The Indigo Kulani Group has been making a splash in the construction industry since its humble beginnings 10 years ago… but today it’s making waves across the wider infrastructure and property development sector


“When things aren’t working, I think of how I can change them for the better. Growth can’t be achieved without overcoming challenges… and I thrive on challenges”

What began as a company specialising in the provision of planning and design services within the construction industry in 2006 has grown and evolved over the past 10 years to become an innovative and integrated multi-disciplinary infrastructure and property development and investment holding company whose business belief is that creating an impact is paramount.

The founder and Group Chief Executive Officer of the Indigo Kulani Group, Sibongile Manganyi-Rath, is an inspiration to behold, both as a dynamic businesswoman and in her personal life as a wife, mother, homemaker and mentor to many. She has personally ensured that the company has grown from strength to strength over the past 10 years and today it is a formidable multi-disciplinary infrastructure and property development and management company.

The group has operational presence in all nine of South Africa’s provinces and has expanded its operations to other African countries, with projects in Tanzania, Angola, Nigeria, Ghana and Lesotho.

“Our vision is to become a dominant infrastructure management and property development services company that makes a positive contribution to the development of South Africa and the continent as a whole,” says Manganyi-Rath, who was only 26 years old when she launched the business.

“The Indigo Kulani Group’s journey is built on the principles of hard work, determination and commitment in all that we do and these have been the key ingredients that have taken us to where we are today,” she says. “Many entrepreneurs face severe challenges when doing business with government in developing countries and South Africa is no exception.

“As with many growing businesses, cashflow is a challenge and government is known to take longer to pay service providers than corporate clients would. However, the company has grown in spite of this challenge as we continue to evolve the business model to make it a success by responding to current affairs that challenge the country,” says Manganyi-Rath. “Our relationship with government is that of a partnership and as we are continuously finding ways to better service our client this approach has contributed to the growth of the business.”

As a country operating in a global world with numerous challenges, many South Africans are unsure of their future but Manganyi-Rath decided long ago that she wants to continue living and working in South Africa. Leaving was never an option.

“If we all leave then who will be here to make a difference? I want to be an agent of change. When things aren’t working, I think of how I can change them for the better. I have learned that challenges are there to help us to grow. Growth can’t be achieved without overcoming challenges,” she says, adding: “And I thrive on challenges.”

Successful servant leadership

Manganyi-Rath is a strong believer in ‘servant leadership’.

“As much as I am the Group CEO, I’m also the first servant in the organisation,” she explains. “Being in business is about serving: serving your clients, employees and shareholders, as well as society-at-large.”

As the Indigo Kulani Group continued to grow from a small to a medium-sized business it established trust among its clients who in turn also grew in size. It was essential that the company bring on board skills and experience to boost its team and over time it was able to attract employees from more established companies to join the group.

“Just the fact that they believed in our business and took the risk themselves made me humble, as I realised that they have faith in me as a leader,” says Manganyi-Rath, who does all she can to ensure that her employees are also able to meet their personal goals.

“I have one-on-one interviews with my prospective employees as I want to get to know my team and take the opportunity to expand the company’s vision. It is incredible to hear how they view the company and to hear their reasons for why they moved from where they were to the Indigo Kulani Group. It made me realise that I have a much bigger responsibility to my employees as they expect me to serve and lead them, and I have to ensure that I lead by example. They have entrusted their hopes and dreams for the future to our company.”

A learning curve

The past 10 years have been a steep learning process for Manganyi-Rath. Not only has she learnt an immense amount about mitigating issues around cashflow and growing her business, but she has also learnt to draw upon past inspiration.

“The business started without a loan or any debt and ran for 10 years without even a bank overdraft, for example. My father couldn’t read or write, but he ran a successful, small informal business without any debt and this led me to look at the principles he used to overcome his challenges. I started looking at what I had so that I could find solutions to ensure that the business could grow and, in so doing, I discovered that evolving the business into new areas was the solution. I learnt that debt is not a solution to cashflow challenges, although it can be required for expanding into other areas of business.

“The keys to our success included understanding the market, predicting future trends as well as our clients’ ever-changing needs and driving the business to better cater for the needs of our clients without changing our vision. I looked at how I could best service my clients in addition to finding opportunities for growth. There were gaps in the market and I found them. This is what entrepreneurs do—they see the gaps that help them to grow other streams of business,” she says.

The Indigo Kulani Group is a projects-based company which in essence makes it difficult to run as the business can often only invoice its clients once certain project deliverables have been met. It became Manganyi-Rath’s mission to find better ways of servicing her clients while remaining a projects-based business.

The solution was found through diversifying the business and expanding its services from planning and design into an infrastructure development management company with four core focus areas, namely Infrastructure Development Management, Property Development Management and Investment, Energy Generation and Investment, in addition to Manufacturing and Construction.

“Infrastructure Development Management includes feasibility studies, project planning, budget allocations, project prioritising and portfolio management. Our service offering ensures projects planning, prioritising and projects implementation of government’s infrastructure projects, and we continue to improve in creating value for money for all stakeholders and ultimately society-at-large. It’s thus critical that infrastructure development is informed by certain drivers and these should influence project delivery and not necessarily a political agenda,” says Manganyi-Rath.

“Government must ensure that society-at-large receives value for money and that the right projects are implemented at the right time and at the right cost. A school, for instance, should not take six years to build when a shopping centre only takes eight months. Due to inflation, the longer a construction project takes, the more expensive it becomes to build.”

In terms of Property Management, the Indigo Kulani Group realised early on that the government, as the largest asset owner in the country, could be a key client for growing their ever-expanding business and that adding value to the government would be a major factor in winning future work.

“It’s easy for an architecture or engineering company to sit and wait for projects to come out on tender and then to design new buildings, but we first want to look at the assets that are already available to the government, allowing us to develop credible asset registers and conduct property valuations. There’s a great need for government departments to develop asset registers as we are currently doing for the Ekurhuleni Metropolitan Municipality and various state-owned entities. This way they’ll have knowledge of where their assets are, what they are worth and what they can be best used for.

“Our philosophy is based on creating value for government, because once they know the value of their assets they can start project planning and prioritising their needs. It’s all about optimising what they have. If there’s an abandoned building, for example, together we can strategise to determine how to derive the best value from it. In many instances, government departments rent property without realising that they have their own assets that could be optimised to save costs. Our belief is that if we serve the government in the best possible way, then we are serving South Africa-at-large.”

The Indigo Kulani Group has expanded its work portfolio by offering Portfolio and Construction Management as a service for the past five years. Manganyi-Rath explains that government departments often face challenges regarding human capital, a lack of proper planning and management systems. “That’s why we partner with government to assist them to accelerate and upscale their in-house skills. We partner internally with project managers, enabling them to excel in what they do.”

Making an impact in society

Manganyi-Rath’s focus for the Indigo Kulani Group is to make a difference and an impact in society, especially when it comes to the projects that the company tackles.

“If a project isn’t going to make an impact in society, we don’t embark upon it. At the end of the day, it’s not about making money. It’s about doing what we are passionate about. We enjoy being involved in socio-economic development infrastructure projects and we have already completed a few large ones,” says Manganyi-Rath.

Four years ago the company was appointed to offer programme management services for the Department of Education’s Accelerated Schools Infrastructure Delivery Initiative (ASIDI). The objective of ASIDI is to eradicate the Basic Safety Norms backlog in schools that are without water, sanitation and electricity and to replace schools that have been constructed from inappropriate materials (mud, plankie and asbestos) to contribute towards levels of optimum learning and teaching.

The impact of ASIDI is far reaching. Firstly, it provides infrastructure that exceeds the minimum norms and standards for educational facilities in South Africa. In rural and other economically depressed areas this represents a significant development for communities that constantly refer to ASIDI schools as ‘universities’. Secondly, much more than brick and mortar, ASIDI schools are helping to restore dignity and pride to those who have been deprived of facilities for far too long. More than 100 new schools have already been constructed.

“The difference these schools have made in communities where traditionally children drop out of school is wonderful,” says Manganyi-Rath, stressing that the Indigo Kulani Group sees education as all-important, which is why it established the Indigo Education Foundation. “I see education as giving someone a key and the necessary skills to create a better future for themselves. What they do with it is up to them.”

Project planning

The Indigo Kulani Group believes steadfastly in the importance of being involved in the pre-planning and design of projects they undertake, in particular with the planning and design of hospitals and community health clinics. Manganyi-Rath explains that most South Africans don’t understand that, even though Soweto has the Baragwanath Hospital into which people are referred, the hospital does not have sufficient capacity to serve the community.

“People are referred to Baragwanath by a clinic and they have to borrow money to get there. However, once they arrive they are told there’s no space so they can’t get to see a doctor. That becomes a wasted trip and expense for the people who can least afford it. They then have to borrow more money to go back to the hospital at a later date. With community healthcare clinics though, government is taking healthcare to the people, so we have to create the environment and the infrastructure to enable these communities to thrive.”

In order to realise its vision of becoming a dominant infrastructure and property development company, the Indigo Kulani Group wants to continue building partnerships with government. “We offer our services to government and we see them as a partner, not just a client. Eventually, we hope our partnerships will enable us to become involved in policy changes that help to drive the future of our country,” says Manganyi-Rath.

Finding her feet

When she started the business Manganyi-Rath’s focus wasn’t on making money. She read Robert Kiyosaki’s Rich Dad, Poor Dad when she was just 18 and his words impacted her greatly, inspiring the creation of her own business rather than living paycheck to paycheck. Through her spiritual upbringing she also learnt that the only way to quell greed is to give.

“I don’t ever want to be greedy—life is too precious to be self-involved. I am the daughter of two people who didn’t go to school and who always said that if I go to school then my life will be better. They understood the value of education.

“I know how education can change someone’s life and the Indigo Kulani Foundation ensures that we continually find ways of giving another person the opportunity to change their own life. But what does changing someone’s life mean? My father used to say he won’t have a person in his house who doesn’t work for what they need. I loved him but, at the time I didn’t understand what he meant. He got us working very early in life and when I was 12 years old I was already selling corn for him. Today I appreciate the fact that these values were instilled in me from an early age and I will always employ them in everything I do.”

When she started the Indigo Kulani Foundation, Manganyi-Rath decided that it would be something different from the typical foundation.

“Making a difference has to be sustainable. When we get involved in anything we have to ask how sustainable it’s going to be in a person’s life,” she says, explaining that they carefully selected high school children as beneficiaries of the Foundation as they felt that this was where they could make the most difference.

“Our programmes are designed in such a way that children can search within themselves to find out what it is that they want to achieve and what they were born to do. For our part, we assist them to find their Vision for their Lives. While my father ingrained the values of working hard, being committed, finding solutions around income-generation and cashflow and always finding different ways of doing things, my mother inspired the giving part of my nature. For instance how to make life better for others by giving them the skills they need. The Indigo Kulani Foundation is founded on all of these principles,” she says.

“Children don’t drop out of school because they don’t have food. When it comes to neighbours and township life, people won’t go hungry as there’s a spirit of Ubuntu. They might not have shoes or clothes but they won’t go hungry. They drop out of school due to not knowing their life purpose or understanding how education can make a difference in their life. It’s also harder for girls as, traditionally, men are the hunters and women are the gatherers.

“Our programmes are designed in such a way that these young women are able to search within themselves, enabling them to find what it is that they want to achieve and what it is that they were born to do, apart from becoming wives, mothers and home-makers.”

When she was a young girl, Manganyi-Rath also had her own vision, even though it wasn’t clear to her at the time. Born in Soweto, she knew she wanted to have a better life. She wanted to go to school and university and have her own house, car and independence, so when life presented her with paths that weren’t part of her vision she was able to steer clear of them.

“It’s so important to have a vision when you are young. When I went to high school in Bedfordview I had to catch three modes of transport to get to school and, as a result, I was exhausted in class by 10am because I had woken up at 4am to prepare for my journey from Soweto to Bedfordview. I could have taken the easy way out and found a boyfriend with a car to drive me, like many of the other girls did, but I’ve never taken the easy way out and I hope that I can inspire and empower other young people to do the same. I want to empower them to fight for what they want to achieve and to build strength and confidence along the way.”

An entrepreneurial spirit

To other entrepreneurs, Manganyi-Rath offers the following advice: “One of the most important lessons I have learnt is when you are a leader you need to be prepared to walk the journey alone until you can find those who can walk the same journey with you.”

She also believes in the importance of a post remaining vacant until a suitable person with the right attitude is found.

“Some of my lessons have been learnt through not hiring the right people for our organisation. While they might have had the right qualifications and experience, they didn’t have the right attitude or passion. Skills can easily be taught and you can send employees on training, but it’s very difficult to change someone’s attitude.”

Manganyi-Rath’s other advice for entrepreneurs is to stop complaining about things that don’t work and things that are degenerating.

“Rather think about what you can do to improve your circumstances. It’s up to all of us to make things better. The government has created funds but people in South Africa have a tendency to not want to take risks. They want past glories to take them into the future. So ask yourself what skills you have and what can you do to find the capital, clients or connections required for your business.

“Great entrepreneurship is about making a difference and having the ability to adapt and understand your clients’ needs in order to provide them with better service. This is the only way to succeed. That’s why people refer to entrepreneurs as ‘hustlers’ because they are always trying to find ways to sell things. It’s about finding out what people want and then selling it to them. For example I was trained in architecture but I have evolved. I believe that the Indigo Kulani Group is a legacy that I’m building and this is what I will continue to do.

“Entrepreneurs get frustrated when they think that business is only about money. If they don’t have a specific plan and course to follow—or the passion for achieving it—then their business won’t grow. They need to know why they want to do something and the reason has to be bigger than purely a desire to make money. When they get to this point it’s not about them anymore, but about bettering things for everyone.”

Manganyi-Rath took heed from the many people she looks up to, including Sir Richard Branson, whose book, Screw It, Let’s Do It, she read in one night.

“You need to be able to lead the change that you want to see and to be persistent. Even when I started my business I knew that I wanted to do something greater… but I just didn’t know what it was at the time. You have to ask yourself thought-provoking questions. Do you just want to make a living for yourself or do you want to grow your business and take responsibility for others? I had the opportunity not to grow and to rather make a nice living by just doing a few projects but I realised that some people are not born to make a living only for themselves. I’m not in business for myself only, but rather for a bigger cause. My team—the soldiers of change—partner with me to make a difference in society,” she says.

The balance between work and home life

A wife and home-maker, Manganyi-Rath is also the mother of a two-and-a-half-year-old girl, so striking a balance between her work and home life is extremely important to her.

“When a woman decides to pursue a career and a family, it’s critical that she chooses the right partner, one that supports both her career as well as her personal goals,” she says.

That’s why the Indigo Kulani Foundation is including career development for young graduates (particularly young women) as part of its programmes. “We want to ensure that young women are equipped early in their lives to choose a career and a family life as well. We are aware of how hard it can be to strike the right balance, however, it is possible for the two to coexist without strife in a woman’s life.”

“Success is never owned, it’s rented and the rent is due every day,” said Rory Vaden, and this is one of Manganyi-Rath’s favourite quotes. Another is Mary Tyler Moore’s “You can’t be brave if you’ve only had wonderful things happen to you.” Both quotes highlight the passion and dedication she puts into making a success of all of her roles as a woman.

“Sometimes it’s not easy and it’s tempting to outsource the care of a child so that you can focus on your career, but being a parent is a great responsibility and it’s up to you to mould your child’s life. You have to ask, ‘what kind of person would you like your child to be 30 years from now?’ Then you do all you can to help them get there,” she says.

Manganyi-Rath believes that time is the most expensive trading currency in life, which is why she believes that time management is a crucial skill. “I began to structure my life so that I could create value in everything, just like a chess game. If I don’t get to go to gym today then I will get there tomorrow. You have to keep moving the pieces. This is also why you need to ensure that you hire the right people, so that when you are not at the office you know that your clients are in capable hands.”

Two areas that Manganyi-Rath does not compromise on are excellence and high performance. “If we want to see change then we have to do things excellently. We need to be intentional in what we do. The Indigo Kulani Group does not carry passengers at any level, from the tea lady to all other staff, we are all passionate about what we do.”

Whilst the Indigo Kulani Group upholds various core values and business principles (namely passion, determination, integrity, humility, courage, respect and shareholder value), it has further defined and translated these principles to have a specific meaning for the group and its employees.

These include making a difference and creating an impact, leading with intention, excellence and high performance, their spirit of service, learning and growth, as well as creating social and economic value for all of their shareholders (customers, employees, investors, partners and even society-at-large). Even though there’s no doubt that the Indigo Kulani Group is successful, it still retains a desire to find solutions to some of the ills that face South Africa.

“You don’t have to be a non-profit organisation to do this. We are a socio-economic business that wants to ensure that the projects that we tackle improve people’s lives,” says Manganyi-Rath.

An inspiration to others

Manganyi-Rath’s journey to becoming the founder and Chief Executive Officer of the successful and award-winning Indigo Kulani Group came from humble beginnings. The last child of 14 siblings, she attended Rishile Primary School in Meadowlands, Soweto, until her passion took her to Bedfordview High School, a multi-racial school that she longed to attend even though she did not know how she would pay her school fees.

“I did not know that the long journey from Soweto to Bedfordview every morning and afternoon would eventually be the beginning of the journey that would lead me to the industry I operate in today,” she says.

“The bus journey exposed me to daily progress at construction sites in downtown Johannesburg and raised questions in my young mind about the lack of women working on these projects. That’s why I studied architecture, as I hoped to change the industry.”

She obtained a National Diploma and Baccalaureus Degree from the Cape Peninsula University of Technology while also holding down a job. “It was my relentless spirit and vision to make a positive contribution to the construction industry that led me to acquire extensive experience from various prestigious architectural companies in the country, with award-winning commercial, upmarket residential and presidential projects,” she says.

She went on to join Silver Horns Architects as a director and worked on a joint-venture with Paradigm Architects on several projects, prior to founding the Indigo Kulani Group.

In October 2012 the company won BBQ’s Best Established SMME Award and Manganyi-Rath was honoured as Businesswoman of the Year at the age of 32. In April 2013 the Indigo Kulani Group received the Best SME award at the Oliver Empowerment Awards.

“I believe that a successful nation is determined by the passing of a vision from one generation to another,” says Manganyi-Rath, who is doing everything she can to ensure that the Indigo Kulani Group remains a beacon of hope for many young South Africans.

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