Two young South African scientists decided to mine their experience and start their own business, writes Lucas Ledwaba
The constant threat of falling victim to the scourge of retrenchments in the mining sector inspired two enterprising youngsters to work towards becoming their own bosses in the industry. Sharon Musiiwa Mugubi (28) and Munei Raphalalani (31) are now the owners of Ronewa Analytical Laboratory, which provides coal testing and analysis.
As a start-up in 2013, with no capital or a clientele history, the odds were heavily stacked against them.
“Access to funding was a major challenge for us as most funding institutions were not prepared to take a risk to fund a start-up entity,” said Mugubi.
Raphalalani said that, as a start-up business, building a clientele base was not easy “because mining companies were not willing to give us a chance”.
But they were determined to succeed, and turned adversity into an opportunity.
They applied for a loan from the Industrial Development Corporation (IDC) to help them fund the purchase of equipment and vehicles required to set up their operations in Limpopo’s capital, Polokwane.
“The experience was quite challenging, but it was worth it. The application process was vigorous and the IDC expected a lot from us, but, in the end, we lived up to the expectations and standards,” said Raphalalani.
Mugubi said: “The IDC has not only assisted us with funding, it has also provided guidance and business support programmes, which we desperately needed as start-up entrepreneurs.”
Ronewa has since secured a two-year contract from Universal Coal to carry out laboratory coal testing services at the company’s coal projects in Limpopo and Mpumalanga.
They are expected to analyse the samples and communicate to Universal within two working days of receiving the coal.
They are also expected to deliver services that follow standards of practice recognised by first-class laboratories that perform similar work under similar circumstances.
Universal said it had taken Ronewa on board as part of its enterprise development initiative, and that Ronewa would also service its mines in Mpumalanga, 250km from Polokwane.
Looking back, the two believe they made the right decision by becoming entrepreneurs instead of employees.
“We chose to be in charge of our destiny to have stability and comfort,” said Raphalalani.
Raphalalani has more than seven years of experience in the mining sector with a B-Tech qualification in metallurgical engineering. His training in the industry varies from laboratory operation to plant supervision.
“This is where I gained experience in the analysis of a wide range of minerals, including coal, metallurgical coal [coking coal], chrome, limestone and dolomite,” he said.
Mugubi graduated with a national diploma and a B-Tech in analytical chemistry. She also holds a postgraduate diploma in operations management and a masters of business administration from North-West University.
She started as a trainee student and worked her way up until she became the youngest quality assurance manager at AfriSam cement group.
“Being passionate about what we do influenced us to start Ronewa Analytical Laboratory. We also wanted to play a meaningful role in our country by curbing the high unemployment rate that South Africa faces,” said Mugubi.
But they warn that being your own boss is not for everyone.
“If entrepreneurship was so easy, everyone – or most people – would be doing it. For us to succeed, we had to stand out and be different. We took daily steps towards our dream. Through prayer, dedication, hard work and persistence, we prospered.”
Although the business was established in 2013, it took the pair a long and hard four years to get it to where it is now. They identify the IDC loan as a breakthrough.
Ronewa is now in the process of being accredited by the SA National Accreditation System, which is the only accreditation body that certifies South African laboratories to international standards.
They work in a tough, competitive and strict industry that requires high standards as their work entails analysing coal for physical and chemical properties.
“Analytical laboratories are used for this purpose to determine the rank of coal along with its intrinsic characteristics,” said Raphalalani.
The company’s workforce has gradually grown from two employees to five full-time workers. They are anticipating further growth to more than 40 staff this year. But this is not the end of it – they are aiming even higher. “We believe the future is surely bright for us. Ronewa plans to expand to many regions in South Africa and beyond, which is a strategy that we have already began to initiate. We would like to play a meaningful role in our country, which has a high youth unemployment rate. Our plan is to employ and train graduates who are in dire need of jobs.”
MINING SUCCESS Sharon Mugubi and Munei Raphalalani run the Ronewa Analytical Laboratory, which was set up in 2013. The business services coal mines in the Limpopo and Mpumalanga areas