Naidoo and Mhlambi (both 33) are the owners of Linsen Nambi, a company they started in 2012 and which made local maritime history when it bought Grindrod’s Unicorn Bunker Services earlier this year.

At the age of 10, Naidoo and Mhlambi were already firm friends in Grade 4 at Montclair Senior Primary School in Durban in 1996.

“Thuso was, and still is, the funniest person I’ve ever met. We were still together when we progressed to the New Forest High School in Yellowwood Park,” recalls Durand.

Like other children, they walked home from school every day fantasising about how rich they’d be, the cars they’d drive, the many businesses they’d own and how they’d help other poor children.

“We took different directions at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. I got my BCom in accounting, but becoming an auditor didn’t interest me. I then decided to study further and chose maritime economics as an elective subject. I completed my Professional Qualifying Exams with the Institute of Chartered Shipbrokers to become a shipbroker,” says Naidoo.

He says his greatest achievement was winning a prize as the student with the highest marks in SA. He also achieved top marks in legal principles of shipping. In addition, he holds a Diploma in Marine Surveying from Lloyd’s Maritime Academy through North Kent College, UK. “I joined Safmarine as a graduate and gained invaluable experience as I moved within the industry, rotating through finance, exports and imports,” he explains. Mhlambi obtained his BCom Honours in accounting at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, before completing his articles at KPMG.

As a young professional working for maritime companies, Naidoo observed that there were only a handful of blacks in positions with decision-making authority. “I knew I wouldn’t be able to fulfil my ambitions working for a shipping company. In 2012, I proposed to Thuso that we start our own one,” he recalls.

At the time, Mhlambi was in a corporate environment as a financial manager. “It was during a lunch break that Durand came to tell me he was thinking of starting a shipping company. Having travelled a long childhood journey with my friend, it was a quick decision for me to make and join him as his accountant,” he smiles.

Initially, according to Mhlambi, Linsen Nambi offered shipbroking, marine surveying and consulting services. Skilled in this field, Naidoo conducted shipping business across the African continent, visiting Uganda, Sudan, Mozambique, Namibia and Zimbabwe. “We were a service-orientated company and, as such, we couldn’t scale our business, as we didn’t have assets and couldn’t build a balance sheet. In 2014, Thuso and I decided to pivot our business model to become asset-based and that steered the direction of our business,” explains Naidoo.

Linsen Nambi is now a 100% black youth-owned shipping company with highly skilled maritime professionals, strong customer relationships and, crucially, its own vessel. “Most black people have never considered working at sea because such positions usually aren’t advertised in SA,” says Mhlambi.

Naidoo says Grindrod Industrial Development Company sold its bunker division, Unicorn Bunker Services, for an undisclosed amount to the company and its new co-owners, Women in Oil and Energy SA (Woesa), early this year.

He adds that Unicorn Bunker Services was established in 2006 and operates three modern bunker tankers in the ports of Durban and Cape Town under contract to oil majors BP, Engen and Chevron. In layman’s terms, Linsen Nambi is the petrol attendant of the sea. Financed through the Industrial Development Corporation, it selected Woesa as a partner on this deal because – by dint of both their colour and their gender – black women have been doubly marginalised in the South African economy.

Mhlambi’s proud of their transformation successes. “Seven out of 12 masters are black, while all 12 chief officers and all 12 chief engineers in the company are black,” he says, adding that it already employs 110 people, a complement it hopes to increase significantly as the business grows.

“Durban has the busiest container port in Africa, while Richards Bay has the busiest coal terminal in the world. Consider the effect of mining commodities on our country’s gross domestic product which can only be transported by sea and you’ll understand how much cargo moves across our country,” says Mhlambi.

Naidoo quotes a saying in the shipping industry: “Cargo is king”. Yet, even though SA has the lion’s share of international cargo, the country doesn’t own ships. “We’re dominated by foreign-owned shipping companies which carry our cargo, resulting in a loss of GDP to us,” he adds. Both he and Mhlambi admit that their business hasn’t yet made remarkable profits, but they’re focused on a higher purpose: the development of communities where they operate.

“Today our heads are less in the clouds. We know how difficult it is to run a start-up as entrepreneurs and we owe all our success to God and His blessing in our lives. The oceans can feed us and provide us with a livelihood, yet it has high barriers of entry to new entrants in this industry,” says Mhlambi. He adds that efforts are being made to change this, including government initiatives such as Operation Phakisa, aimed at kick-starting the maritime economy. It’s estimated that the oceans could contribute R177 billion to SA’s GDP.

He and Naidoo have a goal of becoming the leading African shipping company with a global presence. Their vision is sweeping and includes the beneficiation of SA’s long coastline. “Our company’s well placed for strategic acquisitions and organic growth to develop our infrastructure further,” says Mhlambi.

– Bulelwa Mokori