How she did it
After struggling with science at a rural school with few resources, Bathabile Mpofu now helps disadvantaged pupils countrywide with her ChemStart science kits.
Bathabile Mpofu and her ChemStart science kits
Bathabile excelled at school and dreamed of becoming a doctor. But her school at Mahlabathini (Ulundi) in Zululand had no science lab or equipment – science was learnt only through textbooks, and her matric marks in science were not good enough for her to be accepted to study medicine at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.
Instead she enrolled for a BSc, but even that was a challenge: ‘In our first science session we were given a list of supplies and told to check we had them in our allocated cupboards – I didn’t even know what most of them were! Coming from a place where people think you’re a genius, it’s very difficult. Your confidence takes a knock and you don’t want to let anyone down.’
She soldiered on against the odds, eventually getting her degree. She then took a job as a laboratory technician at the university, helping students do experiments: ‘So many of them struggled just like I had done, and I could empathise and help. But it was heartbreaking and just didn’t feel right – I wanted to do more.’
Bathabile left to work for a funding agency backing innovative science projects. ‘I soon realised black people weren’t applying, because basic education received in rural schools doesn’t teach you to apply knowledge and think innovatively; it just helps you cram for a pass.’
In 2016 she set out to do something about it. ‘You need vision and passion, but also the persistence and the basic equipment to fulfil the vision.’
She started off by buying chemicals, loading them into the boot of her car and driving to schools, offering to carry out chemistry experiments. ‘To see the kids’ faces when things flamed and changed colour was priceless. Some said, “Miss, you’re doing witchcraft!” I’d say, “No, it’s science!”’
But it wasn’t enough. ‘You need follow-through. So I began packaging chemicals and equipment (beakers, test tubes, safety glasses) along with manuals in kits that the kids could use at school afterwards and do the experiments themselves.’
She applied for seed funding from the University of Cape Town, and today, as Nkazimulo Applied Sciences, she and her team provide kits for Grades 10, 11 and 12, with materials for 30 experiments in each kit. Up to five children can share one kit, each getting valuable hands-on experience.
Pricing is key for any enterprise. ‘Even sourcing items as carefully as possible, I couldn’t bring the price below R750 to R950 a kit. Some parents club together to get one, but many can’t afford it.’
To get more kits to schools, Bathabile approaches companies that support communityupliftment initiatives.
‘There are companies and government bodies out there that will provide assistance, from investment to marketing – you just need to find them (use Google, network!), convince them you can make a difference and be specific about what you need to make it happen.’
And sometimes, she sighs, you also need to convince those who require the upliftment. ‘Last year I arranged with the Department of Science and Technology to visit two schools a day during National Science Week and give out kits, but one school cancelled because it was on a holiday. Relaxing at home was more important to them than pupils’ futures….
‘My business mantra is: “Opportunities come to those who are prepared.” If only everyone understood that!’
To date Bathabile estimates she has done experiments for more than 6 000 children, and distributed more than 1 500 ChemStart kits. ‘The best piece of advice I’ve ever been given is, “Done is better than perfect.” I couldn’t become a doctor myself, but I’m on a new mission – helping others become doctors. And there’s something truly wonderful about that.’