There is little more satisfying than a simple solution to an annoying problem; especially when it makes money. Thomas Edison created the long-lasting lightbulb that everyone could afford; Henry Ford did the same with the family car; in South Africa, 23-year-old start-up entrepreneur Sibusiso Ngwenya has invented an item to close the gap between his pants and shoes.
Ngwenya is a tall man; 1.9 meters in his socks and struggled all his life to find trousers that would fit down to his shoes.
So, he came up with socks to close the gap and made them in bright colors to make the point.
“I was teased growing up and given different names. I deliberately named the brand Skinny Sbu Socks because I thought I had been teased enough and it was high time we celebrate being tall and skinny,” says Ngwenya.
A sock collector at a tender age, his defining moment was reading of two Americans building sock brands.
A few weeks later, his mother suggested he sell them.
“I had bought 14 pairs of socks for R5 ($0.40) each and I repackaged them and sold them for R25 ($2) a pair.”
He counts former Top Billing presenter Tumisho Masha, politician Tony Yengeni, TV personality Maps Maponyane, celebrity entrepreneur and philanthropist Shaka Sisulu, and the leader of opposition political party the Democratic Alliance, Mmusi Maimane, among his celebrity clients.
“I do such designs simply because I am African. At the heart of what I’m doing, I’m trying to express myself as an artist inspired by their surroundings. Our heritage is what we have to our advantage as Africans. I use that to gain the competitive edge among my international competitors,” he says.
The company also sells to Standard Bank and Cadbury. He makes R100,000 (around $8,000) a month by advertising and selling on the internet. His company employs three people and outsources bookkeepers, legal services and manufacturing staff.
“I am concentrating on building a brand, focusing on craftsmanship, artistry and the engineering of the sock while other brands are mass producing,” he says.
Ngwenya tried and failed to launch a sock store, but is working on Skinny Sbu Socks vending machines.
Skinny Sbu Socks produces five never to be repeated designs every two months.
“As men, our fashion is limited. The only things you have to play around with are your accessories which are very limited. So men want really colorful socks.”
He takes pride in the locally produced products.
“It is expensive to manufacture locally and it takes a long time because of limited colors. In China, for example, it would cost me $0.02 to produce a pair, this side it’s a thousand times more. The factory I outsource employs 60 people so I am comfortable knowing making these socks goes on to feed more than 60 families in South Africa.”
Although Ngwenya shies from divulging details, he says no business is without worst days.
“I recently lost out on a R2.5 million ($200,000) deal because I was not focused. I tried working with PR experts only to realize that I was making a mistake.”
Growing up in a three-bedroom shack in Tsakane, a township to the east of Johannesburg, he was taught love and forgiveness.
“I didn’t know we were living in a shack, I thought we were living in a mansion until someone from school came to visit and made fun of me. When I grew up, I learned that I am enough. I am not better or less than anybody. I am enough.”
His grandmother, Salamina Molokeng, is the force behind his success.
His future plans are to create designs with his grandmother entitled “stories with my grandmother”.
“I want us to promote art. I am an African woman and I want us to showcase every African nation in the sock designs,” says Molokeng.
At the risk of mixing a metaphor that knocks the socks off anything, necessity truly is the mother, and grandmother, of invention.