Chris BishopBy Chris Bishop|November 17, 2022|7 Minutes|In Billionaire Tomorrow

Billionaire Tomorrow

Skinny Sbu socks it to the car business

It must be one of the tightest, tyre screeching, turns in the history of the entrepreneur in Africa. A young man who made his name and fortune making happy socks is revving up to make an African car. Sibusiso Ngwenya – known to the world as Skinny Sbu – has just turned 31 and has his key in the ignition and the go well blessings of the president.

“Sibusiso Ngwenya an industrialist of the future who is going to give South Africa its first own car and he complains that we are very good at manufacturing other people’s cars. As a young person, he says: ‘ No, that is not enough, we need to have our own South African car; the patriotism in him is coming to the fore,” so says President Cyril Ramaphosa on Youth Day back in June.

Even by the president’s generous standards, this was a ringing endorsement on a sacred day in South Africa where the country pauses to remember the schoolchildren who died fighting for their rights under a hail of bullets in Soweto in 1976.

Now most entrepreneurs founding a business are happy with a glossy prospectus and  investor roadshow to raise funds. A nod from the head of state on live television must be golden; even though it is part of a wider political  gambit to industrialize resource exporting South Africa and create jobs to stabilise the creaking economy. Nearly half of South Africans, especially the young, have no jobs.

Skinny Sbu – as Ngwenya is known –  walked tall to Ramaphosa and the podium to collect an award;  full of confidence; almost the embodiment of the Soweto spirit of progress and youth that the schoolchildren of 1976 fought for. He was born more than a decade later in Soweto, still under apartheid,  into a three- room shack with his grandmother, mother, sister and aunt. At the age of 14 he couldn’t speak English and had no confidence, he says.

Socks turned out to be salvation for Skinny Sbu. He started making bright coloured socks in his backroom in Soweto and started selling them. They caught on and soon even the stiffest  sober-suited executives were hitching up their  trouser legs to show their colleagues  the blaze of colour around their ankles; to prove that, deep down, they were young, creative and free. The business struggled a few years back, but it is currently selling through 350 stores across Africa.

Famously, Skinny Sbu approached President Ramaphosa with a pair of colourful socks – knowing the president – as I do – he probably wore them at one of the most  formal occasions of the year!

“I may come across as arrogant, but I’m a hustler and I don’t take no for an answer. If I want something I go for it. I get criticized a lot for it, but I refuse to give up,” he told Drum magazine.

Skinny Sbu is going to need all of his hustling skills with his new venture of building South Africa’s first home-grown car. The country turns out thousands of cars – from BMW to Mercedes – every year, but these are cars assembled from many parts designed and imported from outside Africa.

‘I am an entrepreneur serving under one brand. When I started out , a decade ago, I was studying Richard Branson who moved from selling records to selling jeans and airlines. So, I too operated in the apparel business, men’s clothes , women’s clothes under one brand Skinny Sbu Stores,” he says.

In this vein, he wants to call his cars Skinny Sbu Supercars – shortened to Triple S Cars . He is writing a feasibility study that includes manufacturing the first 10,000 electric cars  and plan to have it complete by the end of the first quarter of 2023. He says he hopes to hit the car market in the last quarter of 2024.

Meanwhile the outfit is trying to raise investment – tons of capital in the words of Skinny Sbu – at a time when the world economy is suffering, to say the least.

“In all honesty it is not that difficult. There are a couple of money men who are interested. What we find from the many conversations we have had over the last 24 months, there is an amount of sacrifice and investment you need to make before people start parting with their money,” he says also dismissing the idea that he has no experience in the car business.

“I had no experience when I went into the sock business. I am a speech and drama trained student who was forced by his circumstances to go into business. For the last ten years it has been a learning curve. Right now, I have the basics of business.”

Yet , car manufacturing in  South Africa is far from easy.

“One of the problems manufacturers are facing is the lack of component suppliers , we don’t have enough of them in South Africa. So that is one of the biggest issues we have anticipated and in many ways trying to work on,” he says.

Skinny Sbu says he hopes to garner the support of government in his bold embryonic venture. He is likely to need it.