It was a tough life on the petrol garage forecourt. First thing in the morning, Sibongile Mphilo would put on an attendant’s uniform working hard for tips filling cars and washing windows in the township of Tembisa, east of Johannesburg. It meant working extra shifts to scrape R1,200 ($106) a month.
Nine years on, Mphilo has founded a $6.2 million security company.
“I worked and I saved my tips. I eventually had enough to open a company. I had tried to get a job as a security person but I was told I could not do night shifts because I was a woman. I saw my chance and I wanted to open my own security company,” says Mphilo.
In 2002, after months of saving, Mphilo founded Sibongile Security Services in Polokwane, 700km and an eight-hour long drive by taxi from Tembisa where she worked. In the early days, she won a R12,000 ($1,060) six-month contract to secure the Sekhukhune Magistrate’s Court; within months, more encouragement came.
“I spent my off-days driving to Polokwane to look after my new business. I never stopped working. It was the most money I had ever seen in my bank account. But I didn’t leave the petrol station for another two years, I decided I was not leaving my job until I got another contract,” says Mphilo.
Mphilo’s small business moved from contract to contract raising just enough for the next project. It all went well until she took a gigantic gamble in 2011 that almost left her bankrupt.
“We were trying our luck, applying for any contract we could, big or small. We took a chance and went for a contract with Telkom [South Africa’s telecom provider] in 2011. I couldn’t imagine that we won it.”
Telkom’s R77 million ($6.7 million) tender to guard substations around the country was a dream come true.
The reality wasn’t easy; Mphilo had to go to the banks for a massive loan for a host of new uniforms, guns and vehicles. The loan ran into the millions and the banks were reluctant to pay out, she says.
“Eventually, the Telkom team helped us, and the banks were able to provide the loans. Today, we have 50 cars and 150 firearms,” says Mphilo.
In two years, the contract transformed the company from a micro-enterprise with a yearly turnover of less than R5 million ($444,006) into a large company turning over R35 million ($3.1 million).
These days, Mphilo’s company continues to grow. They are branching out to supply private forensic investigation and access control systems. Her business is run by women. She also hires female security guards by the dozen; she says it’s her way of giving them an opportunity.
Mphilo admits she doesn’t spend much time out in the streets fighting crime like her employees. In the evenings, you can find her kick-boxing at gym or at home, gardening.
“My focus was not to enrich myself, but to grow the business. Without being hard-working and patient, I would not be where I am today,” says Mphilo.
From petrol pumps to guns and cars, this Cinderella story has created jobs and work for Africans. The only person out of a job is the fairy godmother.