Community Outreach

Entrepreneur Extraordinaire a Product of UKZN!

A business project launched last year by 23-year-old UKZN BSc graduate Mr Sibonelo Mhlongo has paid huge

dividends through turning the negative of the killer COVID-19 pandemic into a positive of mass producing face masks.

The small enterprise, which Mhlongo operates in partnership with his parents Muzi and Tholakele Mhlongo near St Lucia in northern KwaZulu-Natal, has since late last year produced more than 40 000 masks and now boasts an output of around 200 units a day providing employment for six people.

A product of UKZN’s School of Mathematics, Statistics and Computer Science, Mhlongo paid tribute to his alma mater who he says helped get the business off the ground when they accepted his discounted price proposal last year to supply them with 15 000 masks in University colours!

“My very first experience of a big city such as Durban was when I went there to register at UKZN armed with a bursary I had been awarded by the iSimangaliso Wetland Park authorities,” said Mhlongo.

UKZN graduate and entrepreneur Mr Sbonelo Mhlongo at his banana plantation near St Lucia on the KZN north coast.

“From the day I walked onto campus I made a point of exploring things that were new to me – I met lots of people and joined a variety of organisations and societies. I soon realised there were careers other than being a teacher, a nurse, a doctor or an engineer so popular with people in rural areas!”

Mhlongo says his five years at UKZN were a revelation for him, offering an abundance of opportunities to help make his dreams come true plus revealing an inner strength he never knew he had. “I am still involved with UKZN and stay connected with the InQubate division to ensure I gain more knowledge about the business world.”

Looking back at the birth of the mask venture, Mhlongo said he was sitting around with his parents discussing the pandemic and how it had impacted the family’s small clothing manufacturing business and their livelihood generally. “One of my biggest worries was my degree being in jeopardy so when the subject of precautions against the disease came up I suggested we make masks and involve as many others in the process as possible. The idea that evolved was to get people who had sewing machines committed to the project and operate it on a similar business basis as that used by the Uber taxi company.”

Mhlongo said COVID-19 had caused trouble and hardship for many but he had managed to achieve a lot in spite of the pandemic’s negative impacts. Because the manufacture of masks had become highly popular causing an oversupply, he had decided to diversify and was now also involved in farming and the supply of building materials and hardware.

“I have an agreement with a hardware store to supply cement and building blocks which guarantees me a steady and profitable income every month. My aim is not to outlay too much in setting up a business and rather play the role of a middle man in the building industry.

“I am also into banana farming and supply the produce to vendors in St Lucia, Mtubatuba and other small centres.”

His advice to aspirant entrepreneurs is to get a business up and running as soon as possible. “Don’t spend too much time talking about it… just do it!”

He said it was important to have a business plan and not spend too much money getting set up.

“To have a sustainable business you must try to provide for everyday needs, that’s why I identified clothing, hardware and farming for my ventures. So this year I aim to own my own hardware store and also open a sewing business in Durban.

“And in not more than five years, I want to own a farm growing a variety of produce for local markets,” said Mhlongo – a young man with his feet on the ground but aiming for the stars!

– Greg Dardagan

Successful entrepreneur Mr Sbonelo Mhlongo who is building his business on an "actions speak louder than words" philosophy
Successful entrepreneur Mr Sbonelo Mhlongo who is building his business on an "actions speak louder than words" philosophy
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