Bathabile Mpofu: proof that dynamite comes in small packages
Co-founder of Nkazimulo Applied Sciences and creator of the ChemStart science kit, Bathabile Mpofu says her purpose in life is to help young people become the scientists they want to be.
ChemStart is a fun and practical learning aid for high school science pupils and includes 52 chemistry experiments – one for each week of the year. It is designed specifically to help learners enhance their understanding of the high school Science syllabus.
A little over three years ago, Bathabile says she woke up one morning and decided she wanted to become an entrepreneur and help future scientists become more prepared for tertiary education. Since those early days, ChemStart has impacted more than six thousand school pupils.
The portable-laboratory concept has also won Nkazimulo Applied Sciences several prestigious awards, including the Total Startupper of the Year in 2016. It was chosen from 24 000 entries across the African continent, and the R600 000 grant helped greatly to complete the development of the ChemStart packaging and start advertising the product.
She has also been interviewed on many television and radio shows, and has been featured in most of the country’s leading newspapers and magazines. Through the business’ success, she has travelled to Turkey and Israel, and will be heading to the United States in September.
Discovering her purpose
Bathabile describes herself as a God-fearing woman who was fortunate to discover her purpose in life. She never thought or knew she would become an entrepreneur.
“I like to impart knowledge and my purpose is to help young people become the scientists they want to become, seeing that this didn’t happen for me because of my poor basic education background with regards to exposure to (a science) laboratory.”
The mother of three spent her formative years in KwaZulu Natal, first in the town of Nongoma, and then Ulundi from the age of 11.
“I started going to boarding school when I was 10 years old. It taught me to be responsible and take care of myself. It also taught me to be able to live with people from different backgrounds,” she explains.
“I lived with both my parents and I felt loved by my family. Even though I was a shy individual, I was also fearless because of my upbringing. I could make good decisions and knew what was right and wrong and knew how to choose good friends.”
Bathabile dreamt of becoming a doctor when she finished school. “I used to imagine graduation day with my parents witnessing the ceremony. It didn’t happen like that exactly because I didn’t make it to medical school. I did graduate many times, three in fact, and my parents were present at all the ceremonies,” she says.
Towards the end of her BSc degree from the University of KwaZulu Natal, Bathabile started her first job as a research assistant working with a chemistry professor in the lab at the university.
“I pursued this job, it didn’t come to me. The professor was willing to give me working experience while I completed my studies. I had to repeat some modules which I failed, so this allowed me some time to earn some money and gain some experience,” she explains.
She then worked as a laboratory technician at UKZN before moving to a government funding agency.
“I worked there because they offered a better salary but I could see that I had an opportunity to make a contribution. While working at the funding agency, I noticed that black people were not applying for funding, not because they didn’t know it existed,” she says.
“I believe part of the problem is that the basic education they received didn’t allow them to learn how knowledge is applied and therefore didn’t know how to use that knowledge to innovate. This broke my heart and I knew I needed to do something about this. But I couldn’t because I had a job. But when my job became unfulfilling, I started to do something about the problem.”
Becoming a social entrepreneur
Armed with a PDBA, and an MBA from the University of Cape Town, Bathabile adds that she has had invaluable access to people she could bounce ideas off, even if it was just a quick email or phone call.
“I have also had people who are champions of my business and who are looking out for me,” the entrepreneur says, while highlighting the fact that her business’ financial results and budgets have also played an important role.
“It helps in making decisions on how to use money, how much work needs to go into selling, and know if the business is making money at all,” Bathabile says.
The wonder-woman entrepreneur also told The Springboard Academy about the five most difficult obstacles she had to overcome to start and run a successful business:
1. Balancing home life and entrepreneurship responsibilities “I still battle with this. In the beginning, I worked at home in the evenings way more than I wanted to. I have tried cutting back though.”
2. Overcoming the fear to delegate “I just wanted everything to be perfect and believed that if one wants things done right, one must do them themselves. I have learnt that this is a fallacy. Very few things get done if you do everything yourself.”
3. Hiring the wrong person “The history of the candidate helps paint a picture of who the person is. Interviews are not very helpful.”
4. Pitching to an audience “Preparation and knowing that no one knows what I’m talking about better than me, helped.”
5. Feeling like one has to say yes to every opportunity “Yes, an opportunity is an opportunity, but the value of each opportunity has to be assessed.”
Bathabile's advice for young entrepreneurs is to pursue the business ideas they have.
"Right now in South Africa, there are many opportunities and structures in place to help hone those ideas into businesses. What is required from the entrepreneurs is commitment," she says.
Bathabile says she has always been a scientist, and always loved experimenting at home as a young girl. It just shows; do something you are passionate about and work hard, and great business success could follow.
*Visit the Nkazimulo Applied Sciences’ website for more information about the company and the ChemStart science kit.