He aims to create employment while solving problems and is achieving exactly that

Published On: 5 September 2019|

The Winner of the Student Entrepreneur of 2019 Award, who also won in the Existing Social Impact Business Category (Category 3) of the Entrepreneurship Intervarsity Competition 2019 says growing up, he had no desire to become an entrepreneur. The bug only bit him during the last two years of his high school years.

The 21-year-old University of Cape Town student, Mvelo Hlophe, took home a total cash prize of R60 000 from the inaugural national Entrepreneurship Intervarsity competition. The money comprised the Overall Winner R50,000 award as well as the R10,000 prize for winning in Category 3 of the competition representing Existing Business: Social Impact.

After he scooped the Overall Winner award, his excitement was clearly evident. “When they announced my name I was like ‘yoh!’ I paused for a moment, letting it sink in. I was shocked but very excited.” He recalled at that time that “one or two people had said that I could potentially win in my category. But no one predicted that I would walk away with the overall prize.” Hlophe adds that word on the ground had also been that a top winner was likely to emerge from the technological category because of the high quality of pitches received in that category.

Born in Port Shepstone, Kwa-Zulu Natal, Hlophe recalls that he did not always see himself as an entrepreneur.

Mvelo Hlophe selling the Zaio story to adjudicators during the competition finals on 18 September.

However, he has always enjoyed solving problems. “It was only around Grades 11 and 12 that I developed an interest in entrepreneurship and followed a lot of South African entrepreneurs. I had particular admiration for those in the technological space.”

The name of his winning business, Zaio, is taken from the IsiZulu word okuzayo, which, loosely translated, means future. Zaio is a platform that teaches people, free of charge, how to develop software and code, through a gamified learning experience where they complete theory and learn to solve business problems. The thought of starting his business was sparked off when a developer friend of his, who even though was on the Dean’s list upon graduation, was unable to find employment because he had not built anything at the time. Hlophe jokingly says, “I know that every student wants to build an app; but when my friend went through his ordeal, I knew that my app had to be built.’

Zaio is already solving client problems and providing income to 73 youngsters

There are four levels of training on Zaio. On the first level, users, most of whom are university students, are introduced to the various elements of coding followed by web development. Then they progress to practical tasks where they get to work on real-life projects with South African brands. Zaio’s biggest clients have been Standard Bank, the World Bank, Allan Gray’s E Squard and the YES Project. Hlophe strongly highlights that a large portion of their client base are entrepreneurs who have opened themselves up to this partnership. “We provide web and mobile applications to our clients. They approach us with the solution that they want to be built and we execute it.” Zaio uses the developers they have upskilled to provide client solutions. This has ensured that Zaio users (i.e. coders and developers) are afforded an opportunity to apply what they have learned. The developers that they sign up take a competency test before they take on projects.

He says these client projects are providing real jobs. “We have given part-time jobs to 73 people since we started Zaio in June 2018. Seven of those have built more than one project for us and are continuously applying for more projects. The majority have built at least one web or mobile application with us thus far. From our community of developers we have hired four people into our internal team.

“I work with an amazing team of people”, he says, singling out Akhil Boddu, Ntuthuko Mpaku, Asif Hassim and Harjot Singh, all of whom are students enrolled with the University of Cape Town. “Their main responsibility is to test our own recruitment and upskilling model. In addition to all of this, we have helped two developers land full-time jobs. One of them is working for a technological company whose solution we built. ”

He says the learning journey is self-paced so people complete their training at their own time. “We are, however, currently testing a group upskilling model and we have 15 people ready to finish that by the end of November. If this pilot is successful, we will be taking more people into our group upskilling batches who will be upskilling in six and 10-week cycles, depending on prior experience. They will then be eligible to take on projects and be in line to be recruited full-time by other companies. ”

Big credit for winning is due to the University of Cape Town

Hlophe credits the assistance and support he received from the University of Cape Town for his win. “They literally held our hand since the beginning of the competition,” he says, recognising again that there were a number of UCT studentpreneurs apart from himself, who had entered the competition. “None of our questions went unanswered. Help was readily available whenever we needed it.” Among other initiatives, Hlophe says he benefitted from workshops coordinated by Ms Nadia Waggie, Head of Operations at UCT’s Careers Service, who was also the university’s liaison officer for the Entrepreneurship Intervarsity competition. During those workshops, institutional finalists were offered all manner of assistance to get them to the final round of the competition.

Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng (5th from right, standing), Vice-Chancellor and Principal of UCT, was beaming with pride over the UCT studentpreneurs who had made it to the finals, including the three who made it to the Top Six.

It should not surprise anyone therefore, that UCT was awarded the Entrepreneurial University trophy at the Intervarsity finals for the vibrant culture of entrepreneurship within the institution. Bearing testimony to that is the UCT Vice Chancellor, Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng, who attended the regional competition and made time to attend the finals – visibly supporting her students at the Southern Sun event in Gauteng on 19 September.

Hlophe has picked up important lessons along the way

Since establishing his business, Hlophe’s biggest lesson has been knowing when to say no. “This is highly underrated; but it is very important, especially while studying. Out of excitement, one can easily bite off more than one can chew.”

His second biggest lesson is time management. While networking with other student entrepreneurs along the Intervarsity Competition journey, he learnt different strategies for balancing studying with running a business. “The one that stuck with me most was to treat school as a 9-to-5 preoccupation and then work on my business in the evening.” He says it is very easy to prioritise a business over academics. “But that would be a recipe for disaster,” he adds.

He voluntarily mentions that before he enrolled for his current field of study — a BCom in Politics, Philosophy and Economics, he was studying Business Science, Finance with Accounting. He jumped ship when he felt that Finance was not as big a challenge as he had expected. “The subject matter felt like a routine. I needed something that would challenge my thinking and everything I knew. A BCom qualification in Politics, Philosophy and Economics proved to be exactly that.”

Big dreams as he completes his degree

Asked what he intends to do with the cash prizes won at the Intervarsity Competition, he very decidedly says that “the money is going straight into Zaio. It will go towards our expansion efforts to get more developers upskilled and getting better resources for them.”

By now, the win has sunk in. Without betting an eyelid, Hlophe wants to invest the prize money into Zaio. The cheque was presented to him on 19 September by Ms Mandissa Cakwe, Director: University Capacity Development, Department of Higher Education and Training.

Now in his final year of study, Hlophe looks forward to new beginnings, come 2020. “The team and I will be working in the business full-time from next year. This will allow us to grow at a far more rapid pace than now. We will be based in Cape Town for the first three months and I will be travelling between Jo’burg and Durban once we have set up fully in those cities.”

With an even bigger success in sight for Zaio, Hlophe says “all I want is to help students become employable, to give them some kind of second chance.” He ends off by encouraging students with an enterprising streak to get started. “Zaio is not my first business. The others before it were not as successful but that did not stop me.”

The Entrepreneurship Intervarsity Competition was organised by the Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education (EDHE) programme, a facility of the Department of Higher Education and Training being implemented in partnership with Universities South Africa.

The Writer, Linda Lindani, was a Media and Marketing Consultant to the EDHE Programme during the final leg of the Entrepreneurship Intervarsity Competition in 2019.