Meet Tokologo Phetla, the 19-year-old behind two startups with serious social savvy

Bill Gates first began his work in computers at the age of 20. Steve Jobs was 21 when he and Steve Wozniak began selling the Apple computer, and Oprah Winfrey was 17 when she began her public broadcasting career.

Tokologo Phetla of Pretoria, South Africa is currently 19 years old and working for two different startups. He is managing to do this while attending the University of Cape Town, where he is pursuing a Bachelor of Business Science in Finance and Accounting.

In this interview, I ask him about his ambitious goals for business, his use of social media to promote those businesses, and about how he will accomplish those goals. His responses go against the stereotype of young people who speak in ‘LOL’ slang as he is incredibly well spoken.

What was supposed to be a simple chat about how social media impacts his business ventures veered off track into slightly heavier, and equally interesting, topics.

Matthew Yeoman: Let’s start at the beginning; what was the first start up of your own, and how successful was it?

Tokologo Phetla: My first real start-up business was a fuel-additive distribution company, Feranetix, that I co-founded with a friend of mine, Mr. Gregory Makama, early in 2012. We were in the business of importing and distributing a fuel-additive product that decreased vehicle-carbon emissions and increased fuel economy.

The business showed promise in the beginning but ended up being a failure. There were too many fuel-additive tests and compliance requests that we had to meet – which we did not have the money to pay for. We took the decision to close down the business in February 2013 and move on.

MY: You are currently working with two different companies, Student Investor and Bulls n Bears, which of these two uses social media most often?

TP: Bulls n Bears uses social media most often. This is because it is a trading and investment company. One of our unique services is offering trade updates and fundamental and technical analysis reports to our users and followers. Therefore, we are more compelled to use social media, such as Twitter, to do this.

MY: What social media tools do your companies use to build their online profiles?

TP: They both currently use Facebook, Twitter, Whatsapp and LinkedIn as primary social media platforms. These platforms mainly help to create brand awareness and industry presence for our companies. People begin to know who we are and what we do. This helps attract both new clients and/or interested investors.

MY: What is the most important aspect of these social profiles for your business?

TP: They are platforms through which we can communicate information to our clients and users, and receive feedback; where we can engage with them not on a “company-client” level, but establish a more personal relationship with them and grow to deeply understand them and their needs and wants – which is highly valuable.

MY: What are you future plans for social media, the web, and business that you can share without giving too much away?

TP: We are currently working with an excellent businessman, my personal business coach and mentor, Mr Nicolas Marsay, in the development of an opportunity-comprehensive product exclusively for learners and students.

The learner and student market, in the space of entrepreneurship, trading and investing, not only money but in themselves, in human capital beyond the boundaries of school and university, is untapped. This product will completely tap into it and decrease the relevance of many business models that exist today.

MY: South Africa has a long history of student organizations being of vital importance, the ANC Youth League, at the time of Oliver Tambo and Walter Sisulu, perhaps being the most important. How do you plan to engage with this historically important demographic?

TP: Student Investor is one of our companies that is completely youth-oriented. Everything we do is aimed at developing the youth of our country in the space of entrepreneurship, investing, trading, personal finance and personal and career development opportunities.

In this regard, we went on a Student Investor roadshow from 27th January – 17th February. We visited high schools and universities in Gauteng, KZN and the Western Cape and gave out free copies of our quarterly Student Investor Magazine; introduced the platform and the opportunities available to students; gave out cash and book prizes to top performing pupils and gave them the opportunity to become ‘Student Investor Ambassadors.’

MY: I have a lot of respect for statements you’ve made in other articles on giving the world an African face that is truly African. Web startups and tech are exploding all across Africa, with many experts claiming that countries in Africa are set to turn the tech world on their head. What are you plans to make sure that this is the case, and that actual Africans are part of this transformation?

TP: In my view, African entrepreneurs are the greatest entrepreneurs in the world. Without as much access to resources as other entrepreneurs in other countries, we still manage to give birth to great and creative developments and innovations.

We have an African entrepreneur [Ludwick Marishane] who managed to invent a no-water solution to bathing and was voted the Best Student Entrepreneur in the world, with access only to a R50 weekly allowance and a cellphone. We are in plans to develop a product that will facilitate entrepreneurial development in Africa. I unfortunately cannot give away any further information in that regard.

MY: I don’t want you to give away all of your secrets. In regards to African entrepreneurship specifically, what do you have to say about that?

TP: I want to emphasise here that for now, until Africa is the continental power I envisage and will work tirelessly to create, I am only passionate about transformation that is African-born; not given to us by the world. I am only interested in transformation that is defined by Africans for Africa – because that is the only real form of transformation.

I want Africans to start measuring ourselves against criteria we have set for ourselves; not criteria the world has set for us. It shocks me when people that are not African, feel they have the right to label Africa “the Dark Continent.”

According to which criteria do they do that? Because we Africans are defining our own criteria and according to that, we are a beautiful continent, full of natural wealth that we need to start converting to political and economic power.

We do not aspire for Africa to be like the USA or the United Kingdom — that is in no way our benchmark of whether we are progressing or not as a continent. Instead, we aspire to embrace development in our own, unique African way and define our own African reality. Build African pride and a strong African identity.

It is crucial that the world knows this.

MY: At this point in the interview, I wanted to tone things down and end on a lighter note, maybe with a laugh. Was I ever wrong when I wanted to reach that goal and asked this question: I read online that your nickname is “Mr. President.” Where did you get that nickname from, and what’s it all about?

TP: I aim to be the President of South Africa. I have accepted my duty, and responsibility, to give to this country and this continent and to show the rest of the world, progressive African leadership. It is not a decision that was consciously undertaken by myself; it sort of “just happened to me.”

Everything I do, and I am involved in, is aimed at leading me closer to the fulfillment of this cause. I am involved in business firstly because I am passionate about exercising my creative power, but most importantly because I understand that the time to completely focus on leading Africa is not free, but needs to be bought. I need to firmly establish my financial-self outside of public service, because I aim to go into public service for something completely different – to serve, and servants do not earn salaries; they give them away to charity and worthy causes.

MY: Those are some very ambitious goals for your future. What are you working on right now to accomplish them?

TP: For now, I’m focused on initiating positive change through business and entrepreneurship; continuing to research and write my book, Fahamu we Afrika (Swahili for ‘Consciousness of African Society’), and continuing to create awareness through my articles, one of which was published by the University of Cape Town’s Monday Monthly Paper etc.

Nearing my 30s, I will enter the political arena. If I am right about myself, I will thereafter soon be President of South Africa.

Now, you can read that and be cynical, laugh off the idea that someone so young could possibly meet a goal like this. But then you must realize that the only reason anyone ever meets a goal like this, becoming President, is because they have it.

Where exactly Tokologo ends up in his quest for business, political, and African reform is unknown. The journey he is taking, however, is incredibly important. Following the career of Tokologo may well be worth your time. Not only if you are one who is interested in the career of an entrepreneur, but also if you are interested in the career of a future political leader.


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