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From failing student to CEO

- Wits University

Wits alumnus, Tshibvumo Sikhwivhilu shares his story of how his failures led to his success with graduates in the Faculty of Built Environment and Engineering.

“Sometimes what may seem like failure, is in fact a route leading to your greatest future.”

This is the opinion of Tshibvumo Sikhwivhilu, an MBA and engineering graduate from Wits addressed graduands on 28 March 2019 where Wits alumnus and distinguished architect, Herbert Prins was awarded a University Gold Medal. Prins, one of South Africa’s most eminent authorities in the field of architecture, design and heritage, was recognised for his contribution to heritage, preservation and architecture, his professional and academic distinction, and his exceptional contribution and service to society.

Sikhwivhilu, who hails from a village outside Thohoyandou in the Limpopo province was one of top performing students at Ernest Oppenheimer House during his early years at university. It was only in his third year, when he became a member of the House Committee with his then classmate, now business partner Elmond Khoza that his marks started to drop.

“We kept so busy with all house affairs to an extent that our marks started to not (just) drop, but drastically plummet,” he says.

Mr Herbert Prins and Tshibvumo Sikhwivhilu

Failing nine out of 11 modules in his third year, he was academically excluded and he had to plea with his then Head of School, Professor Ian Jandrell. The school waived his exclusion. It was after facing yet another academic exclusion for failing twice and losing his bursary that he had to redirect all his focus towards his academics. The loss of his bursary meant seeking for alternative ways of funding.

“This situation was a lot more dire the second time around because my bursary dropped me as per their terms and conditions and this is when I had to begin doing part-time work outside to pay for my fees.” Sikhwivhilu found part-time employment in one of the earliest local solar power firms in 2012 and had to use what he says was his last opportunity to successfully complete his studies.

“The harsh realities of life had set on us and we had one last opportunity to get ourselves out of the mess we had created. Indeed, we grabbed the opportunity with all our four hands and came back to campus with a new sense of purpose,” he says. It was then, after his stint at the local firm and his honours project, where they did a feasibility study on solar energy for the Genmin Laboratory rooftop that his company with his business partner was born, Lamo Solar.

Despite all the challenges he endured and his failures, Sikhwivhilu is today the proud co-founder and CEO of Lamo Solar. Aside from his business, Sikhwivhilu devotes some of his time towards the empowerment of youth by maximising their social impact.

About Tshibvumo Sikhwivhilu

Mr Tshibvumo Sikhwivhilu is the Chief Executive Officer of Lamo Solar. A Wits alumnus who graduated with a degree in electrical engineering, Mr Sikhwivhilu is experienced in system design, analysis, problem solving and critical thinking. He read for his MBA at the Wits Business School where he explored the economic viability of the distributed generation of renewable energy, particularly solar PV, in rural parts of South Africa. During his MBA studies, he was awarded an international scholarship to take his electives at the Louvain School of Management in Belgium.

In 2016, Sikhwivhilu won the Best Entrepreneurial Venture Award from the Association of MBA’s in London and later that year, won the Eskom Business Investment Competition in the Engineering and Construction sector. He now serves as an adjudicator on this committee. Last year, Sikhwivhilu graduated cum laude from the Advanced Business Management programme at the Eskom Contractors Academy and is currently the Brand Ambassador of the Eskom Business Investment Competition, the Eskom Small Business Expo and the Eskom Contractors Academy.

Sikhwivhilu was selected by Investec as part of a delegation of entrepreneurs in the renewable energy sector to attend a business excursion at Stanford University in the USA. He is also a guest lecturer at the Wits Business School and has served on several student and alumni bodies at Wits.

Despite his engineering and business background, Sikhwivhilu is passionate about maximising the impact of a youth-led, volunteer- based non-profit organisation that aims to bridge the educational information gap between rural underprivileged learners and their suburban counterparts, known as the Thusanani Foundation, of which he is a Director.

Sikhwivhilu believes that education remains the greatest social, cultural and economic equaliser of our time and spends numerous hours uplifting unemployed youth and women in townships and rural areas. For example, he currently dedicates part of his time towards training 25 unemployed young people from Soshanguve so that they can attain an accredited qualification in the design, installation, operation and maintenance of solar PV systems.