MOABELO Nzimande is like the tyres he works with. He understands that with a bad attitude, he could never get anywhere just as a flat tyre wouldn’t take you far.
He’s the founder of manufacturing company, African Make which specialises in manufacturing furniture, solely using tyres. Sitting in a container big enough to house a fast food outlet, I chat with the energetic young man in his yard, in Tembisa.
“I wanted to communicate to Africans that, we are no longer just consumers of the world, but we’re giving something back,” says Nzimande. He studied Software Engineering and majored in Business Analysis. “I have an eye for spotting marketing opportunities and being a strategist, coming up with ways of creating something out of nothing.”
During his days at Vaal University, as a way of making money he would hire out hookahs at events, while simultaneously doing events management for campus gigs. When he couldn’t afford to hire a table and chair for his hookahs set-up, he turned to his creativity, creating his own using tyres. “I did research on how I could create my own furniture, I saw people using [gasoline] drums and other various material on the internet. Then I came across a simple design where they used tyres and a rope,” Nzimande says.
Seeing that, he bought himself working equipment-mind you, he had never worked with his hands to create anything. “I did my first design I had seen on the internet. The chair came out okay, compared to what I’m doing now. I was so proud, I had an urge to do better” he says.
From there his love affair with tyres grew, his curiosity pushing him to find out what other people in the world are creating with the material. “I looked at what China, Mozambique, Egypt and other places were doing and what level are they own. From there I started coming up with my own ideas by taking a bit of what they’re doing in China and other parts of the world and mixed it with what I want to accomplish.”
The hustler in him has always been art-inclined but was never the artist himself. He is one of the co-founders of a performance movement in the Vaal during his varsity days, called Back of the Kaff, which gave a platform to rappers and poets. “But I had nothing to give back [to the art]. I wished I could rap, be a poet or paint but I can’t. After creating the chairs, I felt like I was giving back to the creative world.”
After graduation in 2014 he joined an IT company as an intern. “During that time while doing training, you have a lot of free time, sometimes you go to work you’re doing nothing. That’s when I started doing research on how to register a company and I started reading books, and attending entrepreneurial seminars” says the lanky Nzimande.
He says the first book he picked up was Robert Kiyosaki and Sharon Lechter’s Rich Dad Poor Dad. “I was also inspired by the guy that wrote Goals, Brian Tracy, a friend in fact gave me his book. I met him when he was in South Africa, at one of his seminars. I even cried there when he was speaking because everything he was talking about I read in the book.”
Nzimande’s passion for his business was reaching boiling point, asking for sick days at work just to attend these and other seminars to better understand the mind of an entrepreneur. “Every time I got back home from work, it would be me and tyres. But it got to a point where I had more to do now at work.”
The pressure of striking a balance between the nine-to-five and the side hustle got to him, added to the pressure of not making as much sales as he would’ve hoped. “I couldn’t get clients and I had the feeling of being a failure. I let go of African Make and told myself I would focus on work.”
A few months during his hiatus from business, a colleague of his came running to him after she had seen an all-tyre furniture set at a company next door, during her lunch break. “She was like ‘woza manje’ and I get there and this company is having a braai, everyone sitting on the chairs. I asked who made them [the furniture] and they said some guy from the street. I was like ‘you’re a company and you bought this?'”
It felt like hell on earth for Nzimande, seeing someone being successful with something he thought wasn’t do-able. “That day, I got home put on my overall and started working on my tyres. I started planning and strategizing.”
He formally registered his company and created his website. He’d leave work late, sometimes sleeping there to print flyers when there was no one around. He was in super saiyan mode now, jotting down ideas of potential clients on his notebook en route to work and people would hire them for a day or two. Which brought in the some money and the needed confidence.
In that time, he built a relationship with the Recycling and Economic Development Initiative of South Africa (REDISA) who are a tyre depot. He managed to get a 100 tyres from REDISA. “With the number of tyres I got there, I took some of my salary and invested it into getting more material.”
In 2015 his application for the South African Innovative Summit was accepted and Nzimande got to display his work there. “I took everything I had and displayed it there. We created a sitting area at the summit, where people could chill and I got the opportunity to talk about the business.”
As they always say, you never know who’s watching so do your best. Lo behold, someone from First National Bank picked one of the flyers at the summit. “Next thing I got a call from FNB, they wanted to buy two double-seater for their rooftop. That’s when I roped in some of the guys from the hood, who painted Ndebele patterns on the tyres. They loved them,” Nzimande says.
Six months later the bank came knocking at his door again, this time they wanted more chairs for their event but asked Nzimande to donate them since they had already built some rapport with the first deal. They needed the 25 chairs and some tables for the weekend and were supposed to bring them back that Monday but whoever that was supposed to deliver them back got sick on the day.
“So the chairs were chilling there at bank city in Joburg. The employees sat on them during lunch and they were enjoying them. Management was like, ‘everyone’s liking these chairs, can’t we buy them?’ from just giving them for free, I sent them a quote of about 18K and they were like, ‘okay’ ” with his raspy voice, he says in laughter.
This made things simple for African Make to communicate better with corporates this while Nzimande was still holding down his job, but it was different. He became a sponge absorbing the knowledge of running a business from his boss as though he knew, in the back of his mind that he would leave the company at some point. “I made so many mistakes at work. I ended up feeling verbally abused by colleagues and work just became a toxic environment.”
Then a year ago, he did a mistake on a software they were doing for a big client. “When my bosses saw that, I was just tired. Tired of being wrong and just tired of being victimized. I just broke into tears in front of everyone in the office, I said to them ‘If it’s me, this is my exit’ I just took my stuff and left the office.”
Immediately after leaving the building, he felt liberated and at peace. “I remember I got home, I looked at the tyres and said ‘I’m home baby. I worked the whole night. Woke up the next morning and continued working-because I wasn’t going to work anymore.”
It took him a week to make his first chair, five years later and more skilled in the craft of making these, it only takes him just three hours to assemble one. “If we as entrepreneurs masinga qala ama business wethu ekasi, so our employees don’t have to climb taxies and trains to go to work-without the frustration of traffic, trains and waking up too early, we would go far. That’s why abo ngamla ba performa ka ngaka espanin.”