It all adds up: From tiny village school to MD of his own company

Where there’s a will there’s a way: Sandile Shembe is proof that a basic rural education should never stand in the way of a yearning for knowledge.

Shembe, now an engineer and managing director of his own company, cannot remember a day when he wasn’t doing sums as a child, and, more lately, far more complicated stuff like working out algorithms.

“Maths has always been something I’ve loved — the more difficult the better.”

While other kids were playing, he did sums for fun

“The other kids didn’t understand why I didn’t want to kick a ball after school. I just wanted to do equations and get them right. For them it was a bit strange,” Shembe chuckled.

His story is all the more remarkable when you realise his love of maths began at a small village school on the KwaZulu-Natal North Coast, where resources and teachers were in short supply.

Maths Shembe’s pathway to a brighter future

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Fostering a love of maths among pupils in rural schools could be a gamechanger for South Africa. Image: Adobe Stock

Today, aged 27 and based in Pretoria, Shembe is MD of mechanical engineering company Innosa Projects. And, though COVID-19 has been a bit of a setback, the future is looking bright and there are “some exciting prospects” in the pipeline for 2021.

Looking back at his early passion for figures, it’s not surprising Shembe gained top marks in maths in matric, which opened the door to accessing funds for his tertiary education and paved the way to a professional career.

Shembe graduated with a mechanical engineering diploma, which he recently converted into a B.Tech degree by studying part time.

Young engineers put heads together

As fortune would have it, his best friend at school was also good at maths, so when the two were ready to start their careers in mechanical engineering, they decided to combine talents and form their own company.

“The first thing you learn is that it’s not easy,” Sandile said with a knowing grin.

“We thought doors would open automatically, forgetting that earning trust was the first challenge.”

Getting the fledgling company off the ground was the first step, which Shembe did through entrepreneurship trade shows aimed at giving young start-ups a platform.

“That really helped, but then we had to think differently and come up with an idea that wasn’t the norm.”

Solid foundation for young business

The founding business strategy was to identify buildings that did not comply with current planning regulations.

“This is a big problem in South Africa. Many older buildings have no usable plans and often no drawings.

“Electrical and plumbing records are simply not there,” Shembe said. “In other cases, plans have been destroyed by fire or have gone missing. Without as-built plans, buildings cannot be transferred or sold.”

Helping municipalities earn rates revenue

The young engineers also realised struggling municipalities were losing out on rates big time.

“If you think of a small two-bedroomed house registered with a rating value of certain amount, and discover that the same building with six rooms added — without updated planning permission — still has the same rating value, then you have a problem.

“More services are needed to cope with more people, but the rating income is stagnant.”

It happened across the board, Shembe said, especially when bribes had been paid.

In their research, the engineers estimated at least 180,000 buildings in Durban alone fell into this category.

App developed to assess as-built plans

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The young engineers worked hard to find ways to record the as-built specifications of any building. Image: Supplied

The next issue was how to solve the problem of buildings that had no as-built plans or had been altered dramatically without proper planning.

For the next two years, the partners developed a multi-dimensional application, which recorded as-built specifications of any building, taking in the core structural elements and converting them into an accurate as-built plan that could be used for ascertaining what modifications had been done and what was needed to be done to get the proper certification.

“We believed we had developed something useful, but not everybody thought that way, even at municipal level,” Shembe said.

“If it hurts people who have turned a blind eye to irregularities, or have benefitted in any way, your ideas won’t be accepted.

‘Ethics should come always first in business’

Though disappointed at the lacklustre response to the app, Shembe believes upholding ethical ways of doing business should be young businesspeople’s top priority.

“If we are going to change the way people do business, and stop corruption, it has to start at grassroot levels with a new generation of professional people who understand the rules and stick to them.”

In the meantime, he is looking at other business opportunities and has put his company’s as-built-plan app on hold for now.

“We know that it is a building issue that won’t go away. We just have to be patient.”

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