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In deep: a diving school for kids who can’t even swim

Published 6 August 2021 in Magazine • 7 min read

Kholisile Khumalo wants young black South Africans to reach their full potential by conquering their fear of water. His scuba diving academy worked hard to stay afloat in the pandemic, but he is facing the future with confidence.

 

I admit setting up a scuba diving academy in a country where fewer than one in seven of the target population can even swim is a tall order.  

But the sea, and underwater life especially, have fascinated me since childhood. I was devastated when my parents in Bloemfontein, miles from the ocean, couldn’t afford the R300 ($20) for a school trip to the coast. Years later, I had my first experience underwater at a conference in Mauritius. As part of the social activities, delegates could participate in an underwater sea walk. Although it didn’t involve scuba diving, the experience blew me away. It was my eureka moment.  

I certainly would not have predicted that this would be the trigger for a journey that would see me creating and running a scuba diving academy teaching diving skills and creating job openings to underprivileged young Black South Africans. In the process, I would face massive challenges, including dealing with the government, tackling COVID-19, and trying to scale the business for even greater impact, as well as trying to focus on longer term strategy while running the daily business.  

For older Black people in South Africa, swimming was unfamiliar, almost alien. This was a white person’s sport. Under apartheid, only private schools, patronised by affluent whites, had their own pools. Few Black people learned to swim. Some were even superstitious about mythical forces underwater, called umamlambo. Accidents and drownings were commonplace.  

Less still did we know about scuba diving. While I was gripped by undersea exploration shows on television, I was clueless about life below the surface. For years I thought a camera was simply dropped into the ocean.  

My dream of communicating my passion for swimming and diving to others has accompanied me for almost the past decade. Despite the apparently unpropitious circumstances – let alone the havoc wreaked in my country by the COVID-19 pandemic – I remain convinced there is huge potential and scuba diving offers real opportunities for many of South Africa’s unemployed Black youths. Official estimates last year put unemployment for 15 to 24 year olds at more than 53%, and probably far higher in certain pockets.  

South Africa borders three oceans, the South Atlantic, the Southern and Indian Ocean. Between the Namibian border to the west and Mozambique to the east we have 2,500km of coastline – even more if our islands are included  

Imagine the potential for recreational scuba diving, which today is restricted largely to affluent whites and tourists. South Africa’s Black middle classes have, at least until the pandemic, enjoyed rising disposable incomes. With more schools teaching pupils to swim, the potential is even greater. Call it vertical integration: swimming, scuba and travel.    

In addition, there is professional diving. Most South African divers are white and ageing. There is huge unmet demand for divers for tourism, oil and gas exploration, marine protection, aquaculture and marine transport and manufacturing.    

In 2012, I was working as a trainer for Telkom, the state telecommunications company. I had climbed the ladder since joining as an apprentice technician after high school in 1993, and had become a senior trainer.  

I’d always had an entrepreneurial streak. That may have come from my mother and grandmother, who would send me to the market after school to sell surplus food and vegetables. Although I was comfortable and happy in corporate life, I’d always wanted to set up my own business. What is the point of staying in corporate life if you can own your own business? A scuba diving school would let me combine my two loves of swimming and entrepreneurship 

In December 2014, I started working on my business plan. Of course, many of the unemployed youngsters I was targeting wouldn’t be able to pay for tuition. But I knew there was government support available for training, even in scuba diving. Another complication was that so few Black South Africans could swim. So our training had to start at the bottom, with the first eight weeks devoted to teaching basic swimming. 

Over the following months, I developed my proposals and costed them before sending them to the relevant government departments for grant funding. This was tough. There were various agencies with which to negotiate. I also faced major practical obstacles, some of which had to be overcome to secure international certification: we had no premises and no pool. And costs were rising steadily because of inflation. Fortunately, I had the support of the recreational diving industry and government agencies including the Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF), Transport Education Training Authority (TETA), South African Maritime Safety Authority (SAMSA) and the South African International Maritime Academy (SAIMI). 

We had to be innovative, and that meant using municipal pools. Transport had to be arranged, often to inconvenient locations. Initially I couldn’t afford vehicles, so that was outsourced. Then there was accommodation. My plan envisaged teaching 100 students a year, drawn from the young unemployed, for eight-week courses in five groups of 20. As they needed accommodation, I had to acquire premises too, purchased partly from the proceeds of my pension scheme.  

Young divers must undergo rigorous training, top, before they have the freedom of the open water
Diving was a white people’s pastime. It wasn’t easy to find trainers among the Black community, because there weren’t any

The biggest challenge, though, was finding instructors. As I said, diving was a white people’s pastime. It wasn’t easy to find Black instructors, because there weren’t any! And while I’d qualified as an advanced diver, I wasn’t certified yet as an instructor, and in addition I felt I should concentrate on the business.  

As managing director, I had to pay the bills, order equipment, plan and developing training programmes, oversee safety and monitor quality management, as well as observe compliance standards and pursue the general management of the company, while also looking for new opportunities and writing proposals. In the end, I hired two white instructors on 12-month contracts, with the hope they would train their own successors.  

Our first contract was for three years. Of course, we had to start from scratch, because almost all our students had to learn to swim first. But once the diving bug bites, it doesn’t let go.  

Despite ups and downs, the business developed. We graduated between 24 and 28 divers a year, more than half of them girls, and most importantly with a 100% safety record. Typically, more than three quarters of graduates found jobs immediately: two recent graduates, for example, went to the Dubai Aquarium in Dubai Mall. Most common as employment was recreational diving, earning a respectable ZAR 8,000 (almost $600) a month, plus tips. Some progressed to becoming commercial divers after further training at partners schools, eventually earning ZAR 18,000 to 30,000 ($1,300-2,1700) a month. Our graduates have an excellent reputation among commercial diving schools.  

 

The main problem was that we were always dependent on government contractsThere were barely any private clients. But the trouble with government business is that everything’s so slow. Negotiations take ages and payment can be very protractedFortunately, I never experienced corruption – I was never asked to pay any bribes  perhaps because our funding involved three different state agencies at the same time.

Up to 28 divers a year, more than half of them girls, graduate each year from the academy

Soon. it became apparent that my biggest obstacle was scaling the business. Rather than growing, revenues from government fell after our initial three-year deal, with shorter contracts and fewer students as state money became ever scarcer as the economy deteriorated. In 2014-16, when we had the three-year contract, we turned over R13m ($940,000). But after that, our turnover started declining and it became increasingly clear we needed to develop alternative revenue streams.  

Then came the pandemic, and things hit rock bottom. Fortunately, our business was relatively flexible, as we could start or end courses quickly; but we carried significant costs. Climate is a major factor: in summer we can use outdoor pools, but in winter we rely on heated indoor facilities. So you have to plan very carefully when booking capacity. With COVID-19, the country went into lockdown and business dried up completely. For the whole of 2020 and so far in 2021, we haven’t had a single government contract.  

Despite that, I promised to keep on all our 11 staff – including my wife and myself – albeit on half pay. Fortunately, we had built up reserves, so it has been possible to keep the business ticking over.  

Clearly, we need to free ourselves as far as possible from government contracts and inflexible municipal pools. Therefore we have launched two strategies.  

First, we have negotiated access with Virgin Active, a private sector gym chain with its own heated indoor pools. We’re already working at the first Virgin Active pool. 

Second, we’re proposing to partner with schools that don’t have their own swimming pools. We offer to build them an outdoor pool and provide pupils tuition for a monthly fee. In return, we and the immediate community can use the pools after hours for our courses. We’ve signed our first school contract, though we’re waiting to raise funds to build the pool – which will take about three months.  

In the longer term, my dream is to build our own facilities. That means a covered, heated Olympic sized pool and premises for about 10 classrooms and offices. I appreciate that it’s very ambitious: the pool will cost around R16m ($1.2m). But you know, today, 27 years after apartheid and the transition to democracy, South Africa still hasn’t had a single Black Olympic swimmer. I’m 46 now and my hope is that within the next eight years we might be able to help train at least one child who qualifies to represent our country. 

Authors

Kholisile Khumalo

Founder and Managing Director of Myansi Scuba Diving Academy

Kholisile Khumalo is Founder and Managing Director of Myansi Scuba Diving Academy. He spent the first part of his career as a technician at South Africa’s state-owned telecommunciations company, Telkom, rising to be a specialist trainer for the group. 

 

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