for that guy in Malawi. If a thruster is broken, he can fix it himself. It must be easy for him to operate, be simple and robust.”
Hardiman says they have numerous other versions of the WasteShark in planning and production including one that provides data on the quality of the water and another that can clean up oil in harbors. The next version will be ready September.
He adds he is most often asked what he hopes to do about the critical issue of plastic in the oceans, but the realistic goal for now is to stop the problem getting worse.
“My goal is not to solve the issue that is already out there, because that’s not realistic. It’s to stop the problem getting worse.
“If we can do that in a canal, river, marina or harbor, where most of the trash in the sea comes from, then you are starting to win the battle.”
– Nick Said
Pain, Poison And Potential
For a man who wanted to end his life at one time, it is quite ironic that Steve Harris is today one of Nigeria’s most successful life and business strategists.
Being born into a lower middle class family is one thing; trying to make a name for yourself after dropping out of university twice is another. That is what Steve Harris, a life and business strategist and motivational speaker, fondly known as ‘Mr. Ruthless Execution’, has accomplished.
Harris learned the sinusoidal motions of the entrepreneurship journey very early in life.
At 40, he is the Chief Executive Officer of EdgeEcution, an organization that helps high performance individuals and institutions bridge the gap between their performance and potential.
Today, he is among one of the most downloaded, quoted and followed personal development trainers in Nigeria, a feat that is outstanding when you consider that he almost committed suicide before this journey even began.
The events leading up to his worst day began to unfold when Harris gained admission into the University of Benin in Nigeria. His parents wanted him to become an engineer but his failure to attain the required grades meant he had to take the Industrial Maths class instead. That is when his emotional saga began.
“I had altercations with my lecturers and I was flunking because I was not cut out for math. I had issues with my lecturers because at the time, my department was the most corrupt department in the university and if you wanted to pass, you needed to bribe your lecturers. So they were pretty much a cartel and if you didn’t pay, you wouldn’t pass, so someone like me who at best was a C student became an F student.”
As a result, he scored 4% or 11% in his exams even when he had prepared well enough.
“I eventually got kicked out [of university] in 2004.”
Harris managed to get into a private university but this time, he was required to start all over again.
“I couldn’t go the distance and I dropped out in my seventh month. I couldn’t handle it because my mates were already working. My younger sister was also already working and I was going back to my first year of university. I started having suicidal thoughts and I couldn’t handle it anymore so I dropped out.”
Those suicidal thoughts would come back to haunt him later.
Being the first-born of three children, Harris was the one most likely to succeed. As fate would have it, his two failed attempts at university made him the black sheep of the family.
“I remember coming back home and my younger sister had graduated and my parents were super stoked, and here I am, the first child and I didn’t even get it together. Very quickly, she got a job and started earning money. She began buying things for the house and taking care of responsibilities and started giving me an allowance. I remember she gave me N10,000 ($28) and I was very grateful because I didn’t have any money,” says Harris.
“Like all African parents, my parents started complaining and reminding me about how I wasted their money and how I failed. How the children of others were working in [companies like] Shell and I was just at home.
“I would hide from friends and family members when they visited so I wouldn’t have to tell them my situation. The next month, my sister gave me N5,000 ($14) and I couldn’t ask her where the other N5,000 had gone. She was such a high-flyer that within six months, she moved into her own place and bought a car and here I am, first-born and I couldn’t even afford to buy a Christmas card,” avers Harris.
Then came the straw that broke the camel’s back.
“One day, my sister asked me to come over to her house for my monthly allowance. I went in and she had everything I wanted, she had a flat-screen TV, the whole nine yards, and I was just sitting there comparing my little sister with myself and I was thinking ‘there is no way I was ever going to catch up with her’. We were talking and in the middle of the conversation, I pissed her off and she said, ‘I am not even going to give you any more money’ and she kicked me out of her house.
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“I felt so embarrassed and ashamed and here I was, the one who everyone thought was most likely to succeed and I was being kicked out of my younger sister’s house because I didn’t have money. That messed with my mind. I remember sitting at home and I had bought rat poison. I kept thinking that it would be so much better to die than being alive and subjected to the misery I was giving my parents,” says Harris.
As he sat down with the box of poison, mentally preparing himself to end the pain and embarrassment he had brought to his family, one of his siblings walked into the house, in the nick of time.
“That is what stopped me. Then, I also found out that if you commit suicide, you will go to hell and here I am, living my own hell on earth and if I died, you are telling me I am going to be in hell forever?”
That was the wakeup call Harris so desperately needed.
He began to work his way up, starting off with volunteer jobs such as being a church driver for his pastor and also working as an office assistant with Fela Durotoye, a management consultant and recent presidential candidate of the Nigerian elections.
Harris grew through the ranks until he became a management consultant before starting off on his own entrepreneurial journey. Amid the challenges of finding his true purpose, certain thoughts came to his mind that changed his outlook towards life forever. He began asking himself: ‘why am I on this earth?’, ‘how can I make enough money to take care of myself and my family?’ and ‘how do I use my talent to help others?’
He found the answers in books on business written by authors such as Tom Peters and Michael Porter. That is when Harris first discovered he had a penchant for success.
And with his ability to overcome failure, Harris is now on a mission to empower millennials to look inward at their strengths and inner power, and with his able guidance, build brands that can beat the odds and survive, just as he did.
Rewriting The News On Africa
African media can reverse the downward spiral affecting newsrooms across the continent, says APO Group chairman, Nicolas Pompigne-Mognard.
The media landscape has changed dramatically over the last decade. As a result, newsrooms have been forced to make monumental changes such as reducing the staff complement to keep up with the demands, or they have simply had to shut down.
With some African newsrooms being written out of history, there has been an emergence of international media setting up shop on the continent. This interest serves as a double-edged sword for African media that often finds itself under-resourced.
Nicolas Pompigne-Mognard, the founder and chairman of the APO Group, is of the view that the African media landscape has faced challenges that precede digital migration, which have compounded existing problems. An incident that stands out for him, before the digitizing of media, was a lack of access to information for African reporters, and that propelled him to start one of the foremost media relations firms on the continent.
When he was a journalist for online publication, Gabonews, and the deputy president of the Pan-African Press Organisation in France, between 2005 and 2007, Pompigne-Mognard says this was a recurring problem hampering the productivity of African reporters.
“If you wanted the right to attend an international press conference, you would need an official card.
“As an African correspondent, the only way for you to have that card and get access was to prove that you were getting at least €1,000 ($1,121) of earnings, and most of them didn’t have that,” says Pompigne-Mognard.
“It was rooted in disparity. If you have two journalists and one of them has the right card and the other doesn’t, then of course, the other one cannot do his job. He cannot earn money or write articles.
“More than that, it reinforced the dependence of African media on international media. They had no other choice but to rely on the information provided by the biggest media.”
To remedy the circumstances that seemed to disempower his peers on the continent, Pompigne-Mognard founded APO from his living room, using $11,000 in savings.
APO has grown since its inception as it provides a variety of media offerings such as press releases, videos, photos, documents and audio-files.
The company has sources such as global Fortune 1,000 companies, reputable international and Africa-based PR agencies, governments and international institutions.
“I didn’t start it to make money. I didn’t start it as a business. I wasn’t an entrepreneur at the time. I was a journalist and I wanted to address a problem. At the beginning, I wasn’t even aware that companies were paid to distribute press releases.”
Pompigne-Mognard has since realized many things through the medium of his company as APO delivered growth of 60% in 2018, representing a turnover that has more than doubled in two years.
As a correspondent of Gabonews, before the inception of his company, Pompigne-Mognard was covering Europe, and he had to report Africa-related news and needed information. As a result, he would ensure he was receiving as many press releases as possible; however, this came with its own logistic challenges.
“That’s when I realized it was extremely difficult to actually ensure I received all the press releases from institutions like the United Nations, as an example. There was not one point where I could get all the African information issued by the international system.
“Journalists had to rely on information that was on websites. It was very time-consuming to get access to all the content…
“It got me thinking about how if international media was not receiving information from our most important institutions, then what does that say about our voices in the world?”
A single conversation propelled him to make decisive change, Pompigne-Mognard says.
“I had a serious meeting with the president of the African Development Bank at the time, Donald Kaberuka, and he told me something that was instrumental because that’s when I decided I wanted to do something about it.
“What he told me is that the destination of information about African economies contributes to the growth of the continent, because at the time everybody was talking about poverty, war and struggle.”
Over the years, Pompigne-Mognard has observed a similar trend in the way press releases are compiled and disseminated.
He feels this has contributed in transforming the narrative on Africa.
“Something that is specific with press releases is that 95 percent of them convey good news. Usually, when a company issues one, it is to say that they are appointing a new CEO, they are opening a new branch, or they are expanding into new markets.
“We (APO) have been participating, for several years now, in changing the African narrative. We are in a unique place where we have a chance to influence the narrative and make sure that Africa has its own voice and is not influenced by the bias of international media.
Although information is accessible to those who seek it, he says there is currently another challenge that African media needs to resolve in order to maintain autonomy and make money to sustain itself.
“I think there is a big problem coming towards us and it is coming fast,” says a concerned Pompigne-Mognard.
“Nigeria is starting to watch more international media than the local media. Think about the international companies which are willing to expand on the continent. What if 10 years from now, the conclusion is that in the most developed economies on the continent, the nationals are watching more international media? Where exactly do we think the international companies are going to spend on advertisements?
“As an international company, why would I deal with five national TV stations in different countries, if I can approach a single international station and get, not only those five countries, but also better coverage?”
Pompigne-Mognard says the continent is ripe with potential and international media companies, which have observed the budding possibilities, are striking while the iron is hot.
“They know the population is going to grow, the middle class is growing and that purchasing power is growing.”
Finances remain a colossal inhibiter to the growth of newsrooms, as many have had to retrench to make ends meet.
The ripple effect is that the quality of the content produced eventually suffers.
“On a global scale, the media landscape is in a challenging position. It has become very difficult to finance content and to find new ways to make money. Africans also have the same challenges, but often they don’t have the same means or resources.
“I would prefer to be wrong on this matter, but if I’m right, in 15 years’ time, the media landscape in Africa will be completely different – in a bad way.
“I want Africa to have a strong media landscape. But in order to do that, people need to understand that media companies need to be run as businesses.”
But it’s not all doom and gloom for African media; Pompigne-Mognard sees hope. He says the status quo can be reversed if there is a joint effort to curb the problem.
“One of the solutions is to create pan-African media,” he says. “The person who is going to crack the code and make it happen could be extremely rich. It doesn’t have to be [entirely] pan-African, even 30-35 countries are more than enough.
“There’s a thing about Africa which is a strength and a weakness; it’s that doing something here will always be more difficult. But the good news is that for those who manage to do that thing in Africa, they can do it anywhere.”
Packing Light In School Bags
Former South African rugby star John Mametsa provides alternative energy solutions for the state. With his wife Tumi, he says their future in the business is bright.
In his prime, former Blue Bulls winger John Mametsa had rugby fans screaming in delight at his try-scoring exploits at Loftus Versfeld Stadium. Between 2001 to when he retired in 2010, he had brought smiles on people’s faces.
Hidden beneath the rugby bravura on display on a weekly basis were Mametsa’s entrepreneurial exploits, which led him to co-found Soltech, a solar technology company he started with his wife Tumi.
Soltech has bridged the gap between solar technology and user-friendly consumer products by creating school backpacks, outdoor umbrellas and lifestyle bags custom-fitted with solar power.
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The smiles are back but Mametsa has brought them in a different form.
Soltech’s main aim is to help companies achieve their corporate social investment targets and make a real difference in the lives of school children who might not have electricity at home, or whose access to electricity is limited.
“Generally, I love giving back. Just to see the kids smile brings joy to me,” Mametsa says.
“It is the best space I could have asked for. Other than when I was involved in rugby, this is the best thing I could have ever been a part of.
Putting smiles on kids’ faces is the best thing. Because we are dealing with children, we have aligned ourselves with people that want to make a difference.
“We don’t stop at just giving them the bags where they can charge phones and study at night but we also educate them about the social ills that come with roaming on the internet and social media.”
During this period of Eskom blackouts, uncertainty about South Africa’s energy and a widening chasm between the haves and have-nots, he says Soltech’s products make a difference in the lives of ordinary citizens.
In a sense, they’ve taken the might of solar technology and put it right in people’s hands. The school bags come with a solar-powered battery, which has a night lamp and cellular phone battery charger installed.
“With everything that’s going on at Eskom now, they (citizens) are using millions of liters of diesel per month, just to keep the lights on,” Mametsa says.
“Hence, it’s coming back to hit our pockets and they (Eskom – South Africa’s national energy provider) are raising the electricity prices again. Such things we have to read about so that, as we grow, we educate the people that we are selling the bags to.
“At some point, you need to convert [to reusable energy sources], you need to start using solar energy. We are still fortunate that there’s an Eskom in the first place. What about those countries that don’t even have electricity at all?
“Yes, we have power cuts but the people that really need the bags are people in the rural areas.”
Admittedly, Mametsa was the pretty face and Tumi conceptualized the idea when they started. But their partnership was perfect in more ways than one. Tumi, just like her husband, had a massive entrepreneurial drive.
While Mametsa was playing rugby, he would dabble in taxi and printing businesses – an uncommon trait among sportsmen and sportswomen who are at the peak of their powers. Tumi was no different. As a student, she would sell hair and cosmetics products, something that sharpened her business senses.
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And despite a successful 11-year career in corporate as an accountant and financial manager for companies such as Alexander Forbes and the Film and Publication Board, Tumi took a bet on herself and dedicated her time fully to building Soltech.
The result was that, in just the company’s second year, they have signed a memorandum of understanding with Finland solar technology company Tespack. Tespack founders Caritta Seppä and Yesika Robles were last year named in Forbes ’s 30 Under 30 Europe.
The joint venture will see Soltech come out, among other things, with a solar-powered, fast-charging power bank, which should totally disrupt the smartphone accessories market.
“There’s going to be skills and knowledge transfer,” Tumi says.
“The DTI (Department of Trade and Industry) is also backing us on the partnership because we need them and their funding to assist us. We will be hiring South Africans to work the machinery, which was something that was very attractive to the DTI.
“The Tespack partnership confirmed my belief that our company could grow from a small tree to a forest someday. Once we manufacture in-house we can streamline the process. And there are so many other ideas for products I have, such as ladies’ handbags and stuff.”
Here at home, Soltech has partnered in CSI projects with Liberty and Exxaro and they hope to grow their client base in the next couple of years. It is a huge endorsement of their products and should see them salve some of the hurt from the country’s electricity crisis, especially to those who need it the most.
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