Born in Nongoma, a small town situated outside of Durban, the innovative Bathabile Mpofu has always had a great love for science, even as a child. “I loved science from when I was in primary school because of the fun and educational programs on television,” she says.
During her time at Impumelelo High School, in Mahlabathini, a small town in KwaZulu-Natal, Bathabile demonstrated a natural aptitude for science and had dreams of becoming a medical doctor. “I used to do well at school, and with my understanding of what I used to watch on television, it made sense that I was born to become a doctor,” she explains.
However, after matriculating in 1996, Bathabile was unable to study medicine, because she did not obtain the grades to do so, and instead pursued a Bachelor of Science at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN). But after stepping into the laboratory at UKZN for the first time as a student, she felt overwhelmed, as she had never carried out any practical science experiments before.
“After obtaining my undergraduate degree, I worked as a laboratory technician at UKZN and later obtained my honour’s degree in science from the university in 2008,” she notes, adding that while she worked at UKZN, she noticed that many challenges she encountered as a science student, were faced by many other young people who came from under-resourced schools.
Five years later, in 2013, whilst working as a research chemist and biotechnology platform manager at the Technology Innovation Agency, the mother-of-four enrolled at the University of Cape Town (UCT), to do a postgraduate diploma in business administration. “The role I had at work necessitated that I get some business skills. I was a research scientist but also in charge of running the science laboratory,” she says.
The business bug had bitten her. And in 2015, Bathabile decided to enrol to do her MBA at UCT’s Graduate School of Business (GSB). While completing her master’s degree, the idea of Nkazimulo Applied Sciences was conceived.
Bathabile, who currently serves as the company’s managing director, co-found the organisation in 2016 with her husband, Roderick Mpofu, who she notes is an entrepreneur with great business insights.
The organisation, named after Bathabile’s last-born son, Nkazimulo Mpofu, 7, aims to help young people become confident scientists, through the utilisation of a science kit called ChemStart, that contains 52 experiments aimed at high school students from grades eight to twelve.
“We started doing demonstrations at schools with no science laboratories, where kids had not seen experiments conducted live, but then I realised that the students would gain a lot more knowledge through doing the experiments themselves and learning in a very hands-on way, and so the idea of the science kits was born,” she explains.
Each ChemStart kit contains the basic apparatus one would find in a laboratory, such as flasks, beakers, thermometers, safety goggles, gloves, and solid and liquid chemicals, with an instruction manual included in the kit.
“I never thought I would be an entrepreneur, but seeing the need [for practical science skills] in disadvantaged schools changed my mind. I realised I had a part to play in changing the situation,” notes Bathabile.
The 40-year-old says that being at UCT’s GSB completely changed her life and helped redefine her purpose. “My very first funding for Nkazimulo Applied Sciences was through UCT with the SAB Foundation, where they offered students with great ideas access to seed funding,” she explains.
The Durban-based business has won numerous accolades since its establishment, including the Total Startupper of the year award in 2016 and the SAB Foundation Social Innovation Audience Choice Award in 2017, to name a few.
“The science kit can be purchased through our website, with prices ranging from R200 and R1400,” she notes.
Bathabile hopes that the business will one day be able to offer a holistic solution to science learning, enabling students from all walks of life to become successful young scientists.