How a fruit and veg hawker built a college
Forek Institute of Technology chairman talks about poverty and his dream of establishing a one-stop shop for critical skills training.
UNAWARE they were grooming an entrepreneur, Fortune Sibiya’s parents sent him out any day after school to sell vegetables and fruits door to door from a very tender age. The poor family was merely trying to make some income.
Sibiya reminisces that he could have been six or seven years old at the time he began learning to be a hawker at Mangweni village in the Nkomazi municipal area of Mpumalanga province.
That informal training would, many decades later, produce an owner and founder of a private college and an Information Technology (IT) company who moulds skilled graduates and potential entrepreneurs.
Sibiya’s early life experience of growing up in grinding poverty taught him a valuable lesson to take the initiative to make things happen for himself.
“Since I graduated from university, I had never written and delivered a Curriculum Vitae in any office to seek employment. I went to university to study IT because I heard that there were opportunities for learners who had passed their matric very well. I did not have any intention to go to study at a university,” Sibiya said.
Although his business grooming was founded on humble beginnings, by chance rather than by choice, because he was born into an impoverished family, it has come in handy. Sibiya is nowadays a driving force behind producing artisans who can easily become self-employed or entrepreneurs through his technical college, Forek Institute of Technology.
Forek offers vocational training courses and feeds the job market and the business world with graduates who possess sought-after skills. The college’s graduates become electricians, plumbers, welders and commercial farmers – to mention a few trades.
“We’re informed by industry on what training courses we should focus on offering in our institution. The number of enquiries about a particular trade and requests from the industry inform us how we gauge what courses we need to offer. The industry then absorbs and attach these graduates to job opportunities,” Sibiya said.
“We also have a feedback process from the industry that tells us where we are short. We improve and then work towards providing the quality of the training that we offer,” he said.
As a stickler for quality, Sibiya has decided to employ facilitators with a minimum experience of five years to be sure that Forek produces the best graduates.
Forek Institute of Technology, said Sibiya, was founded in 2012. The college is fully accredited by quality assurance body, UMALUSI, and the Department of Higher Education and Training and the Quality Council for Trades and Occupations.
Coincidentally situated on disused factory buildings at the KaBokweni Industrial Park near Mbombela, the college still stand to offer the much-needed jobs and business spin-offs to the immediate community that the factories were built for during the times of the erstwhile former KaNgwane homeland government.
Forek has since been on a growth trajectory since Sibiya founded it. Starting with just two employees, the workforce is now made of 70 people. Enrolled students at any given time are about 500.
“I was greatly influenced by my upbringing to establish this college. I was born into entrepreneurship,” Sibiya said.
Armed with a Computer Science degree following his graduation from the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Sibiya set out on his journey into the world entrepreneurship and creating jobs.
He initially set up office in Mbombela and started designing websites, business cards and profiles. Sibiya also offered services such as software installation and computer support. It was in 2007 that he registered his IT company, Forek IT Services. He also studied for a Business Management Degree as he ventured deeply into business.
“My first employee came in 2009. I employed a second person and I still have both employees to this day,” Sibiya said.
As his IT company grew, Sibiya’s attention moved to establishing a college. An IT training school to produce software developers was born, and it was accredited by the IT Sector Education and Training Authority. It later expanded to offer Engineering and Business courses.
In 2010, the idea grew in his head. Sibiya then set his sights on establishing a fully-fledged private further education and vocational training college.
“I realised that our training was more theoretical and we needed to offer practical training,” he said. The space in Mbombela was small and not conducive for a college Sibiya had in mind so he relocated the institution to KaBokweni. “Imagine the noise that comes from the welding workshop in the centre of town. It was better to move to a bigger space and where there won’t be much disturbance to the community,” he said.
The ideal buildings at the KaBokweni Industrial Park were dilapidated and had been vandalised, but it was, in the end, what he wanted: “a factory, sort of like an industrial park,” to establish the college. The Mpumalanga Economic Growth Agency, which owns the old factories, gave him a lease in 2016. “Our accreditations lapsed and we had to start afresh when we moved to KaBokweni in 2017, and by that time we wanted to establish an artisans development centre,” Sibiya said.
As soon as the Forek campus was set up in KaBokweni, more programmes such as Bookkeeping, Office Administration, Agricultural Skills, Occupational Health and Safety and Public Administration were introduced.
More programmes such as Mechanical Engineering, Sibiya said, were on the pipeline. “We now do mining-related qualifications, and we grow on a day to day basis,” he said.
Forek Institute of Technology, Sibiya said, would be expanded into other regions of the country in future and its impact has not been as exponential as he had wished. “We want to see Forek as a skills hub, bringing up the old style of quality training and being a one-stop shop of providing providing critical skills. As such we have fully-equipped factories to give our students the best practical learning,” Sibiya said.
Those in the transport, food and accommodation businesses have been major beneficiaries of the college’s existence. “We came here and business-minded people started building backrooms, and spaza shops to sell food to students. We want to see the real economic impact of the college in the next 10 years,” Sibiya said.
Not to forget his poor background, Sibiya initiated the Chairman’s Bursary to assist needy students who cannot afford to bankroll their training at Forek.
About 25 learners have been awarded the bursary even though there is no bursary policy to speak of yet. “They come here crying for the opportunity and they touch my heart. It is my wish that government could come in and subsidise us in a private-public-partnership format so that we can absorb all of the needy students,” Sibiya said.
Some students enrolled in the college on support from various industries through SETAs, he said. “They get stipends. Artisan learners, for example, get R3 000 per month and those in agriculture get R1 500. The problem here is that some of them come for the stipends and have no interest whatsoever to do anything with their acquired skills. It is difficult to police who is genuine or not and you will only realise in the end and when the stipend is finished that some of them were just here for the money,” Sibiya said.