Mpho Mpatane is a top five finalist in The Workspace/MiWay Entrepreneur Competition. Her journey has encompassed taking on an aspect of a traditionally male-dominated industry, and offering tailor-made personal clothing and equipment solutions, while also looking to the future and her vision of developing wearable technology through her clothing manufacturing for the mining and construction industries.
Mpatane’s company, Minatlou Trading 251, is a supplier of general and women-specific protective personal equipment/clothing.
“When I approached the first mining house to introduce my business, the initial concern was if I would be able to deliver on their specifications, and if I would be willing to work in partnership with male counterparts,” Mpatane recalls.
“I was tasked with creating samples for them and not only did I deliver, but I delivered beyond what was expected of me when I also brought with me women specific/tailored boiler suits including pregnancy-appropriate one. So I have had to overcome doubt, being undermined and a lack of belief in my business,” she says.
Mpatane bought Minatlou as a shelf company from CIPC. Her reason was she wanted to play in the construction industry. But she had a reality check: “I had to bow down to the fact that it is not easy for a new woman-owned construction business to find work in the mainstream and improve the company’s CIDB rating and also graduate to being accredited by the NHBRC,” she says.
Most of the jobs she could tackle were in building maintenance, which was not what Mpatane had set out to do. So she decided to do more research. “I realised that no one is allowed on a construction site without proper safety equipment. The one factor that stood out for me, though, was the fact that the few women that were on these construction sites were wearing general protective clothing, which were ill fitting for them because they would be given general personal protection equipment (PPE), originally created for men.”
Mpatane discovered some could not button up their tops because of their size of their chests, for example. “If they were pregnant, their pants would not accommodate the baby bump, so some pants would not cover their ankles because of their hips; my list started growing from there,” she explains.
And there was another, aesthetic reason she thought women working in construction or mining should enjoy clothes made specifically for them. “Since I am a woman who likes colour, what also stood out for me again was the fact that their PPE looked exactly like their male’s counterparts. Later on I saw a few pink colours coming in, but the safety features did not change with the colours. That prompted me to start doing research into the industry.”
This led her to mining, where Mpatane’s research propelled her into finding solutions to the challenges many miners face on a daily basis when at work. “The recent deaths experienced in the mining sector recently fueled my vision of developing wearable technology through our clothing for the mining industry, and other sectors such as security, going forward and keeping up with the fourth industrial revolution,” she says. “#watchthespaceSA.”
Minatlou Trading 251 recently started manufacturing corporate uniforms based on requests from new clients. “This has been a good addition to our offering. We listened and heard what our clients wanted from us, and we are starting to deliver on our promises to them,” says Mpatane.
Her greatest challenge so far has been access to markets. “Until recently, it has been a challenge to become a supplier to big corporates especially global companies. Recently we started getting out there by entering competitions and steadily informing people about our offering. This has given us access to start doing business with companies we would have still being struggling to on-board and become part of their suppliers,” Mpatane explains.
And, of course, access to capital has been an issue. “We are an SME, only taking up the growth journey now and we do not have collateral to co-invest our vision. All that we can do is to deliver and deliver the best quality to prove our offering is relevant and that we are market ready and investable.”
Mpatane won’t be diverted from her dream and is determined to challenge the doubters. She says as a previously financially disadvantaged African female, corporates often question whether she is really capable of building a credible and competitive business in this men dominated industry.
“Can I really deliver on my business offering, on time, in good quality and can I really compete with my peers, albeit at a smaller scale at the moment? This latter fact makes me look forward to growing the company steadily and consistently to a point that everyone knows who we are and we do not have to sell our selves anymore.”
The finals of The Workspace/MiWay Entrepreneur Competition take place on 13 September 2018.