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Lebogang Zulu – using steely resolve to lift as she rises and grow her company into Africa

Trailblazer and CEO of AV Light Steel, Lebogang Zulu, is an entrepreneur and founder of Tshitshirisang Construction with over 15 years of experience in the energy, construction and engineering sectors.

Her passion about the green building environment has been instrumental in the successful completion of multi-million rand projects using the Robust Building System. This success goes hand-in-hand with growing the presence of women in the alternative building industry. 

Under the leadership of this stern, energetic and revolutionary leader, the company has, to date, scooped a couple of awards in the past year including Winning the 2019 16th Standard Bank Top Women Award in the Construction and Infrastructure Development category, runner up of the 2019 Vision 2030 Awards, CIDB 2020 ERWIC awards for Transformation Entity of the Year and a runner up of the Women-Owned Contractor of the Year.

Lebogang speaks to us about the importance of going green, technology and leading from the front.

What have been some of the major challenges you have faced?

The first challenge has been that, while the construction sector generates just over R150-billion per annum and R95-billion of that is attributed to building materials manufacturing and distribution, this 100 plus year-old sector is 98% predominantly owned and managed by non-transformed entities who have become gatekeepers of the industry.

The second challenge has been the slow adoption of innovative building technologies (IBTs) and products by the Department of Economic Services and Infrastructure. In February 2015, the Department of Human Settlements Technical MinMec adopted the stipulation that at least 60% of new housing projects must be built with Innovative Building Technologies (IBTs). To date, the implementation of this stipulation has yielded very few results in most provinces with the exception of Western Cape. Traction for the use of IBTs has been very slow and therefore resulted in the IBT industry sitting with solutions and government sitting with backlog problems. However, in recent years, the NHBRC has developed a dynamic database of approved tried and tested Innovative Building Technologies ae as well as the guidelines on how to implement them. Furthermore, the NHBRC also embarked on various projects with the approved IBT developers where the various systems and products were showcased through identification of beneficiaries throughout the country.

This databased has since been made available to all provinces, hence the industry is starting to see an increase in the number of tenders specifically speaking Innovative Building Technologies.

And major successes?

The adoption and approval of the North West IBT Youth and Women Development Programme that will see the accelerated delivery of 2 500 energy efficient SMART homes in the rural parts of the North West province is a major success – as is the training, development and licensing of 57 youth and women contractors – and new greens jobs created for 2 144 people across the province.

On a personal note, I was recognised as a Trailblazer of Innovative Building Technologies by Mangosuthu University of Technology and I have featured in various magazines including Impumelelo Top Empowerment, Construction World Magazine, SA Manufacturing, and on the cover of Leadership Focus.

How important is the growth of the manufacturing sector to the South African economy?

Productivity growth and technological advancement lie at the root of economic development, which is why manufacturing is so important. In fact, efficiency across all sectors of the economy has improved as a result of technology diffusion from the manufacturing sector.

Following the social and economic impact of COVID-19 especially the significant impact it brought to an already high unemployment rate in the country, manufacturing sector will play a critical role in activating the industrialisation that will stabilise the economy by creating much needed jobs.

Congratulations on the investments by ABSA, IDC and dti. What does this mean for your company?

Following the funding injection received, the company is now fully geared towards forging partnerships with both the public and private in delivering energy efficient structures that respond well to the impact of climate change without applying pressure on the electricity grid. This investment will further enable the company to partner with government in a bid to accelerate service delivery while addressing the unemployment crisis and contribute immensely to the gender equality drive within the manufacturing and construction industries.

Furthermore, the investment from IDC, dti and ABSA has opened an opportunity for the company to participate in the export market and reach the African continent with our innovative building solutions that halves the construction period and empowers communities.

Which sectors would you like to expand into?

Outside the public sector space, we currently operate in (which includes housing, student accommodation, schools and hospitals), the company is currently keen on expanding its operation base into the mining and property development sectors. From a mining perspective the Fortis Building System is applicable in underground ventilation walling while in terms of property development, a critical factor to the profitability of a construction project from a property developer and Investor’s point of view, is getting the facility occupied on time, so that rental income starts as soon as possible. The Fortis Building System which yields a significant reduction in terms of construction period and a reduced construction costs, presents a great solution for accelerating the return on Investment for any investor.

How has technology impacted on your business?

Technology has played a significant role in terms of improved productivity and efficiency. All of AV South Africa’s production lines are driven by pneumatic functions with each line fed from a design into a production system that reads the data, tabulates measurements according to the design and straight into production. The whole operation results in higher productivity, improved efficiency and reduced wastage.

Over the past decade, digital progress has transformed whole industries, ushering in a new technological era now known as the Fourth Industrial Revolution. It is the age of technology; we embrace the disruption that comes with the 4th Industrial Revolution in streamlining our operations for higher productivity.

Is environmental impact awareness an important component of AV’s values?

As one of the proud black industrialists funded by the Department of Trade and Industry through the Black Industrialist Scheme and in consideration of the fact that the innovative building materials supplied by AV South Africa, we take pride in presenting SMART solutions for rapid delivery of quality and energy efficient infrastructures through the Fortis Building System, thereby contributing immensely to the green economy. Climate change is a reality that we live by daily, what was known to us as a winter season informed by June to August has now shifted. Today, we experience winds travelling at speeds that damages people’s homes and assets. Therefore, yes, environmental impact awareness plays a critical role not only in our operations but in the products and services we render to our customers.

What is your vision for the company in the next 5 years?

Our company’s business model consists of a clearly defined social mission guiding the strategy, value proposition and industry best practices. It is embedded on the principle that we can achieve social impact and sufficient profit simultaneously where both social and economic value creation result.

To this end, the company’s vision is centred on maximising value for our shareholders while targeting the increasde participation of women industrialists in the innovative building technology space.

As a company we will not rest upon our laurels until;

  1. a) At least 50% of the IBT industry is owned and managed by women entrepreneurs not only as contractors but as manufacturers and distributors thus impacting the construction value chain.
  2. b) We have built and delivered at least 1million energy efficient SMART homes of high quality even for the low-cost housing market.
  3. c) The Fortis Building System is well known and is impacting 50% of the African Continent and being led by women at the front.

Founded by the late Mr. Vincent Bender and acquired by Ms. Lebogang Zulu in August of 2017, AV Light Steel (now trading as AV South Africa) is the largest innovative building manufacturer in Africa supplying a range of alternative building products including the Fortis Building System, steel wall panels, galvanized steel roof trusses as well as the profiled steel roof sheeting amongst others.

AV South Africa is the first 100% black women owned entity to have its innovative building system (Fortis Building System (#FBS)) certified and approved by Agrément South Africa, Green Building Council, Proudly South African as well as the National Home Builders Reistration Council.

The Fortis Building System defined as a re-inforced steel and concrete walling system designed by Africa for Africa. It is an innovative building technology that yields comparable acoustics performance, better thermal performances that responds well to weather patterns with a R-value of 1.9, it is twice stronger than the conventional brick and mortar system while yielding a lifespan in excess of 100 years and a fire rating performance of 60minutes. To the industry and the market, the Fortis Building System technology halves the construction period and is up to 20% cheaper than most building systems available in the country including brick and mortar.

The company’s vision is deeply entrenched on the basis of providing ground-breaking and innovative building solutions for women in the alternative building industry. To this end and in realizing our vision, the company has developed and is driving a programme for Technology and Innovation for Gender Equality and Youth Empowerment in partnership with the Black Business Council Women’s Alliance.

We look forward to training, developing and licensing atleast 200 women and youth contractors in the innovative building space per year, partnering with other women in infrastructure towards increasing women industrialists offering innovative building materials and contributing immensely to the Green Economy and drive towards reducing the rate of unemployment in the country.

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