How Day Zero inspired a Hero: The story of Asiphe ‘Sips’ Makhumalo – a young black woman, not only building a name for herself in a traditionally male-dominated water sector – but also a firecracker  with a burning desire to see a greater representation of youth, in particular women, in the growth of the South African economy.

Day Zero looms

It all started in 2016 when, locals will no doubt recall, the City of Cape Town experienced the onset of an unusually challenging and long-lasting drought. It played out as three consecutive years of low and unpredictable rainfall, eventually causing severe water shortage in the entire region. As the situation got worse, the local government made urgent calls to residents and businesses to reduce their water usage. It seemed like Cape Town could become the first large metropolitan area (with over four million inhabitants) to completely run out of water on what was locally dubbed as: Day Zero!

 At the time, Asiphe ‘Sips’ Makhumalo was living in a student residence in Cape Town, where she was completing a National Diploma in Entrepreneurship at Cape Peninsula University of Technology. Living in the heart of the city, she was acutely conscious of the water restrictions. She recalls how “Save water” awareness posters had been put up “all over our rez (residence) walls and corridors. Bathrooms were plugged with warnings. I mean it was all over the news”.

Crisis? What crisis?

However, when Asiphe went home to visit her family in Kayamandi, Stellenbosch, she was stunned to see life was continuing pretty much as normal. Not only were there no visible campaigns to reduce water usage, but worse: leaks in the communal taps and toilets continued to be ignored; water-hungry businesses such as car washes continued to operate without hindrance; families and friends continued to remain ignorant of the variety of ways in which to reduce their water consumption. When Sips tried to encourage people to value water better, some teased her that she was a “snob”, bringing home her ‘big city’ ideas that they felt had no relevance to them. 

Walking the talk

Whilst she did her best to share the urgency of the need to change their behaviour, she knew that, as just one individual, she would hardly achieve any lasting change during these limited short visits to home. The general lack of understanding of the value of water – combined with the limited awareness of the crisis – were so widespread and so entrenched, that she began to brainstorm ways to ‘walk the talk’, marrying her passion for water conservation with her entrepreneurial spirit.

Just Sip Mo Plumbing & Projects is born

In that same year, the idea of Just Sip Mo (JSM) Plumbing and Projects was born: “To remind people of the most important element that sustains life on the planet: Water!” Within just a few years, JSM Plumbing and Projects has developed more than just plumbing expertise; it offers 24/7 plumbing emergency services, general building maintenance, renovations and housing projects. The team works in residential spaces as well as retail, office and industrial, and they do so all around the Cape Winelands and along the West Coast.

Diving deep

 So how did she get so far, so quickly? To begin with, she did her research, on several levels. She looked deep into the water shortage crisis, focusing in particular on water wastage, finding that South Africa loses billions of litres of water annually through leaks and bursts. She researched possible solutions, namely how to fix all these leaks, settling on the idea of establish her own plumbing business.

Researching some more, she chose to do an internship for Mobile Plumbing – a company established decades earlier, one that has continued to go from strength to strength. She asked herself the question: “How have they survived for so long? They must be doing something right”. They took her on board and, in just two short months, she learnt as much as she could from them.

 In Sips’ own words, she could see that “they are so ‘on point’. Their focus is primarily on quality client service, which leads to repeat business. Their operational system is short and easy”. The company also has high standards for quality, reliability, durability and value for money. They taught her the value and importance of continual improvement. In turn, she taught them that – even though she may have been the only woman on their task force – she too could also add value.

Pursuing purpose

After her internship ended, Sips felt ready to leave them to set up on her own. She had learned so much by way of hard skills and solid business principles, but she also knew she wanted her business to have, at its core, a social purpose. Sips does not just want to save water by fixing things, but she also to prevent water loss in the first place – essentially, to educate – so her target market leans more to the disadvantaged communities.

And she’s not limiting the social purpose of her business to water conservation either. Her mission is also to be a skills developer, building both self-confidence as well as self-consciousness. She recognises not only the untapped potential of the youth of South Africa but especially that of young women, and especially in traditionally male-dominated environments, such as the plumbing industry.

Building skills, growing the economy

At the time of writing, Just Sip Mo employs five people, including herself, but Sips is hoping to train and employ more women as plumbers in the near future, equipping them with both the artisan skills needed for her business, but also to one day be able to work for themselves. With this in mind, she is registering as a Skills Development Provider through SETA (Sector Education Training Authority) an agency of social economic development. With SETA accreditation, Sips can then access more support for her skills development plans, as well as funding for PPE, office space, equipment, such as reliable vehicles, all of which her business so urgently needs to grow itself, and to grow the economy.

The power of positivity

However, Sips is the first to acknowledge that one cannot empower anyone to become an entrepreneur through skills development alone. She herself has been through tough times and cites other major obstacles that she has experienced, such as: financial constraints; access to resources and support; red tape; and, the ingrained prejudices that hold back women in a male-dominated industry.

Ultimately though, Sips thinks, “most young entrepreneurs fail not because they lack the ability nor the resources but because they lack a positive mind set”. She strongly believes that, to achieve this we need to train our minds to think positively. It takes practice; it takes energy; and it needs to be continual. Every moment of every day, we need to seek out positivity and affirmative sources of energy.

Driving change

It will come as no surprise that Sips does not limit her positive energy and burning ambitions to the scope of her own business, her team and her target market. Sips is a natural networker and motivational speaker. She has been on TV and radio, winning competitions and awards for her entrepreneurship; hosting discussion panels on the subject. Ultimately, she is driving change in people’s hearts and minds, not just in the skill sets they have in their hands.

She advocates for more “sustainable participatory programmes that elevate the mind sets for our children and young people” while at the same time acknowledges that “leveraging with skills is an underlying fundamental issue”.  She dreams of being part of a centre for entrepreneurship, a collaborative place where both business skills and positive energy can be shared and nurtured, developed across all sectors of various industries.

Asiphe is all about saving water. This photo is for illustration purposes and we can assure you that the tap was open for a few seconds only! As they say – please don’t try this at home. Let us all save water together!

A word of advice

Her advice to any young people – especially women – out there, dreaming big dreams, just starting out or struggling to get going is simple: “Believe in your vision!” Sips echoes the wise words of fellow motivational speaker, Tony Gaskins:  “you can’t win in life if you are losing in your mind. Change your thoughts and it’ll change your life”.

Contact details

Kayamandi is one of 13 communities across South Africa that is part of Nedbank‘s Proud of my Town initiative. Building Business is one of ten programmes that forms part of the Proud of my Town initiative. Read more here