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Sebudisi Mafabatho: The Future of Sustainability (TotalEnergies Startupper of the Year Challenge winner)

SEBUDISI Mafabatho, who founded She-Eco Roof Tiles, won the Award for Best Business Creation Project at the 2022 TotalEnergies Startupper of the Year Challenge. The company produces tiles that are made from 30% plastic waste. The tiles have an approximate 100-year lifespan, don’t corrode, are lightweight and can be painted.

According to her winner profile on the TotalEnergies website, for every roof tile She-Eco Roof Tiles produces, they remove an average of 4 2litre waste bottles from the environment.

Our Editor interviewed Sebudisi for Fastrack July Edition.

DW: Give me insight into your childhood and aspirations growing up.

SEBUDISI: I’ve always been a very ambitious young girl. I grew up in the Vaal Triangle, I attended my primary and high school there. I then left for Johannesburg for varsity. I started my tertiary education at Wits before I [later] went to Cape town.

And in all that, the one thing that kept me going was my dream and my highest ambition right now as a businesswoman is to build a highly successful manufacturing company.

DW: How did your idea come about, what was your AHA moment?

SEBUDISI: I think the aha moment came around 2020, 2021. At the time the Vaal River was heavily polluted, and I think you would’ve seen it in the news everywhere. As a result there was this national movement to rehabilitate the river, my best friend and business partner got the contract for the cleaning of the river. As we worked on site and saw just how much pollution was affecting it, She-Eco was born. So the company was born in response to plastic pollution.

DW: What do you think was your biggest asset throughout the competition?

SEBUDISI: The top 15 had to obviously assemble first for the training from TotalEnergies and its external partners, and then for our presentations which we had to present before a jury of I think 10 people consisting of well-known businesspeople. So I think once you are there, you realise that you’re surrounded by big minds and that everybody’s idea has the potential to win. One of the key things they were looking for were green companies that responded to the SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals). And now all of us in the top 15 from South Africa were sitting in the same room with the solutions.

I think with me what set me apart was my presentation, I had a very technical presentation, and that was also a concern with my coach. So I think what stood out was how much of my business I understood, from the production line to the capacity of the machines and all of that.

DW: So other than the prize or the prizes that you won, what would you say was the most valuable thing about your Startupper Challenge experience?

SEBUDISI: Besides meeting great minds, the validation. Such programs, I think to those who have won like myself and also those who didn’t, give you a certain level of validation. And I think every entrepreneur needs some form of external validation outside the internal work that we do, and that process gives you that. For somebody to believe in my business and say, ‘okay, here’s the money to help you do it’ is a big deal.

DW: Is being your own boss as glamorous as you thought it would be?

SEBUDISI: It’s not, it’s far from it! It’s hard. I always tell my friends, because sometimes I do consulting work, that it is one thing for you to do something for another person and it is another for you to wake up and have to do it for yourself. The struggle is harder. You have to push harder because you go from [zero] accountability to suddenly being the engine and the car at the same time. And I think even the petrol! So it’s very hard.

But I love my dream. We [aspire] to have 400 employees, but now when paying just seven people, it makes you realize that it’s actually a big number of people, a big number of lives that you are impacting. And that’s what keeps me going every day, even when I’m tired.

DW: You almost answered my next question, what is the most fulfilling thing about being an entrepreneur?

SEBUDISI: Paying salaries! It’s become that. Every month end, when you have to pay somebody else’s salary, you remember that this thing is bigger than you and there’s also a sense of responsibility knowing that if you don’t do things right so many people will be affected by your decisions.

DW: There’s no pollution, no climate change, no money problems, nothing. What would you be doing?

SEBUDISI: I’m on top of a mountain, hiking somewhere! And then I’m definitely going for a swim when I come back, I’m an outdoor person.

DW: Have you always been a rockstar even as a child?

SEBUDISI: I’ve always been a rockstar! I believe that I’ve always been a high achiever, but it is a bit different being a high achiever when you are an adult, because you go through life and you realise that it’s not only the mountains, there are valleys as well. And there are so many lessons that you need to learn in between.

DW: What word of advice would you give other young black women who are considering entering the next Challenge?

SEBUDISI: Money in the bank, or a lack thereof rather, should not impede or hamper or disqualify your dream. The society that we live in now? For every entrepreneur, if you don’t have money to show for what you’re doing, it’s very hard for people to take you seriously. But they need to understand that everybody who’s made it, made it because they had a dream.

You might not have access to the resources other successful people had, but the only thing that you have in common, is a dream. And when you keep working on that dream, you can overcome so many obstacles. Keep working on your dream every day as if you’re getting paid by someone, it will pay off eventually.

DW: What do you think black women need more of?

SEBUDISI: I think we need to work on ourselves internally. Nobody else is going to give us what we deserve. We need to get to a point of realising that everything that we desire is within us. There’s a quote that says ‘we are the ones we are waiting for.’ And I think it’s every black woman’s duty to sit down, take time out and realise that everything that they need to succeed and survive in this world is found inside them and no system or legislation will be able to give them what they deserve, unless they stand up and get it for themselves.

DW: What would the title of your autobiography be?

SEBUDISI: I think I would call it The View From The Valley. So I hike a lot. And when the clouds have gathered above the trees, they call it waters from above or the gathering of the clouds; and most of the time, it’s either, you’ll be on top of them for you to see them clearly; or you can also be down below, and see that view. And if you don’t appreciate that, and the only view that you want to see as beautiful is the one from above, then you’re looking at life very confusingly for me. I think you’re missing the point of what life is about.

I had a lot of [highs] in my life. But the lessons that made me a good entrepreneur, the lessons that made me who I am, were not learnt at the top, but in the valley. And I cannot exchange that for anything. I’m so [grateful] for those moments, because now everything is to the top!

DW: Who is your biggest supporter?

SEBUDISI: My biggest supporter is actually my best friend, Lufuno Netshilindi, she’s also my business partner. She’s a very powerful businesswoman and we’ve been holding each other’s hands for as long as I can remember.

DW: What’s next for Sebudisi?

SEBUDISI: The next five years will be focused on the expansion model. In the next five years we have a warehouse or two in Limpopo, that’s our biggest target. Obviously there’ll be a production center here in Gauteng. Also, She-Eco Roof Tiles will be found at most local retailers and after 5 years, we’ll be looking into expanding into SADC countries and the rest of the continent.

Editor’s remark: Sebudisi is easily a breath of fresh air. We bonded for quite some time over our ‘weird’ names that often require a second read-my-lips take every time you meet someone new. I also strongly recommended that she take up motivational speaking if she ever has time to spare from saving the world – you’d agree if you sat in on our interview.

Some of us see rubbish, and geniuses with big hearts like Sebudisi and her friend Lufuno, see Rand signs and sustainability, kudos ladies!

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