A woman made of steel

Making a difference in communities through the manufacturing sector with feminism and class

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When Lebogang Zulu was a child, she rarely played with toys, playing make-believe with bricks instead. Today, this forward-thinking go-getter is CEO for AV Light Steel, and she’s working to bring Innovative Building Technologies to the centre stage of the construction industry.

“I remember a teacher from high school who tried to discourage me from choosing maths and science. I went back to that school years later to speak to that educator because I believe that as an educator, you have an obligation to motivate children. Imagine if I weren’t as stubborn as I am, I would have listened. Instead, I went on to study mechanical engineering,” she says.

“But, I loved my long nails. My first day in the workshop, my lecturer told me to lose the nails. From there, I got my first job at Eskom, and I never really spent time focusing on the girl stuff. All these years later and I’m now finally embracing the girl in me.”

Today, 13 years later, Zulu finds herself in Potchefstroom, in South Africa’s North West province, the proud CEO of AV Light Steel. A Level 1 BBBEE light steel manufacturing company, it is the leading supplier of lightweight steel roof trusses, floor joists, structures and associated products in various materials and profiles.

“Offering our clients excellent service, competitive prices and an innovative and high-quality product ranges, our proudly South African products are supplied across the SADC region including Namibia, Botswana, Swaziland, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi, Angola and DRC,” she says.

A trainee power station manager for Eskom at the time, she was first introduced to lnnovative Building Technologies (IBTs) by her good friend, the late Bafana Bafana soccer player, Shoes Moshoeu, and she knew she wanted to do something different, leaving a legacy that would be meaningful to the communities around her.

“While I was with Eskom, my biggest fear was to become complacent. When colleagues knocked off work, I would spend an extra two hours in the office, learning about all the different processes involved and making sure I had a holistic understanding of how things worked. I believed that I needed to empower myself with knowledge because you can’t speak about something you don’t understand. I was studying through a leadership programme when a lecturer gave us this formula: knowledge equals information plus common sense. It’s taken a good 15 years to understand the concept, but I think it’s so powerful because there is no school that teaches you how to think or process information,” she says.

“So, I realised it was time to enter the real world. Engineers love challenges, and I knew that I wanted to get involved in construction, but the conventional side of the sector wasn’t exciting for me.

“I started taking a more in-depth look at IBTs, and I spent a year studying them. There are 40 approved systems, and the Fortis Building System was one of them.”

While she knew she wanted to venture into the manufacturing side, she believed that it was essential first to understand the product. Zulu founded Tshitshirisang Construction and decided to make use of the Fortis Building System for walls, roof trusses from AV Light Steel and sheeted roof coverings. In eight years, her company delivered 84 classrooms for the Gauteng Department of Education and 258 energy-efficient houses.

“Those first six years of construction were in preparation for my new venture into manufacturing. In July 2017, I approached the late Vincent Bender, the then owner of AV Light Steel, and my preferred supplier of roof trusses. I wanted to create a one-stop-shop, but his facilities at that time were too small. Vincent was really open to transformation, and he offered me a 60% stake in his company at no cost,” Zulu says.

“He started looking for factories for us and found this abandoned facility. I could see the vision, I could hear machines running, and I knew this was it. But in order to secure funding, I knew that we would have to start to change the facilities—to help other people see the same vision that we did. When it comes to starting a business, you have to plough some money in first. If you want to be it, you have to walk it, talk it and live it. Once the factory was refurbished and had a whole new look, I started looking for funding.”

Turning big dreams into reality

Zulu was successful in securing a grant from the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) as a black industrialist, as well as loans from ABSA and IDC. The DTI’s scheme to fund black industrialists in mining and manufacturing granted AV Light Steel R40 million based on 50/50 cost-sharing.

This meant that AV Light Steel needed to make an investment of at least R80 million to access the funds. ABSA granted AV Light Steel a loan of R15 million, while the Industrial Development Corporation (IDC) loaned an additional R61 million at an interest rate of prime minus 2%. Considering the employment creation aspects of the company’s expansion plan, AV Light Steel was only the second company to be funded by the DTI Black Industrialists Scheme in North West.

“Securing these loans was a mammoth task. The process of securing any funding is not child’s play, and it required a whole lot more beyond me just being a woman. We did, however, manage to secure it eventually. We endured many nights at the factory to accomplish this, but what we have managed to achieve in the last two years is nothing short of amazing,” she says.

It took about 15 months to secure the loans. Apart from refurbishing the factory, six machines were purchased from overseas, and the first was delivered earlier this year. The factory is now fully operational, manufacturing the Fortis Building System, roof trusses and sheeting.

“But the work doesn’t stop once you have your funding. It is still a process, and while we have a few milestones behind us, the vision is very much like one big puzzle where every piece matters. The picture for us is not complete, and once you have machinery, employees and the correct facilities you need to start looking at where you see yourself in the future. It’s a big responsibility and the hard work never really stops,” Zulu says.

Of the 40 licences government has granted to manufacture Innovative Building Technology (IBT) materials, 36 are in the Western Cape and only four in the rest of the country. AV Light Steel is the only licensed manufacturer in the North West Province and is thus excellently positioned to fill a massive need in the Northern provinces.

“I am very passionate about what I do, and I am committed to transforming not just the construction industry but innovative building industry as a whole. You will not move me away from the alternative building space. With the huge backlogs in critical social infrastructure, IBT is definitely the solution.”

Over the past few years, there were many successes and challenges, but the biggest challenge was getting the support and buy-in from both the private sector and Government as far as IBTs were concerned.

Her first breakthrough came with the Independent Development Trust (IDT) when AV Light Steel was contracted to build four new schools.

“It was then that I realised that we are not only selling classrooms, schools, houses or even high-rise buildings. We are selling time, quality and energy efficiency. Building a new school with brick and mortar would take two years. We do a full new school in the space of 8 months,” she says.

Last year the company partnered with the National Home Builders Registration Council who had been mandated by Department of Human Settlements to investigate the value of IBTs.

“I approached them and told them about our system. They then identified beneficiaries to showcase the technology. They liked what they saw and contracted us to build six additional houses across the country, including Gauteng, Limpopo, Mpumalanga, Northern Cape, North West and the Free State,” she says.

“Building infrastructure for the public sector is our main focus. I’m looking forward to the day when all builder’s retailers have shelves with our products. The day when the 30% threshold for the use of IBT in public building projects turns into 50% or 60%, we will have achieved our goals. We want to see more schools, penetrate the low-cost housing market and build health facilities. This infrastructure is not a nice-to-have; it is desperately needed.”

Zulu also believes that the growth of the manufacturing sector is vital to the South African economy, and it is in the best position to create much-needed jobs. AV Light Steel will not only directly employ 97 people in Potchefstroom within the next 12 months but also create many more jobs by training contractors to use their products. With every 10 contractors using their IBT systems, an additional 1 200 work opportunities are generated.

Becoming the preferred innovative building system supplier in Africa will help the company to realise its mission. This will also mean that more social infrastructure, homes and commercial buildings can be delivered in the shortest possible time.

“We have already turned an entity with an asset base of R2 million into one with an asset base of R84 million. Our turnover has increased by 30%, from R9 million to R13 million. We have also gone from nine employees to 52 employees, and that is just on the manufacturing side,” Zulu affirms.

Additionally, 40% of the company’s management is female.

Putting women at the top

“It’s not just about the gender scorecard. Female empowerment should always be an agenda. I look at how I’ve managed myself and continue to lead my team, and once you come to see your own capabilities, that’s when the mindset and mind shift begins. Women are super capable. They have mental strength while men have physical strength. We must realise the importance of not worrying about things that we can’t control, and women often cloud their minds with unnecessary worry. We must remember that our brain remains one size, so we should fill it with what is important. As women we must not lose ourselves, we have goals, things we want to achieve, and we can’t do these things if we only have 10% of our brain’s capacity to spend on ourselves,” she says.

For Zulu, one of the biggest challenges she has had to face is the perceptions of her male counterparts.

“I remember when we were building classrooms as part of a GDE programme. It was my first meeting with the consultants employed on the project, and I was there to give a progress update. Contractor number six had just left the room, and I walked into a room full of young engineers and project managers who were already frustrated by the contractors they had spoken to before. The thing about the built environment is that these professionals often view contractors as illiterate people, and as a contractor myself, I can see this attitude immediately when I walk into the room. I see their body language, but it’s important not to be offended. You can’t be emotional,” she says.

“I could see their body language change soon after I started talking. I drove that meeting, and I know that it was the knowledge I had to share that changed their minds. As a woman, you often have to work to change the perception first, but I believe that if we as women started to embrace that, we would become stronger and smarter with that added pressure. I choose not to play the victim. I remember my first interview with Eskom, where all I had was a piece of paper and my willingness to learn. I believed then that that would be my first and last appointment based on affirmative action. It’s not something you can sustain. The door may have opened because I am a black woman, but I believe that it is important what you do when that door opens,” she asserts.

Zulu has also worked alongside South African Women in Construction (SAWIC), an initiative that was founded to empower women to gain access to business opportunities, training, finance and networks in the construction industry.

“We worked alongside them as a mentor on the construction of a house, and working very closely together; I learned a lot. I now understand the industry from a different perspective. And what I learned when we invited them for a lunch session was that it doesn’t matter how many empowerment programmes we, or Women’s Day celebrations, if the narrative is not on ourselves as business owners and innovators, none of that matters,” she says.

“We need to talk about ourselves more. We need to talk about where we want to go, who needs assistance, and who has made it in terms of success. I think it’s a mind shift, and we need to believe in how much we want this. We must want to succeed in construction and manufacturing, and we have to commit ourselves.”

Zulu is very clear about her vision for the company in the next five years. She would like to build at least three other manufacturing facilities in other parts of the country.

“There is a backlog of infrastructure countrywide, and we cannot supply KZN from the North West Province; the transport alone would make it financially unfeasible. We also want to train at least 30 to 40 contractors to use IBT and have them certified. Part of our vision is to supply materials to Africa, and we want to be part of an effort to take South Africa from a consumer society to players in manufacturing and export of innovative products,” she says.

“I would also like to identify other women who are interested in manufacturing and partner with them. I see a lot of value in holding the hand of another woman in the same sector, providing them with an opportunity to own that facility. This is how I would like to leave a legacy, to have more women in this space, and I will do everything to empower them. But I am also aware that I need to empower the right mind, somebody who is ready for growth. This kind of power must find you when you are ready. Otherwise, you could make a wrong decision, and the responsibility can overwhelm you,” she shares.

Building stronger, better and faster for a better tomorrow

Environmental awareness is also firmly embedded in AV Light Steel’s values.

“In small rural areas, air-conditioning is unaffordable. Our structures are designed to be more energy-efficient and leave a much smaller carbon footprint than brick and mortar structures. The Fortis Building System ticks all the boxes as far as energy efficiency is concerned. Walls and roofs are well insulated, to keep the structure cool in summer and warm in winter, and careful consideration is given to fenestration, which includes the placing of windows,” Zulu explains.

The Fortis Building System is an approved, time-saving and cost-effective alternative building technology to build sustainable structures.

The Fortis wall is a strong structure of a strength ratio ranging from 23Mpa up to 28Mpa and provides excellent thermal, acoustic, fire, water, wind and termite resistance. It is a much faster construction method to that of conventional systems, and the panels are lightweight, very easy to build with, and it requires limited skilled labour.

As part of their CSI, AV Light Steel’s Mandela Day project this year was building a house for Gogo Mashinini in the Free State. This house was built in 12 days using AV Light Steel’s fortis building system, light-gauge steel trusses and profiled roof sheet covering.

“This woman finally got the house she has been praying for the last 25 years. The project was a joint effort between the Free State Department of Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation, and the NHBRC and us, and it was so rewarding. It’s about more than just building a house, but also restoring the dignity of our elders and communities. We believe that it’s more than just providing a house, but a home where people can be comfortable in their own space,” Zulu enthuses.

AV Light Steel are also distributors for the Zero-H2O waterless system, an innovative sanitation solution for rural areas or areas where the municipal sewer infrastructure is not in place. Zero-H2O dry toilets provide a safe, non-polluting and cost-effective solution to the global sanitation problem. Not only does the toilet save on water use, but it is entirely isolated from the surrounding environment and cannot contaminate underground water resources.

The system utilises a natural biological process to break down human waste into a dehydrated odourless compost-like material which can be used to make compost, disposed of through municipal waste services or even used as a source of fuel.

“It is unrealistic to think that the government will be able to roll out infrastructure at a pace that keeps up with the current demand. The Zero-H2O sanitation system does not need sewer or water infrastructure, and it uses a ventilation system to dry the waste. Pit toilets will become a thing of the past, and even if a child were able to find themselves in the tank, there is no chance of them drowning. This is really exciting for us, and these toilets could change the lives of many,” she says.

Three people living in a house with the Zero-H2O system would take up to two years to fill the storage tank. All of the Smart homes built by AV Light Steel have been fitted with this system.

The company has also donated furniture to the recipients of their Smart houses.

“We call them Smart houses because we want to change the perception that people have about RDPs. An RDP house must still be a home for somebody, and just because it is a 40m2 house does not mean it should not be one they can be proud of,” Zulu concludes.

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