Every once in a while, when we are able to get our heads out of the cesspool of #guptaleaks and the associated political fallout, we have time to uncover some incredible success stories of South Africans from all walks of life. The story of Phineas Letsoalo, who started his “career” as a child labourer on a coffee farm in Tzaneen, surely has to be one of them. This podcast should be mandatory reading for any kid walking a dusty township or isolated farm road. It is thoroughly inspiring. But it also continues to describe the unfolding tragedy of how too many of the country’s brightest minds are pursuing a career in science almost by default, as we learnt a few weeks back with the incredible Tshiamo Legoale. But don’t let that displace the story of Phineas, which demonstrates that the impossible can be done with a little help, a little luck, and a helluva lot of hard work – WT.
WARREN THOMPSON: Today I have the privilege of talking to Phineas Letsoalo, he’s the 100% owner of Purechem, a business that’s currently supplying flux to mining and exploration laboratories. Phineas, it’s great to have you with us in studio, we want to understand your entrepreneurial journey, how you came to be a businessman and an owner of this business that’s now supplying these laboratories. I think your business career probably started a little bit earlier than most people, just before we started recording you told me about your first job, where you came from a rural background in Tzaneen where you started working on a farm at the age of ten, tell us a little bit about that.
PHINEAS LETSOALO: Morning, Warren, and thank you for this opportunity. Yes, my life has really not been that easy, coming from a rural background, from a very poor family. I started working at the age of ten in a farming environment and it’s interesting because I was brought into the farm to pick the coffee trees because I was so small and no one else could climb to the top of the tree. Three months later the farmer sold the farm and a new family from Pretoria came to the farm and they didn’t like to see a small boy on the farm and they asked me to go to school.
WARREN THOMPSON: And this was an Afrikaaner family?
PHINEAS LETSOALO: An Afrikaaner family, the Pelser family, a very good family and they took care of me ever since then.
WARREN THOMPSON: So where did you go to school, did you go to a rural school?
PHINEAS LETSOALO: I went to a rural school and then every weekend I would go to the farm. They later brought their other son to work at the railways station and then I worked for him in town, then things were much better and every weekend I would go and work in the garden for him.
WARREN THOMPSON: So then did you finish school and get a matric?
PHINEAS LETSOALO: Yes, I finished school and went to university. Before I could go to university I worked as a teacher in one of the local schools for a year and thereafter I went to Wits University.
WARREN THOMPSON: What did you study at Wits?
PHINEAS LETSOALO: I studied chemistry.
WARREN THOMPSON: How did you fund that, did you get some bursaries or did the family help you or did you have to save up money to do that?
PHINEAS LETSOALO: I saved up money for the year and then the family also contributed but fortunately when I got to Wits I managed to secure a bursary and then things became much easier.
WARREN THOMPSON: So you finished at Wits and you got a degree in chemistry?
PHINEAS LETSOALO: Yes, I even went as far as the honours level and I registered for my masters but then one of the professor had a friend in the mines and they needed somebody there, so he recommended I go there. So I was employed by Gold Fields at the time.
WARREN THOMPSON: Now, I imagine you were the first one in your family to get a university degree, how did that make your mother feel?
PHINEAS LETSOALO: She was very proud, she came to the graduation ceremony, together with my dad and they were very excited that I was one of the first few in the family to achieve such success.
WARREN THOMPSON: What year did you get your degree?
PHINEAS LETSOALO: It was in 1991.
Graduating from Wits in 1991
WARREN THOMPSON: Okay, wow, 1991, jeepers. That was a different country we were living in at that time; you were probably one of very few people of colour who graduated at Wits at that time?
PHINEAS LETSOALO: Yes, there were quite a number of us but very few relatively speaking.
WARREN THOMPSON: What made you study chemistry?
PHINEAS LETSOALO: Initially I wanted to do medicine because at that time there were not a lot of doctors in the area where I came from near Tzaneen and when I got there I realised that because I didn’t study sciences at school, I did maths and agricultural science, it wasn’t easy to secure an entry level. Then I decided to do chemistry and move into medicine later but then I enjoyed chemistry so much that I felt, this is my home.
WARREN THOMPSON: Wow, so that love for chemistry only came about almost by default.
PHINEAS LETSOALO: Yes, it came by default but while going through the subject matter I realised this is the centre of science, everything that I need to understand I could do it through chemistry.
WARREN THOMPSON: So at the rural school you attended they had maths and they had agricultural science, but they didn’t have physical science and biology?
PHINEAS LETSOALO: Yes, they had biology but not physical science.
WARREN THOMPSON: Okay, so no physics and certainly no chemistry?
PHINEAS LETSOALO: No, there was no physics at the time.
WARREN THOMPSON: So then things started to change, once you got that degree and now you had been recommended to one of the mines by one of your professors and which mine was that?
PHINEAS LETSOALO: It was Gold Fields mine laboratories.
WARREN THOMPSON: This is now still pre-1994?
PHINEAS LETSOALO: No that was in 1994 because I graduated in 1991 and then in 1993 I graduated with honours and thereafter I went to Gold Fields to work in their laboratories.
WARREN THOMPSON: So that’s where your involvement in mining started?
PHINEAS LETSOALO: Yes, that’s where my involvement in mining started and when I was there my other colleague, Dr Miller, needed someone to work on a catalytic system at Anglo and then he called me to ask if I could join him at Anglo to work with him on catalytic research. I was happy to move over to Anglo and that was just six months after I joined the Gold Fields laboratory.
I enjoyed that project at Anglo research and, in fact, the project became so successful to a point that we sold it to Mintek.
I was then moved to another division, the fire assay department, which deals mainly with the product that I’m manufacturing today but that was mainly focused on gold. Five years later, I was moved to the Anglo Platinum’s research centre to work on metallurgical accounting, the very same things that I was doing on the gold side I was doing on the platinum side, so that gave me a much broader understanding of the products that I’m working with currently.
Researching catalysis at Anglo
WARREN THOMPSON: So just explain that because some people like me are not qualified in these things, can you explain the type of work that you were doing there for Anglo?
PHINEAS LETSOALO: My first assignment for Anglo was research in catalysis, so the aim of the project was to develop an alternative market for gold. Currently platinum is the main ingredient for auto catalytic systems…
WARREN THOMPSON: Yes, it’s put into our cars to reduce CO2 emissions, as I understand it.
PHINEAS LETSOALO: Exactly, so that project was looking at whether we could use gold to do exactly what platinum is doing. So we worked on that project and it was very successful. Then Anglo realised they were not the ideal business to take it to commercial level…
WARREN THOMPSON: Yes because they are a miner, they are not a downstream…
PHINEAS LETSOALO: Yes, they sold it to Mintek and then I was moved to the fire assay department to head up the fire assay at Anglo research and that’s where most of the products I’m involved in now are being used.
WARREN THOMPSON: So what is fire assay?
PHINEAS LETSOALO: Fire assay, they call it a small pyrometallurgical smeltering process, where you take a small sample, you add the flux, put it into the furnace and everything melts. During the melting process and as stuff cools down it separates the precious metal from the base metal. So the gold and platinum will go one side and the base metal will go one side with the slag and you’ll have the slag and the lead button, the lead button will contain all the PGMs and the slag will contain all the base metals.
WARREN THOMPSON: So your work at Gold Fields lab was very brief, you said it was about six months?
PHINEAS LETSOALO: Yes, it was about six months.
WARREN THOMPSON: I’m fascinated to understand how you found working at Anglo, you’re going into what must have been a very white, male-dominated environment at a time when there was massive change in the country, Mandela was free, we had just had our first democratic elections and now the new government was really starting to make changes. How did you find that environment working at Anglo, was it tough?
PHINEAS LETSOALO: I must say it was tough but I will say it was like a soft landing because I was in an environment where I was being mentored by people who were liberal, they came from a university environment and I was working with people who understood academic freedom. So I will say that I was somehow cushioned by that understanding from the team that I worked with.
WARREN THOMPSON: So you didn’t feel looked down upon or…?
PHINEAS LETSOALO: No, I didn’t feel like I was in a foreign environment, I felt like I was with the people who I worked with at university and I was finding the same environment at the workplace. So it was a soft landing for me.
WARREN THOMPSON: If I think back to Anglo during those years that employed hundreds of thousands of people, most of them black, migrant labourers in the mines, you must have been admired, you were working in a head office environment in a highly technical field, how were you received by many of the other black employees at Anglo?
PHINEAS LETSOALO: To be honest, in the department I worked in I was the only black person there [laughing]. I worked mainly with well-respected professionals and I enjoyed working there and that’s why I worked there for so long. In Anglo almost every five years things were changing, they would retrench, they would resize, they would restructure and it was during that time that when they say restructuring one would be moved across to somewhere else. So instead of being laid off I was preserved and moved into another division, which I think was because I was highly valued because of the contribution I was making.
WARREN THOMPSON: That’s great. Who was running Anglo at that time?
PHINEAS LETSOALO: At that time our division was Darek Greganova but I was under Dr John Mellor.
WARREN THOMPSON: And he was mentoring you a bit as well?
PHINEAS LETSOALO: He was mentoring me throughout.
WARREN THOMPSON: In which division did this fire assay work before it got sold to Mintek, where in the big Anglo structure was this placed?
PHINEAS LETSOALO: It was in Anglo Research in Crown Mines and the MD at that time was Jim Tumulti – he was very pro research and our division was key to his focus, so we were well respected in that sense.
Taking the leap to entrepreneurship
WARREN THOMPSON: So then you were with Anglo, tell us when and how did you start thinking about becoming a business owner and starting your own business?
PHINEAS LETSOALO: I was moved in 2005 to Anglo Platinum Research Centre to work in metal accounting. Metal accounting is mainly to analyse samples that come from the mines, to look at how much ore they have taken out of the ground and how much of that is platinum, gold, palladium, rhodium and so on. To do that, you need a very good flux. At the time Anglo realised it was going into mechanisation, the company was going into robotics and so on, so they needed to design flux that would work with robotics. I was lucky to work with a team that was designing that but the problem was who was going to manufacture this specialised flux. Pro-T was approached to manufacture that product and they were later taken over by a company called Nalco came to Anglo and said: your manufacturing of flux is very small, it’s not in our strategic direction, so we will continue to support it but we don’t see us growing it any further than we currently do. Anglo viewed that as a risk and they said I must start looking at finding an alternative replacement to Pro-T. They sent me to GIBS to do business management studies and one of my projects was to look at whether Anglo can manufacture this product in-house, can we get an alternative supplier or can we help the current to improve on their quality systems.
WARREN THOMPSON: Just help me here for a second, Phineas, what is flux?
Listen to part two of the interview here.