Soshanguve man on creating his own smartphone: ‘The market is huge and we don’t have real South African players’

Lebogang Mokubela holding his own Libra smartphone (PHOTO: Papi Morake/Drum)
Lebogang Mokubela holding his own Libra smartphone (PHOTO: Papi Morake/Drum)
Papi Morake

Think cellphones and your mind automatically jumps to big-name brands such as Huawei, Samsung and Apple. But local entrepreneur Lebogang Mokubela is aiming to change this perception and show South Africans that local is lekker.

With its big screen, glossy body and minimalist design the new Libra smartphone can proudly hold its own alongside handsets made by its rivals. But what sets it apart is that it was conceived and designed in Soshanguve near Pretoria.

Sure, there are other proudly South African phones, like the Mara handsets made in Durban, but the Libra is being branded as the first township- based smartphone brand.

Boasting 128GB on-board storage; a six-inch screen; 10 megapixel rear camera; 4MB RAM; dual SIM; biometric fingerprint authentication; and 2,6GHz Deco Core Processor, the Android phone, which retails for R2 999, is way ahead of many entry-level phones.

But the thing Lebogang (29) is most proud of is the handset’s stylish look. “One of the things I hated when I looked at the entry-level budget phone category, is that they have this standard gold cover,” Lebogang says.

And it seems he was spot-on with his analysis of the market.

When his company, Lemok Group, officially launched the phone online at mid night on 18 December they had their first sale within minutes – and by 11pm the next day they had almost sold out. They even sold to someone in Canada.

For years he couldn’t understand it. Browsing in the aisles of electronic stores, all Lebogang could see were products made in China, Taiwan, India, Vietnam and South Korea. Why was hardly anything made here?

“The market is huge and we don’t have real South African players,” Lebogang tells us.

When he decided to have a go at breaking into the competitive industry, he had to sit down and carefully consider which category of electronics to start with.

Looking at factors such as finance and distribution, Lebogang concluded it’d be easier to start with something small. “In about the third quarter of 2018 there were 13 million smartphones sold in South Africa and 67% of those phones were entry- level phones,” he explains.

He decided to operate in the entry- level division where phones sell for under R6 000.

Although Lebogang has no formal background in electronics, he didn’t let this stop him.

By 2017 he decided to throw most of his energy into working on Libra and one of the most daunting challenges was manufacturing.

“The biggest issue was I couldn’t do it locally. Not many components are made in SA, they’re still being imported and companies are already paying a premium,” he says.

Although it was a core part of his vision to manufacture the handsets locally, he realised it just wasn’t going to be possible.

After crunching the numbers he discovered he’d need to pump at least R2 million into research and development. So instead he partnered with a Chinese manufacturer with whom he shares the design.

But he hasn’t given up on his dream and is aiming to have a production line up and running in Soshanguve, where he grew up, by 2030.

“I’m not taking one cent from the business. I’m reinvesting in it so I can build a factory here,” Lebogang says. “We are looking at partnering with tech universities and colleges to get students in the electronics field to build the components.”

Meanwhile, the phone is being made in China and Lebogang’s company is taking orders through its website (www. librabylemok.co.za).

What he isn’t planning to do is open his own store.

“The beauty about where we are now in terms of digital is that even business in itself has changed. “I understand South Africans still like going to stores, but from a business perspective it actually gives you sustainability and longevity to sell online because you outsource many things,” Lebogang says.

He’s also hoping to sell it via online retailer takealot.com and other existing retailers he has built relationships with. It’s ironic that he ended up working in the retail space. Lebogang says he hated malls growing up because seeing other children walking with their fathers reminded him of his own bleak reality that his father was not in his life. “I was raised by grandparents in Soshanguve. When I was three months old, my parents separated.”

He didn’t have a relationship with his father, Solomon Sibiya, and his mother, Chiny, would seldom visit him, to a point where he didn’t refer to her as “Mom”.

But his grandparents, Agnes (65) and Jack (67), took over as parent figures, later also taking in his younger brothers, Kamogelo (20) and Khumo (16), after Chiny died in 2013.

Lebogang’s biggest family inspiration in retrospect, he says, was the fact he had daddy issues.

“For some odd reason I didn’t have any emotional attachment to my mom, but when it came to my dad it was a different story,” he tells us.

“I actually realised that was one of the reasons I wanted to marry young, start a family and be a proper father.”

He and his wife, Naledi (23), tied the knot last year and have a nine­month-old daughter, Larona.

One of the things that pushed him into business was that Jack had retired by the time Lebogang completed matric in 2008, prompting him to start an events company fresh out of high school. “I had to roll up my sleeves and make a living.”

His first company operated for two years, but it helped him make crucial connections that eventually landed him in the marketing space.

When he started Lemok Group in 2015 he wanted to jump on to the digital marketing bandwagon and took the road less travelled of servicing retail centres. He then started Lemok Digital Agency, a sub sidiary of Lemok Group, which deals with digital marketing in the retail space.

“We ended up carving a whole niche around shopping centres and Lemok is currently [one of the] best agencies within retail in the country. We’re working on a cheaper entry­level smartphone, laptops and smart TVs,” Lebogang says.