Winning Women: Novelwano Letsoela – Dust up with destiny

2013-07-14 14:00

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Novelwano Letsoela grew up knowing she wanted to do something ‘different.’ Today she runs her own engineering business, providing jobs for 25 people, writes Sue Grant-Marshall

It is a long journey from the little town of Cofimvaba in rural Eastern Cape to the mines and chemical plants on the highveld.

It is almost as big a trek as the metaphorical distance that this petite mechanical engineer, Novelwano Letsoela, has navigated from a childhood of selling her mother’s vetkoek and traditional Xhosa attire to winning the Engineer of the Year award in 2011 at Eskom’s Lethabo Power Station.

“I always wanted to be different, to make my mark, and the headmaster of our school at Ntshingeni, near Cofimvaba, encouraged us to move away from the traditional women’s careers of nursing, teaching and law,” says Letsoela. “He wanted us to be ambitious.”

And so Letsoela applied to do mechanical engineering at the then Eastern Cape Technikon in Butterworth.

In retrospect, that was the easy part, as she struggled to get a job in order to do the practical training required of her before she received her National Diploma in Mechanical Engineering.

In 1998, she and her then partner (now husband) Justice Letsoela, who was doing the same diploma with her, went from door to door in Joburg and Pretoria, job hunting and leaving their CVs everywhere.

“But everyone had ‘no vacancies’ plastered outside their premises. I wangled my way into one and managed to speak to someone who, it eventually turned out, gave me good advice.”

But when the phone calls came, a weary and disillusioned Letsoela was back home in Ntshingeni. Both Eskom and SAA had offered her jobs.

She chose Eskom and became a trainee technician.

It was in 2011, when she was made Engineer of the Year at Lethabo Power Station, that coincidentally she decided to open her own business in maintaining dust filtration systems on mines.

Letsoela leaps to her feet to show me the model she’s had made up of such a system.

She points to the filter bags that she uses on mines, and in flour mills and chemical factories made from all types of fabric, ranging from polyester to glass.

She works wherever there is dust or powder that needs some form of filtration. Without it, the factory or plant would be clogged up and filthy within a day.

“I started to analyse the role players in the industry and to question why they needed their bags replaced.”

She had found a gap in the market that would allow her to provide not only superior filtration-management systems but also professional advice on how to best filter dust.

She established Buletsa Trading, an engineering-services company specialising in dust emission control, with offices in Alrode on Gauteng’s East Rand and also in Rustenburg, North West.

“We refurbish and maintain dust collectors of any kind, do bag retrofit and ducting repairs or replacements, dust emission control and bag house maintenance.”

Her probing mind attracted the attention of Clear Edge Filtration, a global leader in filtration, process and screen print solutions.

She is now a maintenance contractor to the company’s operations in South Africa and hopes to go into a joint venture with them in the future.

Her high profile clients include Glencore Xstrata at their Rustenburg and Lydenburg Plants, as well as International Ferro Metals at Mooinooi.

She is also, through Clear Edge Filtration, working with Idwala Lime, Anglo American and Vanchem Vanadium Products.

She spent last year on the fully sponsored Goldman Sachs-Gibs 10 000 Women Certificate Programme, and says that the highlight for her was doing the business plan.

“Going to Gibs was the moment in my life that said to me, ‘hey, you are in business now.’ It gave me the confidence to be able to interact with all sorts of people at all levels.”

Her husband, who had run his own business in air conditioning but had always supported Letsoela in her engineering one, was persuaded to join her. “I decided I needed him, so last year he said he would work full-time with me.”

The small woman has no problem dealing with the men she encounters on the mines and at filtration plants.

“They do whistle and call because they’ve not really moved beyond me being ‘a woman in a man’s world’, but it doesn’t bother me. I’m used to it. Once they see what you are capable of, they respect you.”

She has 25 people working for her, who might otherwise be without jobs.

She says: “It’s really important to me that we create employment for our country, we all need to do our bit.”

Letsoela and Justice have three children and she declares proudly that she was “a home executive” for a while and thoroughly enjoyed being with her little ones.

This dynamic woman is a few years shy of 40, yet she’s put in a lifetime of hard work and helped her country in the vital task of creating jobs for others.

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