Meet Thamsanqa Mdluli, the Entrepreneur of the Year 2023: From Mine-Worker to Rubbing Shoulders with His Majesty

By Phiwa Sikhondze

Q: You are the 2023 Entrepreneur of the Year winner. Where did your journey start?

A: It has been a journey and a half. After completing high school, I left the country to look for work in South Africa where I worked in the mines for about 33 years. I fortunately, got to South Africa when negotiations for the release of former President Nelson Mandela were at advanced stages. As a result of the changing political landscape, we were sent to college because the mine wanted to make some changes from the way they did things during the apartheid era. I suppose they saw this as an opportunity to bring some equality among the different races. When I got to college, I studied mechanical engineering. I recall that I got position one during my N3, and received a certificate of appreciation. That certificate enhanced my confidence. Upon completion of my N6 in 1989, I was sent to Vaal Technikon to do a B-Tech Diploma, in which I also excelled. I then returned to the mine to do my apprenticeship and was later certified as a qualified mechanical engineer.

I was then offered a job at Sibanye Gold Mine where I was placed in the Critical Spares department, managing 13 workshops simultaneously. That was a huge role and responsibility because the Critical Spares department is central to a mine’s operation. In 2014, I bought shares in a company called Western Area Steel that dealt with steel products manufacturing in South Africa. What I’m doing here in Eswatini is a replica of what the company was doing. That is when I began thinking of owning my own steel business.

In 2016, I got in touch with the Eswatini Investment Promotion Authority (EIPA) to enquire if any company in Eswatini manufactured steel products. I found out that there were none. I saw the gap and delved deeper into the market analysis and research to determine the level of demand for these products. I found that the estimated total number of doorframes imports per month was around 40 000 units and that created the eagerness in me to want to occupy that space in the country. That was when I resigned from the mine and sold my shares at Western Area Steel. Using the proceeds from my sold shares, together with my pension and savings, I came back home and set up Acero Steel Frames. With the help of EIPA, I got a workshop at the Small Enterprises Development Company (SEDCO) at their Matsapha Estate.

My first client was Corban Electrical which was a humbling moment. In 2018, Buy Cash Hardware also came on board and that was a major breakthrough for me. From that time, I started growing, improving the business, diversifying the products, and adding products like nails, brick forces, and meter boxes. The space at SEDCO became small and I had to get a bigger space. I bought our current business location (warehouse in Matsapha) in 2021 and I worked on developing it until January 2023 when we finally moved into these premises. I’m proud to say I built this workshop without taking out a loan.

Q: That has been quite a journey. Can you tell us more about your business, Acero Steel Frames? What exactly does your company do, and what products do you specialize in?

A: We mostly focus on the manufacturing of steel doorframes. We supply both light-duty and heavy-duty door frames which are required by construction companies, who together with hardware shops make up the bulk of our orders. We also manufacture window frames, brick forces, nails, and meter boxes. We also sell steel.

Q: Who is your core clientele?

A: My clients are typically construction companies such as Icon Investments, Afrotim Construction, Stefanutti Stocks, Roots Construction, Du-Van Developers, and others. I also supply most hardware shops in the country. Approximately 70% of hardware businesses in Eswatini are my clients.

Q: How did you know the market would be receptive to a business like yours, especially because there aren’t many local businesses operating within that space?

A: I did a lot of market research and analysis before starting the business. I found out that the demand for steel products was high, and that the supply was mainly from South Africa. I also found out that the local consumers preferred to buy small orders, rather than bulk orders, which gave me an advantage over the South African suppliers whose business model is mainly based on taking bulk orders.

Q: How did the COVID-19 pandemic affect your business?

A: On the contrary, the COVID-19 pandemic benefited my business because it came with lockdowns that restricted the moving of goods through border gates. As a result, I gained a lot of new customers during the pandemic, as local people could not import from South Africa as they previously did, and, instead, they had to rely on Acero Steel Frames as a local supplier.

Q: You have come a long way in your entrepreneurial journey. What challenges have you come across, and how have you dealt with them?

A: I have faced several challenges. Firstly, working in such a virgin space was challenging, I must say. Initially, a lot of emaSwati did not believe I could do the job. The second challenge was the competition from the already established South African suppliers, who had a larger market share and could lower their prices to undercut me. However, as I mentioned earlier, I survived this challenge through my local positioning because the competition requires clients to make bulk orders yet our clients in Eswatini do not do many bulk orders, so that’s the advantage that has helped me survive. I am flexible enough to deliver small orders, wherever required. I also overcame this challenge by focusing on my competitive advantages, such as my quality, competitive pricing, flexibility, and customer service delivery. I also invested in improving my production capacity, efficiency, and innovation.

Q: As you scale a business of this nature one would assume that you would require some capital injection. Have you had local financial institutions assist you along the way? If so, how?

A: I have been assisted by the Industrial Development Company of Eswatini (IDCE, formerly SIDC) and Standard Bank Eswatini. IDCE helped me when I started my business, by providing me with a loan to buy some of the equipment and inputs. Standard Bank Eswatini on the other hand helped me in 2021, by providing me with working capital to expand my business and buy more equipment and inputs. I am grateful to both of them for their trust and assistance.

Q: Let’s move on to the big one. How did it feel and what did it mean to you to be crowned the Entrepreneur of The Year 2023?

A: It meant a lot to me. It was a great honour and a privilege to receive the award from His Majesty King Mswati III. It was also a recognition and a validation of my hard work and achievements thus far. The Award has subsequently given me and my company a lot of publicity and exposure which has opened a lot of business opportunities. Being awarded this honour has also motivated me to work harder and aim higher.

Q: Did you expect to win?

A: Yes, I was very confident that I was going to win. I knew that I had a strong case and a unique business. There was no way I could not win it (chuckles).

Q: What does this accolade mean for the business, going forward?

A: This accolade means that the business has a bright future and a lot of potential for growth and expansion. It also means that the business has a competitive edge and a strong reputation in the market. It also means that the business has an added responsibility and a role to play in the economic development and social transformation of Eswatini.

Q: What does the future hold for Acero Steel Frames? Where do you see the business in the next 5-10 years?

A: I have given myself two years for our next growth phase. In two years, I want us to have our automatic door-frame roll-forming machine. This machine can help produce up to 1200 doorframes per day. This would enable us to take up close to 100% of the market in Eswatini. Five years from now, I want Acero Steel Frames to be in the business of manufacturing products for exportation.

Q: In closing, what words of wisdom would you share with local entrepreneurs who are starting out?

A: EmaSwati should know that God wants everyone to work hard. Do not stop advancing. People should learn not to start a business as a means to make a quick buck, but they should rather focus more on leaving a mark in whatever they do, the money will automatically follow if you’re driven by purpose. I would also like to urge EmaSwati to do away with this individualistic mentality. People should learn to work with others to be productive and successful in business. There are a lot of opportunities out there, people should come together, and share ideas and expertise towards money-generating ideas for the betterment of their lives and those of their communities.

Brilliant. Thank you for your time Mr. Mdluli.

Thank you Inside Biz. It’s been a pleasure.

About Acero Steel

Acero Steel is a manufacturing company based in Matsapha that specializes in steel products including; door frames, window frames, nails, meter boxes, steel fabrication, and much more. The company currently employs 25 full-time staff and about 10 temporary staff members.

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