Our entrepreneur in the spotlight today is a young impressive woman called Tumi Mphahlele. We are excited to have Tumi with us. This interview first was conducted as part of the GIBS Alumni Business Club. We have permission from Tumi to re-publish it on our blog.
Tumi owns – with her partners a South African company that produces Lithium Ion batteries. These batteries are mainly used as a store of energy in Solar Powered generators. Her company employs a groundbreaking and innovative technology, we are just happy to share her story with you.
Personal Background on Tumi
Education and Early Career
Tumi has an impressive academic list of qualifications, which include:
- Bachelor of Science in Chemistry from the University of Cape Town,
- Postgraduate Diploma in Marketing Management,
- Diploma in Datametrics
- MBA from GIBS.
Following her academic achievements, Tumi has worked in some of the biggest corporate institutions in South Africa. Her career started at Sasol, soon after graduation where she stayed for a total of 6 years. This was followed by positions in Standard Bank, Nedbank and Accenture.
Tumi Mphahlele Business Story
Tell us about your Entrepreneurship Journey
My first stint as an entrepreneur was in consulting and although I enjoyed the problem-solving aspect of the experience. I was lacking the fulfilment that comes with creating something more tangible. Around 2011 I began to explore my options and came across renewable energy project development. I spent many months learning about the business – went as far as developing a small project.
I had taken on a very ambitious project that required some deep pockets even in early stage development. At the same time there were still regulatory issues that were slowing down small project developers. Therefore I went back to Corporate to recover financially.
I took a short-term role at the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA), then moved to South African Bureau of Standards (SABS) as the General Manager for Corporate Strategy and finally at Development Bank of South Africa (DBSA) as Head of Corporate Strategy.
Back from Corporate
I returned in 2018 to pick up where I left off and after speaking to partners I left in the industry. An idea to build an energy storage business from scratch was planted. My partners and I spent December 2018 working on plans and preparing to take off. By June 2019 we taking our first assembled Lithium Ion batteries off the project line, presenting them to early adopters. It feels like a long time ago because time was flying fast.
The business is breaking new ground in many ways. We have developed features that are not seen on this continent yet. Our biggest competition comes from Chinese imports. Our company is constantly looking at ways to still provide quality batteries at competitive prices.
We are a team of ten (10) people at the facility. We employ mostly young people under 30 years of age.
Who is your client?
Our company sells the batteries through a network of solar PV installers and EPC companies. We provide training to this network so that they understand how to install our batteries with their solar PV installations. We make sure they understand the advantages of working in partnership with local producers like ourselves. Our company offers pre-sales and technical support. Our battery products are quite versatile are designed to protect themselves with advanced diagnostics built.
What do you love to do with your free time?
I love participating in endurance events and would jump at an opportunity to be part of a team to summit Mount Everest again. I love to challenge myself physically. In addition, I have run the comrades marathon 8 times, participate in mountain biking events and have completed 3 of the Seven Summits. These are : (1) Mount Kilimanjaro – Africa, (2) The Mount Elbrus – Russia and (3) Mount Aconcagoa – the highest peak outside of the Himalayas, standing at 6900m. I have attempted the 9 peak challenge (summiting highest peaks in South Africa’s 9 provinces in succession). I attempted with a friend and got close to achieving the record for the first all-female team to complete the challenge. It would be great to revisit that challenge again in the future.
What are you biggest business challenges
One of the main business challenges I have come across is access to finance. There is a huge barrier that small and new businesses under 2 years old need to overcome before they can access finances. Banks do not even consider your business plan – they are not interested in understanding the impact or the prospects of the business in detail, and that can be a very frustrating. In many cases, the very finance could be the biggest factor that determines whether the business succeeds or not. The interest is in re-enforcing the understanding that small businesses under 2 years tend to fail by actually making them fail – and so the idea to self-fund and grow slowly is probably the most practical.
How did you fund your start-up?
Together with my business partners, we financed it from our own personal savings. We are fortunate to be attracting the right kind of capital at this stage to fuel the kind of growth we are looking for. It is coming at the right time but took a lot of sacrifice to get here. As an entrepreneur, you need a lot of support around you. You need a family or partner willing to stand with you through the difficult times. Building a business requires time and effort, and the rewards are not immediate.
Did you receive any government support?
We received government support, in the form of UIF payments during COVID. That is the only government support we have ever received.
On the other hand, the red tape that you are required to deal with and the penalties are significant. The objective should be to support those that make the sacrifices to start business. Support those that create jobs, but the sense we get is that this is not encouraged.
When I look back, I think the decision to start with partners was probably sensible. It is difficult to do it all on your own, try getting one or two people to work with. Share the load.
When I look back, I think the decision to start with partners was probably sensible. It is difficult to do it all on your own, try getting one or two people to work with. Share the load
What would you different, in hindsight?
This applies in general – I should have started businesses much earlier in my life.
What keeps you up at night?
I worry about whether the economy is going to bounce back after COVID-19, after successive periods of low growth. I fear that we may not be accessing the necessary skills, in the country, to turn things around. We have a people issue: we do not put the right people in the most critical decision making positions. We do not put our best forward – and so we keep on regressing.
Get in touch with Tumi
Twitter: @IG3N_ZA, @tumimmp, @AktivSoul