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On A Roll With Used Tyres

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Reabetswe Ngwane has come a long way from Rustenburg, and she has covered the journey on recycled tyres – literally.

The bubbly and ambitious Ngwane, raised in Mogwase, a township in Rustenburg in the North West Province of South Africa, recycles tyre tubes for a living, and has been able to turn waste to wealth.

When we meet her in the affluent suburb of Sandton in Johannesburg, she is late, having driven in from Rustenburg after another meeting. Dressed formally in black, she settles to talk about where it all began.

Ngwane’s entrepreneurial journey unraveled when she relocated from the township to the city in Rustenburg where she started her first business with a friend. They recycled plastic bags, turning them into school bags with solar lanterns, provided to kids in underprivileged areas.

Unfortunately, that partnership did not last.

READ MORE: ‘Roll Up Your Sleeves, Walk Past That Handbag’

“Then we parted ways respectively in business and generally. That’s when I started the tyre business with my sister [Katlego],” says Ngwane.

The business picked up. They were approached by REDISA (Recycling and Economic Development Initiative In South Africa) who offered to handle their Rustenburg tyre depot.

Ngwane wanted to learn and research more about all the elements that went into the tyre business.

So she did what most wouldn’t think of – she consulted with the people pushing trolleys on the side of road recycling scrap.

“They work extensively at the mine fields; in a nutshell, they are industry experts. We went to them, consulted with them. [About an] alternative to plastic, because that’s all I knew. I asked them ‘what else I could use as a resource to make up products’ and they advised on the tyre tubes and it became a business,” she says.

The business’ main focus is recycling tyre tubes to make fashionable bags.

The whole process begins by transporting the tyre tubes to one of their work sites where they wash, clean and refurbish them. They are then taken to a production factory where they are cut into respective patterns depending on orders.

Ngwane has her products in a store, Mememe, in Cape Town in the Western Cape, and another in South African capital Pretoria, called In Bloom. She also takes orders online. Her bags range from R500 ($43) to R1,400 ($120).

She not only recycles tyre tubes to create trendy bags, but also makes products for the mining and construction industries.

These orders differ from the retail industry.

Reabetswe Ngwane. Photo by Motlabana Monnakgotla.

“The retail industry is not as mass-orientated as the mining and construction industry. With the retail industry, it depends on how many orders of these we get, how many orders of backpacks we make, and then the patterns are made and then the bags. With regards to mining and construction, there are three sets of products we provide to them,” she says.

For the mines, Ngwane makes first-aid kit bags used by the workers underground and over the ground. The material mostly used for this previously was canvas, which is not durable, she says.

Ngwane also makes respiratory bags or masks used by the workers. The biggest orders she gets from the mines are however for seat protectors.

“It’s like a shield that covers your bum, you strap it on your waist, strap it on your legs, as the guys drilling underground [are] scooting backwards and forwards; because they [are] scooting, they damage their Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and bump into hard surfaces like rocks, and corrosive liquids whatever the case may be; [the seat protector] is used to protect them,” she says.

Ngwane is the first to break into this kind of market, she says.

READ MORE: The Woman With the toughest job

She recalls the days she had to knock on several doors to get her business going. Her research involved ongoing conversations with users in the mines asking them about the durability of canvas.

Ngwane is contracted to an entity that supplies a lot of the mines in the North West of South Africa with PPE. With her sister Katlego, their company, KreamFields, has been in operation for the last two years, and their fortune is growing.

Their work also has social significance as recycling waste means helping the environment rid itself of rubber scrap.

Ngwane seems to have literally reinvented the wheel turning tyre tubes to tote bags.

Entrepreneurs

Bill Gates Gets Why People Are Doubting Billionaires—And He Has A Defense (Even For Mark Zuckerberg)

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The once and future richest person in the world (once the Bezos divorce finalizes), Bill Gates will happily apply the dispassionate, sharp-elbowed logic that made him one of the most fearsome business minds of the past century—even when the subject, abstractly, is him, as well as the other, suddenly unpopular members of the Three Comma Club.

“I think it’s fascinating that for the first time in my life people are saying, ‘Okay, should you have billionaires?’ ‘Should you have a wealth tax?’ I think it’s a fine discussion.”

It’s a discussion that took place yesterday just a block from Trump Tower, home of America’s first-ever billionaire president. “My opinion is that there should be an estate tax and maybe even higher than we have today. Among The Forbes 400, I don’t think we’d get a majority—Warren [Buffett] and I are sort of against interest on that,” says Gates. “So I think there’s plenty of debate about how capital should be taxed, how estates should be taxed.”

READ MORE | Jeff Bezos Says National Enquirer Owner Tried To Blackmail Him

But as for the kind of disincentivizing economics lamented by the Beatles in “Taxman” and increasingly championed by America’s far left, Gates remains clear: “The idea that there shouldn’t be billionaires—I’m afraid if you really implemented something like that, that the amount you would gain would be much less than the amount you would lose.”

In looking at how Gates now deploys tens of billions philanthropically—both the money he and his wife Melinda put into their eponymous foundation, the world’s largest, and that given and pledged by Buffett—it’s critical to understand that perspective.

Just as Gates views, correctly, that a tax system moving from progressive to confiscatory creates less wealth and innovation overall, he and Melinda examine issues systemically.

“It’s more evocative to say you’re saving one life than to say you’re saving a million,” he says. “It’s a weird thing.”

That worldview comes through in the 2019 edition of the Gateses’ annual letter, released this morning. Ostensibly, this year’s letter, which lays out their philanthropic observations and priorities, focuses on nine surprises that have inspired the Gateses to take action. In reality, it’s a valentine to the power of philanthropic investment—the idea of giving not to salve problems, but to solve them.

“I think it’s fascinating that for the first time in my life people are saying, ‘Okay, should you have billionaires?’”

The Gateses write about Becoming A Man (BAM), a group counseling program that helps teenage boys stay in school by channeling their anger. (Bill Gates says he had a “touching experience” sitting in on a group, and even took his turn to vent—about learning that global polio cases were going up.)

And their “toilet fair” in Beijing, designed to inspire a next-gen toilet that can alleviate sanitation issues. Their fixation on Africa, whose young population promises to transform the global labor force.

All of these initiatives tell a similar story. They’re about “picking novel ideas” or “off-the-wall theories,” as Gates says, and then proving that the concepts work. “Once you find a solution and want to scale that up, it’s usually government money.”

That’s a sticking point when dysfunctional Washington can’t enact even the most obvious forward-thinking policies. Take foreign aid, less than 1% of the U.S. budget and an expenditure that, since the Marshall Plan, has consistently generated positive ROI, in terms of creating stability and vital trading markets and stemming deadly diseases.

While Congress rejected President Trump’s proposed foreign aid cuts, Gates remains worried. “It just can’t be ignored, given the intensity of political debate over domestic issues—and if you have one party saying, ‘Hey, helping foreign countries, that’s kind of a sucker’s deal, does it even benefit us?’”

This shortsighted nationalist streak is a global issue. “We’re very worried that if Brexit goes poorly, at least for a time, [the U.K.] might not see [foreign aid] as a priority at all,” he says. “If the French domestic stuff gets too painful, will they stay generous?”

In education, Gates has faced similar headwinds. “You get into political policy things in terms of what you’re trying to achieve. It’s tricky.” The most obvious example here: his previous battle for the Common Core education standards, which critics like Diane Ravitch undermined by terming such efforts a “billionaire boys club.”

READ MORE |Facebook Profits Defy Critics – Zuckerberg Vows Company Has Changed

“The attack that ‘Why should you even have a say in setting the agenda?’—that has a certain resonance to it,” admits Gates.

So why should billionaires get to choose what problems we’re solving?

“Philanthropy is there because the government is not very innovative, doesn’t try risky things and particularly people with a private-sector background—in terms of measurement, picking great teams of people to try out new approaches,” says Gates. “Philanthropy does that.”

Philanthropy, as practiced by the Gateses, also takes risks in the existential terrain political leaders would rather bury their heads in. Bill Gates still worries about nuclear proliferation, an area his partner-in-crime Buffett has championed. He’s been the global leader on the risks around pandemics and also, to a lesser degree, climate change, where his $1 billion Breakthrough Energy Ventures fund makes big bets.

Artificial intelligence looms on the horizon as the newest threat brought on by innovation. “In the long run,” says Gates, “AI is a tough problem.”

Notably, Gates does not feel that way about social media. Last century’s boy wonder, who faced scrutiny for what the federal government saw as Microsoft’s monopolistic tactics, clearly has empathy for this century’s boy wonder, Mark Zuckerberg, now a lightning rod for Facebook’s role in the erosion of democracy, as most recently outlined by Facebook investor Roger McNamee.

“I think what Roger [McNamee] has said is completely unfair and kind of outrageous,” says Gates. “They’re blaming Mark for everything. I mean, Trump was not elected because of Facebook. They say ‘filter bubble.’ All these polarization things. … Well, be clear. I get to read whatever I want to read, I get to listen to right-wing radio, I get to listen to Fox News. You kill Facebook and I can still live in my filter bubble. But filter bubble is not just my Facebook feed, so acting like, ‘Hey Mark, wake up someday and solve the filter bubble problem.’ No, Roger McNamee has no practical solution to the filter bubble thing.”

“They’re blaming Mark for everything. I mean, Trump was not elected because of Facebook.”

(“It’s hard when you’re in this vortex,” adds Gates. “I was in such a vortex once upon a time. A little bit different because mine was more of a court-related thing than the broad view of whether the software was good or not.”)

Ultimately, Gates, whose net worth, even after large donations to the foundation, approaches $100 billion, views philanthropy as a vital force for good. And he thinks that potential critics—even a loony potential British prime minister—will come around to that view.

“When I met with Jeremy Corbyn for the first time, does he view me as the billionaire guy who collected more money than he thinks anybody is supposed to collect?” recalls Gates.

“Or does he view me as the philanthropist who’s helping improve Africa and hopefully learn about education? Fortunately he was very nice, he viewed me as the second. But I’m sure he had to hesitate: ‘This guy is one of those people that maybe there should be none of’.”

-Randall Lane, Forbes Staff

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The Coffee Farmers Betting On Blockchain To Boost Business

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 On a bustling street near the shiny new international airport in Ethiopia’s capital is a small coffee roastery with big dreams. 

Nearly 40 Ethiopians – a third of them women – sift, roast and package prized Arabica beans for export to Europe under the Moyee brand, founded by a Dutch social entrepreneur.

The roastery, together with the innovative use of blockchain technology to ensure the supply chain is transparent, represents an attempt to keep as much of the profits as possible in Ethiopia, one of the world’s poorest countries.

“It’s the world’s favorite drink. We drink over 2 billion cups a day,” said Killian Stokes, who set up the Irish branch of Moyee.

“The industry’s worth $100 billion and yet 90 percent of coffee farmers in Ethiopia live on less than $2 a day.”

That is partly because most exporters process the beans elsewhere, but also down to price fluctuations and other factors that make coffee growing a precarious business.

READ MORE | Ugandan Firm Uses Blockchain To Trace Coffee From Farms To Stores

To make things fairer, Moyee has created unique digital identities for the 350 farmers it currently works with – meaning buyers can see exactly how much each individual grower is paid, with prices set at 20 percent above the market rate.

Now the brand, whose slogan is “radically good coffee”, wants to use blockchain to take that to the next level – allowing buyers to tip farmers, or fund projects such as a new planting program, through a mobile app.

The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said in a recent report that blockchain had huge potential to address challenges smallholder farmers faced by “reducing uncertainty and enabling trust among market players”.

The technology, used to underpin cyber-currencies like Bitcoin, allows shared access to data that is maintained by a network of computers and can quickly trace the hundreds of parties involved in the production and distribution of food.

Once entered, any information cannot be altered or tampered with.

‘BIGGER THAN THE INTERNET’

Siobhan Kelly, an advisor to the Food Systems Programme at the FAO, said blockchain would ultimately be “much bigger than the internet”. 

“Within 10 years – it’ll take probably 10 years – it’s going to be a major revolution, for everything,” said Kelly.

Fruit farmers in Caribbean nations are also looking at using blockchain to attract better-paying customers, bring traceability and build a credit trail. 

“It’s an innovation that is poised to empower local farmers in the Caribbean region,” said Pamela Thomas, executive director of the Agriculture Alliance of the Caribbean (AACARI), a regional network of nearly 100,000 farmers.

AACARI’s project has two components: auditing by accredited professionals to ensure farmers adhere to the Global GAP (good agricultural practices) standards, and a digital marketplace where buyers can find detailed information about the produce. 

Global GAP is a voluntary standard required by many European and U.S. supermarket chains.

Vijay Kandy, whose company is building the blockchain platform, said the auditing process would allow farmers to deal directly with buyers – bypassing the middlemen that many currently rely on – and make access to credit easier.

“One reason why buyers from faraway places or different countries go through middlemen is because they rely on them to make sure farmers are following these good practices,” he said.

One such buyer is London-based Union Hand-Roasted Coffee. 

The company sources its coffee directly from growers’ cooperatives to ensure higher quality, pays farmers more than minimum price set by the global Fairtrade organization, and works with more than 40 producer groups in 14 countries.

“We currently undertake direct interviews to verify farmers have been paid, but it’s very time- and labor-intensive to do that and to record all that data,” said Steven Macatonia, who co-founded Union in 2001.

“So to have a much more simple system where we can get a confirmation that payment has been received and how much that is, that could be hugely beneficial,” he said.

Price fluctuations and the impact of climate change make coffee a particularly challenging crop to grow.

“Large companies’ profits usually increase when prices are low, but the profit for farmers does not, and in some cases it may cost them money to produce coffee,” said Aaron Davis, head of coffee research at Britain’s Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. 

Davis’s latest research shows climate change and deforestation are putting more than half of the world’s wild coffee species at risk of extinction.

Ethiopia – the birthplace of Arabica, the world’s most popular coffee – is of particular concern. Up to 60 percent of the land used to grow coffee could become unsuitable by the end of the century, Davis found. 

“The more a farmer is paid, the more resources he will be able to devote to climate resilience,” he said.   

Both Davis and the FAO’s Kelly however cautioned that blockchain technology was not going to be a “quick fix”, with farmers around the world facing multiple challenges.

“Farmers need access to affordable seeds, to affordable finance and credit when they need it … and these things are not going to be given by blockchain,” said Kelly. -Reuters

-Thin Lei Win @thinink

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Entrepreneurs

What Will It Take To Close The Funding Gap For Black Female Founders?

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If you’ve heard the statistics once, you’ve probably heard them a thousand times: Of the nearly $100 billion in venture funding that goes to entrepreneurs in America, less than 3% goes to female founders and just 0.2% goes to black female founders. 

There’s a growing consensus that venture capital’s race problem needs to be fixed.What’s less clear is precisely how to start closing the massive gulf. And at the inaugural Black Women Raise conference in Manhattan on Friday, a gathering of some 80 black female founders, a series of candid conversations laid bare the frustrations around the lack of an obvious path forward. In several raw moments of interchange, however, some answers started to emerge.

Investors “could ask different questions,” Charles Hudson, founder and managing partner of Precursor Ventures, said during a panel conversation with BBG’s Susan Lyne, First Round Capital’s Hayley Barna, and Female Founder’s Fund Sutian Dong. “There are all these questions—‘Well, do you think she can recruit? Do you think she can hire?’—I know what’s behind that question.

It’s ‘Do you think she can get people to work for her because she’s a black woman?’ And people ask these, what on the surface sound like innocent enough legitimate questions about investments, but they’re not innocent. They’re loaded. And you learn a lot by the questions people ask.”

Despite the existence (and, arguably, preponderance) of these loaded questions, Hudson and the others cautioned the entrepreneurs in the room against becoming disillusioned with the traditional venture capital community. Instead, they said, minority founders should prioritize investors who have a track record of investing in entrepreneurs who look like them.

“Vet investors up front. Don’t let them waste your time only to give you a half-ass answer after you spend an hour with them or even two weeks later,” said Barna, who started her venture capital career after successfully cofounding e-commerce darling Birch Box. “Just ask, ‘Is this in your sweet spot?’”

Dong noted that investors should be self-monitoring for where they’re over- and under-indexing, too. “We’ve said we don’t like the ratio of founders in our portfolio. About half are nonwhite, but only two are African-American. So we asked our network who we should be talking to,” she said.

It can be hard, in an open and on-the-record forum, to ask the hard questions about investing in underrepresented founders—much less to receive forthright answers to those questions—but to the credit of the Black Women Raise attendees, no one shied away from speaking about the reality of her experience as a founder of color.

“Everyone talks about the ‘friends and family round.’ I raised $63,000; I am the friends and family round,” quipped Star Cunningham, founder and CEO of health management platform 4D Healthware. But underpinning her self-funding, Cunningham continued, was a lack of capital access. “I have debt, because I had to get it, because no one wanted to give me any money. So what are you, as investors, going to do to look at our companies differently?”

Barna’s reply: Don’t be afraid to talk about your distance traveled. “The same stories about people getting straight A’s from Ivy League schools isn’t what gets us fired up; it’s instead hearing about how someone put themselves through med school from driving an ambulance,” she said. “You might think that you’re not supposed to talk about your life story, but I think it’s an important data point in helping [investors] make the right decision.”

This isn’t to say that a little bit of information and clever storytelling will fix the funding gap for founders of color. Viola Llewellyn, cofounder of African fintech platform Ovamba, pointed out as much, saying that many of the investors she’s come across don’t seem interested in asking the questions that lead to the sorts of decisions Barna is referencing. 

“Here’s the problem: No one gets punished intellectually, emotionally, or financially for saying no to black women or to Africans. You will instead be congratulated if you don’t make the ‘foolish mistake’ of investing in something that doesn’t fit into the preconceived ideas of what success is,” Llewellyn said to Hudson, Lyne, Barna and Dong. 

“At what point do we find a way to tell the story of the fool that said no?” she continued, to applause from the room.

Hudson waited a beat, and responded with empathy.

“There’s a million reasons [for investors] to say no, but until we have more success stories, I think there’s always an easy out for people to say, ‘No one has proven to me that investing in this way and this type of person works out.’ It’s intellectually lazy and it’s wrong,” he said. “You have every right to be angry.”

Angry, yes, but also motivated. Among the clearest takeaways from the conversation is that one of the best ways to change the system is to start from within. In Silicon Valley and Arlan Hamilton parlance, fight pattern-matching with pattern-matching.

“More black women need to control capital, in whatever form that may be,” Dong said. “More black women need to be controlling capital to put that into companies run by black female founders.”

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