Squeaky clean construction
‘The business culture is so politicised you have to be in the right party to get work’
IN 2006 Lesiba Chuene’s small brick-making business in Limpopo had a one-way ticket to making it big: all he had to do was bribe the right Government official and watch the money role in. Except he didn’t – heeding his father’s advice that if you’re good at what you’re doing, you don’t have to pay someone to give you business. The cynic in me at first scoffed at that account. It’s the building industry: a little bribe here and there is just a necessary entry fee, especially if you’re new to the game.
But after a 40-minute conversation with Chuene I was ready to concede you really do find small operators in this industry not interested in just a quick buck. Although, as Chuene admits with a chuckle, it was the promise of cold hard cash that had him ditch his studies for the life of an entrepreneur in the first place. He’d always worked temp jobs but “became interested in making some money”.
In 2006 his father started experiencing health problems and Chuene jumped at the opportunity to run the family business. Before Chuene joined, Mogodi Bricks and Sands supplied only cement bricks to the community and businesses in Ga-mpahlele in Limpopo. As it was during the time that South Africa’s building industry couldn’t meet the demand, Chuene found himself in the position where his small brickmaking business became the go-to place for local businesses that couldn’t source bricks from their traditional suppliers. “I was motivated by my customers. They’d come in and ask if we had this or that kind of brick and I realised that just selling one product wouldn’t cut it.”
That Chuene can count the mines in the Limpopo as customers is testament to the kind of quality you can expect from Mogodi Bricks. The safety-obsessed mines in this largely platinum-rich area use Chuene’s bricks for underground walls and construction. In 2008 he started selling directly to rural building suppliers Cashbuild and now sells to eight stores in Limpopo.
But he had a tough time convincing a cash cow to invest in his business. To expand his product line from cement bricks (a product losing both popularity and margins) he needed new machinery and trucks for transportation. Trawling from one Government institution and bank to the next, he saw an advert from an NGO for a business plan competition. Technoserve offered a cash prize of R35 000 to entrepreneurs after an intensive course in business plan writing. Chuene was among the winners to receive the cash and went on to win another business plan competition at Richard Branson’s School of Entrepreneurs, putting another R280 000 in his business’s pocket. He used the money to expand into sand, air bricks and windowsills. “There are so many people with viable business ideas out there. If Government could only train them they wouldn’t be so risky to invest in,” says Chuene.
Currently the business employs 25 people, but the numbers change constantly. Chuene explains he loves seeing an employee trained by the company finding a better, higher paying job in the city. “If one of my machine operators gets a job elsewhere, I’m very proud of him.”
Chuene’s roots run deep within his community and it’s to that he attributes the success of his business. “I’m a rural boy and live socially with the locals of the area. Young people want to be ‘tenderpreneurs’ and drive Porsches and they forget their roots.”