By: Kedibone Tsiloane, Entrepreneur
My journey as a female in the male-dominated world of construction started as a child when my father, who owned a construction company, would take my sister and me with him on site. Although I trained in finance and auditing, I think the building industry was always in my blood.
For the first couple of years, we simply worked with my father doing construction projects in and around the Free State, where we were born and raised.
I was always shocked by the price of building materials, so in 2016 we started making our own cement bricks to use on our projects.
My sister has always had a passion for reducing waste and creating a greener environment.
After a lengthy conversation with an elderly waste picker who explained to us how collecting plastic waste from households and landfills allowed her to feed her grandchildren and afford medication, we decided to focus on plastic recycling.
We came up with the idea of taking plastic out of our environment and processing it into a building brick.
For months, we would buy waste plastic in bulk from local informal waste collectors, and mix it with sand and various additives in my mom’s backyard. It was an absolute mess! Thankfully, she was very patient and understanding.
By 2017, we finally had a product we were happy with. We took it for extensive testing at a SANS-accredited lab that tests industry products, and the results were way beyond our expectations.
And so, the Plastibrick was born. It looks like a cement brick but it’s extremely durable. It’s stronger than cement bricks with a longer building lifespan and fewer water requirements, and it’s also fire-retardant.
It has a higher compressive strength – 10MPa versus 7MPa for a cement brick – which allows for single wall constructions at a price that’s competitive against conventional brick. It also offers superior insulation properties and energy efficiency.
Most of all, it offers a real-world solution to the scourge of plastic waste, while providing an income to waste collectors that they use to feed their families. We are also able to use previously unrecyclable plastics, like bottle lids and sweet wrappers, which takes a lot more plastic out of the waste cycle.
To be honest, it hasn’t all been smooth sailing. One of our biggest challenges has been to establish the credibility of the brick. It takes a lot of time and money to do proper testing, and get the product certified and SABS tested. To date, we’ve paid more than R100 000 to have our product tested and another R80 000 to market it at exhibitions.
It’s also been tough to get people to take a young black woman seriously in the world of construction. People tend to doubt you just by looking at you. People are now starting to take us seriously as young businesswomen but it’s been a long road to get here.
Educating people on how best to use the Plasticbrick has also been challenging. Because it requires less water and cement, builders don’t always use them optimally and end up rejecting the bricks.
Three years later, though, and we couldn’t be happier with where the business is. We’re growing our distribution network, and there’s a greater awareness of our product and its benefits.
Being part of the ENGEN Pitch & Polish programme has been one of the best things that ever happened to me.
Make no mistake, it was gruelling. I probably pitched 10 to 15 times, from the regional competition to the finals. But the learnings have been incredible.
Thanks to the mentors at business incubator Raizcorp, which facilitates the ENGEN Pitch & Polish programme, we’ve really learned how to understand, package and communicate our value proposition in a punchy, effective way, and how to sell ourselves and our product convincingly in front of audiences.
We use the principles we learned at ENGEN Pitch & Polish every time we pitch to companies and investors.
We’ve also made incredible connections and grown our network in ways that we could never have imagined. We met Engen as a sponsor of the Pitch & Polish competition, and they’ve taken us under their wing and given us access to people we would never have met otherwise. They’re deeply invested in watching us grow and succeed, and it’s been an incredibly rewarding process.
While we weren’t the main winners of the competition, we’ve walked away with so much value from ENGEN Pitch & Polish. We’d do it again in a heartbeat.