Siyabulela Xuza could have been the next Elon Musk.
Born in the Eastern Cape, educated at St Johns in Joburg followed by MIT and Harvard, his career has been prolific – and it’s far from over.
He’s been lauded by Michelle Obama, invited to the Nobel ceremony and, as has been well documented over the years, won the Intel International Science Fair almost a decade ago for inventing a new type of rocket fuel. While at high school. In Mthatha.
After publishing work on micro fuel cells while based in the US, the opportunity for a highly talented engineer who is a born public speaker and astonishingly good networker to go to Silicon Valley and start his own energy business was tempting, he told an audience at the Accenture Innovation Conference in Sandton this morning.
Instead, he’s returned to South Africa with a pocketful of seed funding to start an industrial design and manufacturing company working on an energy-related product, which he says is under wraps at the moment.
If you ever get chance to hear Xuza speak in public, don’t miss it. He’s an incredible raconteur who happily mines his own background (which begins with dreams of travelling to Jupiter and trying to invent a rocket fuel in his kitchen, with the expected results) for anecdotes that highlight issues South Africa and the continent is facing today.
“I’ve been very fortunate,” he admits, as he gained recognition through international competitions like the Intel Science Fair (which he won) and scholarships to prestigious institutions here and abroad. “I had great mentors who were able to nurture and guide me – we need more of that”.
Xuza says he’s no politician, but he does have firm ideas about how to create more opportunities for young innovators and potential entrepreneurs.
“Bring infrastructure to the rural areas,” he says, “Improve libraries and reduce data costs. It’s a missed opportunity that people think you have to be in Joburg.”
Xuza, who grew up Mthatha, is well aware of the potential that’s being lost.
“Our education system is outdated,” he says, “It’s preparing students for a world that was relevant 50 years ago.” He’s sympathetic to the cause of #FeesMustFall, he explains, because without scholarships and free education, he wouldn’t be where he is today. But the whole education system needs to be more innovative, to find new ways of preparing students using new technologies for the jobs they’ll be doing in the future.
“Unfulfilled human potential is terrifying,” Xuza says, “My only fear is that young people like myself do not fulfil their potential.”
He says, however, that he remains passionate about the continent and that the challenges of poor infrastructure and unemployment can be overcome.
“Another thing that keeps me going is that I know how much potential Africa has and that there are lots of other people like me. It gives me hope and let’s me know that the best is yet to come.”
His message to those who want to follow in his footsteps? Collaborate, and aim high.
“Mediocrity is the enemy of innovation,” he says.