Africa Leaders Magazine

Meet Pioneer Female Aviation Entrepreneur – SIBONGILE SAMBO

Sibongile Sambo decided to make a career in the South African aviation industry, she encountered a stumbling block – she could not meet the minimum height requirement for air hostesses.  Today, Sambo is the Founder and Managing Director of SRS (Sibongile Rejoice Sambo) Aviation – the first black female-owned aviation company in South Africa. SRS offers charters in a range of categories including VIP charter, air cargo charter, tourist transfers or charter, game count and capture, firefighting, heli-camping, medical evacuation, aerial photography, film work, slinging or airlifting, powerline inspection and maintenance, and general air security services to clients.

Born in 1974 in Bushbuckridge, Mpumalanga, South Africa, Sibongile Sambo’s interest in aircraft started when she was a young girl. Whenever she sees a plane flying overhead, she would stop immediately and imagine herself in that plane. Sambo had visions about planes and would imagine herself flying to different countries and meeting people. Her dream came true when the 2003 post-apartheid government passed the Black Economic Empowerment Act, which enables people from previously disadvantaged backgrounds to enter and participate in economic life as entrepreneurs.

However, she had a challenge that could have prevented her from achieving her dream – she had no prior experience or capital to purchase an aircraft. Rather than go through the formal means for acquiring the capital, Sambo relied on her family to lend her the money to kick start her business. The small family loan from her mother and aunt enabled her to broker contracts between aviation services and those with air-transport needs.

Ultimately, with her impressive education history and work experience in human resources from various organizations like De Beers, City Power; Sambo started her airline company. In 2004, Sambo invited her sister to be a partner in her aviation firm.

After the invitation tendered by the South African government for aviation firms to bid on a contract for cargo transport, Sambo was on course for success. The contract was awarded as a joint venture between SRS and another firm. Although a collaborative project offered a golden opportunity to wade into the industry, the other firm soon withdrew, leaving Sambo to learn the contracting process on her own.

Speaking on her experience as a fresh-blood in the aviation industry, Sambo said “It was very challenging.  I had to learn the different background operational needs before a flight. I had to call around and find out from different people what I needed to do. Even the clients themselves assisted me because they had run (similar) contracts before.” Such was the challenges she faced and how she overcome some of them.

“Most people saw (my entry) as very awkward, and initially, people never took me seriously. I had to prove myself more than 10 times.” Ultimately, Sambo got her message across as she said: “I told them I’m here, I’m here to stay, I’m here to grow this business, and I’m here to make changes as well because I’m young, I’m very innovative and I want to bring a new spice into the industry.”

In addition, the aviation industry did not have many young, female, or black entrepreneurs. In this, Sambo said:” My background gives me that platform to become a strong woman. I started living away from my parents from the age of five or six, which gave me a lot of independence. For me, managing in an environment that is very male dominated just comes naturally. It comes from confidence and willingness to learn, but also from the willingness to make mistakes, learn from them and move on.”

“Being able to penetrate a male-dominated industry has been a career highlight,” she says.

In June 2010, SRS’s first Aviation shop opened at SA airports and since then SRS has opened a chain of retail shops in South African airports.

Doing this hasn’t always been easy, she admits, “but as soon as men are aware that you’re as intelligent as or more intelligent than they are, they take you seriously”, she says. “So I stay knowledgeable; I read continuously and attend conferences and industry events regularly.”

She admitted that “Being able to communicate with people at different levels has probably benefited me most in my career.”

Sambo is known for having the knack for taking advantage of opportunities. Her ability to network targets has also helped her as a successful entrepreneur in the South African aviation industry.

Her company also has an Air Operating Certificate by the South African Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), making her company the first black operational enterprise to be given full rights to undertake commercial flying activities.

Aside from being an entrepreneur, Sambo doubles as a Motivational Speaker. She mentors youngsters as well as businessmen and women in Africa. The ambitious and self-driven entrepreneur has been able to generate job opportunities and empower women from previously disadvantaged backgrounds.

Sambo is affiliated with several associations including the South African Entrepreneurs Network (SAWEN) – an organization that promotes youth and women empowerment globally; Business Women Association (BWA) and she is part of a team that is establishing the Southern African Woman in Aviation a non-profit making company that will encourage women to enter the field of Aviation in different levels; offer bursaries and scholarships towards Aviation related training etc. Sibongile is a board member of SAWIA.

She also has a strategic relationship with Women of Color in Aviation & Aerospace in the United States of America. She is also a member of Women in Aviation International (WAI), the Black Management Forum (BMF), the Enterprise Development Forum, FABCOS (CHAMSA) and Fly South – just to mention a few.

A Member Think-Tank of the World Entrepreneurship Forum (WEF), founded in France by French president, Nicolas Sakorzy and EMLYON Business School; Sambo is also part of a team establishing a South African chapter of the NGO Women in Aviation International, and was featured in the World Bank report Doing Business: Women in Africa.

She is a beneficiary of the month-long mentorship program in the United States for international businesswomen, featuring a mentorship assignment with one of FORTUNE’s Most Powerful Women with the Honourable Hillary Rodham Clinton as one of the founders of the programme.

Her efforts have been rewarded over the years. In 2006 she cleaned up the awards table, taking home the Regional Business Woman of the Year award, the Black Women in Business award in London, the SRS Aviation Fidentia Award and the Top Emerging Gender Empowered Company award.

In 2007, Sambo was named a Leader of Tomorrow by Fortune Magazine. In 2009 she was nominated for the Queen Victoria Memorial Award (International Socrates Award) by the Europe Business Assembly in London. In 2009 she has been nominated for the Queen Victoria Memorial Award (International Socrates Award) by the Europe Business Assembly in London.

“These awards show that I’m heading in the right direction. It also means that the business of aviation is my playground. I plan to take SRS Aviation to greater heights and become the leader in this business.”


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