Dr. Robson Mafoti 100 Greatest Zimbabweans

A true friend helped Dr Robson Mafoti plunge, unbelievable into the right career path he had always yearned for when he was still growing up.

In an absorbing and thoughtful interview with the chemical industrial scientist, Dr Mafoti was taken aback and recalled his friend, Patrick Mutasa, as a true friend who had a profound impact on his career.

"I had this burning desire to go to school. A friend of mine, Patrick Mutasa went to Bulawayo main post office and saw a sign written: 'If you need help call the Good Samaritan.'

"He called that number and told the 'Good Samaritan' that he wanted to go to school but he had no money. The 'Good Samaritan' told him to call Mr Fred Moorehouse at the United College of Education," Dr Mafoti said.

"This guy (Mutasa) called him and was told that there was the Budiriro Trust Scholarship which he could apply."
After work, Mutasa later told Dr Mafoti about the scholarship and urged him to apply for it.
This was in 1971 when Dr Mafoti was working at Springmaster as a production clerk.
He had just finished his O'levels at Mzilikazi High School in 1969 but had failed to get a place to study for his A'levels at Fletcher High School in Gweru despite the fact that he had passed very well.

So he decided to look for a job in 1970 at Springmaster in Bulawayo.
"I did very well at that job. I was earning $6,45 a week. That was enough to buy some few items and not adequate to feed myself," he said.

"And so, when my friend told me about the scholarship, I didn't know that this would have an amazing effect on my life. He told me to take my O'level certificate to Mr Moorehouse so that I could qualify for the interviews for the scholarship," Dr Mafoti recalls.

The competition for the scholarship was stiff with 100 candidates in Harare and another 100 in Bulawayo competing for just two scholarships.

A panel of eight whites interviewed the candidates in Bulawayo.
"We went for the interviews but unfortunately my friend, Mutasa never made it. It was myself and Canaan Dhlodhlo who made it to the second round after a rigorous screening exercise," Dr Mafoti says.

"We were later told that we had got the scholarship to go and study in Swaziland."
This was the beginning of his long and winding journey to the world of chemical and industrial science.
Listening to him speaking about his life makes you feel like you are being taken into the womb of knowledge.
You are kept chasing after the words which capture his vast knowledge and experience in the field of research and development.

Whenever he spoke, I found myself hanging on each word wondering with great anticipation what would come next.
Dr Mafoti was born in Wedza on 11 June 1949 and first attended school at the Methodist Church-run Chematendere Primary School from 1956 to 1961.

The Mafoti home was on the foothill of the Wedza mountain. In 1962, he dropped out of school because of lack of funding.

And in the year that followed he went to stay with his uncle in Bulawayo who later helped him enrol at Gampo Primary School at Matshobane. He did his primary education here until he finished his standard 6.

In 1966, Dr Mafoti enrolled at Mzilikazi High School which was opened in 1965 to serve blacks during the colonial era.
He finished his O'levels in 1969.
"When I was growing up in Wedza I didn't know that I would be a scientist. They say that I had a rare talent of moulding clay oxen and carving rocks of oxen pulling a plough," the veteran chemical researcher says. "I suppose the environment around me helped to shape and influence my career path."

He says he had this burning desire inside to excel in education and surpass some of the well-known and successful people and families at the time.

"I used to say: 'I will not stop at standard 6. I want to reach standard 18," he says laughing. "This is what motivated me most. In the environment I grew up I saw with my own eyes what school could do to our neighbour's children.

"Perhaps my biggest motivation was staying close to Sijabuliso Biyang (now a managing director of Sea Freight in Harare). He was the big brother I was always looking up to. I was always telling myself that: 'I want to be like this man. He was my role model. Sometimes role models influence our lives," he says.

Mentors at school also helped Dr Mafoti to have an interest in the sciences. "At high school, I was good in science. I had a natural inclination for sciences. Science and mathematics became my favourite subjects. I just loved the practical aspect of science. This was quite fascinating to me.

"I just could not write like historians. I was too scientific in my approach. I didn't have the gift for the arts," he says.

He says he got a lot of inspiration from Mr Godfrey Motsisi, a South African science teacher who taught him at school in Bulawayo before he later became a principal at Fletcher High in the early 1970s.

"Motsisi was a good scientist. He was inspirational in many ways. He led a good life and together with other white teachers at Mzilikazi I was taught to love sciences," Dr Mafoti says.

The road to Swaziland via Lorenco Maques, now Maputo was a tortuous one particularly for young blacks like Dr Mafoti and Dhlodhlo who could easily be mistaken for Frelimo cadres seeking the overthrow of the Portuguese colonial regime in Mozambique.

The two left the country at the end of 1971 and had to get British passport in Mozambique from the British consular general based in Maputo.

At that time, it was difficult to enter Swaziland with a Rhodesian passport. They got their British passports in Maputo and they proceeded with their journey to Swaziland. Little did they know that they were being trailed by Portuguese security agents who thought they were Frelimo cadres.

"Just before the Lomahatsha Border Post, a security agent told us we had reached our destination. He then led us to a police station. We were shown a three-quarter bed with blood stains all over it, a whip with iron spikes at the end," Dr Mafoti recounted their ordeal at the hands of the security agents.

"They accused us that we were Frelimo agents. One of them said: 'Lets beat them up.' Before we could be given this 'nice treatment', the immigration officer at the border called the British consular general to verify our travel documents.

"We were cleared just before they could torture us. On that day we slept on the back of a car. It was cold and we were afraid," he says.

Upon arrival in Swaziland, he enrolled at Waterford Kamhlaba School, a multiracial school were he studied for his A'levels from 1972 to 1973.

He stayed at the house where a Danish family ran a charitable organisation to assist afflicted children from apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia.

During that time, he met renowned eye surgeon Dr Solomon Guramatunhu and many other young Zimbabweans who later succeeded in life.

After completing his A'levels, Dr Mafoti got a place at the University of Sussex in England but failed to secure a scholarship to study there.

"So I had to join the University of Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland (UBLS) near Roma town in Lesotho in 1974 after getting a scholarship from a Geneva-based organisation. This is the same university where Dr Bernard Chidzero also went through," he says.

At Roma, Dr Mafoti majored in chemistry and biology. He graduated in 1977 and taught briefly at Amavheni Secondary School in Kwekwe.

Conditions of work for blacks were so bad that he was forced either to leave for Mozambique to join the armed struggle or to go and work in Lesotho.

"At Roma we were very active as Zanu supporters. I met the likes of Dr Aleck Mashingaidze (former Central Intelligence Organisation director), Dr Stan Mudenge (now Higher and Tertiary Education minister) who was the leader of the group and many other Zimbabweans," he says.

In 1977 he taught briefly in Lesotho and later left to study for MSc in the United States after getting a scholarship from the African American Institute.

Dr Mafoti attained a MSc in analytical chemistry from Texas Southern University (1980), a MSc and PhD both in organic chemistry from Rice University in Houston, Texas (1985).

From the academic, he later managed to break into the industrial and practical side of science. In 1985 he joined the Bayer Corporation (USA) researcher centre. Bayer was originally a German firm which was taken over by the Americans after the Second World War.

But the Germans later bought the firm again renaming it Miles which they later decided to change to Bayer Corporation.
Dr Mafoti gained vast experience and received training in various management programmes.
"At that time I was the only black research scientist. I was just one black token to signify – a symbol of racial integration in America. I said no and I felt the only way I can get accepted is for me to prove myself.

"A German scientist felt sorry for me. I was like a lost sheep. I had to do something drastic very quickly," he says.
He befriended technicians and learnt a lot about polymers. Dr Mafoti designed the fascia of cars used for making grills using material that could resist movement when heat was applied and conversely when it was subjected to very low temperatures.

He made a breakthrough and designed fascia material which was later used successfully by leading American motor companies such as MG, Chrysler and Ford. This became his first patent and one of his most prized and enduring innovations.

"They could not believe I had done it. Because I was black, it was subjected to several rigorous tests. I managed to retain 90 percent of the properties of the material I had designed," he says. "This earned me a lot of respect and recognition. My work expanded from this point onwards."

After working for five years at Bayer, he was voted the Most Proliferous Inventor. "I had 13 patents which were issued in one year at Bayer in 1990," Dr Mafoti says. "Invention is by serendipity. You cannot dream about it, no."

His inventions are in the field paints, plastics, decorative surfaces, sealants and adhesives. Dr Mafoti left Bayer Corporation and joined Wilson-Art International to expand his industrial knowledge in 1995.
"At Bayer, while they respected my technical ability they never gave me the chance to enhance my managerial skills because I was black," he says.

In Austin, USA, he oversaw the growth of Wilson-Art International from an annual turnover of US$500 million a year to US$1,2 billion a year by 1999 through research, product development and appropriate marketing strategies.

He said training and the identification of key drivers helped turn the fortunes of this company. Dr Mafoti invented laminate flooring materials which were scratch resistant, not prone to moisture attack and less slippery. In the first year when the flooring materials were commercialised, Wilson-Art sales hit US$250 million. The owners sold the company and invested the millions of dollars they had raked in on the stock exchange.

Dr Mafoti moved to Dallas in 2000 and joined Schneer Morehead Inc as a technical director of research and development for sealants and adhesives.

The death of his mother in January 2002 forced him to return home. "My mother died in 2002 and in the course of that, it was at the height of the land reforms. There was a revolution at home. Having spent 25 years in the US, I felt it was time to come back.

"I had missed the First and Second Chimurenga and I felt I had to join the Third Chimurenga," he says.
He saw an advert in the Sunday Mail looking for director general for Scientific Industrial Research and Development Centre (Sirdic) and he applied.

"I sent my CV to chairman Dr Gibson Mandishona. I felt there was no way I could get the job. I got a call from him in November 2002 to arrange for an interview. I was interviewed on January 17 2003 and I got the job," the chemical industrial scientist says.

He quit his job in the US and joined Sirdic on July 1 2003 taking over from Prof Christopher Chetsanga who had retired.
In addition to his personal achievements, Dr Mafoti's vision of corporate management, understanding of application and support of scientific research has led to the growth and maturation of Sirdic into a centre of excellence promoting the country's scientific and technological advancement.

One constant of Dr Mafoti's career has been his consistent call for Sirdic to connect industrial research and development to commercialisation. "Research for the sake of research is like milking a cow without feeding it. We have to train our people to say whatever they do in the lab it must be directly linked to application and the application should link with commercialisation," he says.

"I called that: 'from cradle to grave' –if you start it you have to finish it off by handing over to the end user."
After sourcing tile making machines from Cuba for US$100 000, the Sirtech commercial arm of Sirdic is now producing tiles with sales worth more than $200 million per month.

Tile factories have been opened in Harare, Bulawayo and Mutare and Dr Mafoti says the tile manufacturing project is expected to rake in about $2 billion and create jobs for more than 800 workers by the end of the year.

Sirtech runs four units –tile manufacturing, foundry which had just started, electronics which was producing Science Laboratory and Teaching Equipment for basic science teaching and the animal anti-biotic unit awaiting funding to buy equipment to ensure commercialisation veterinary products.

"We need US$1 million to buy fermentors to produce anti-biotics for animals," he says.
The isolation of Zimbabwe by western countries, he says, is forcing Zimbabweans to think outside the box and develop innovative ways of surviving.

"You are seeing more innovations because we have to survive. This is good, all developed countries once passed through such a phase and they had to find ways of surviving," Dr Mafoti says. "Funding that comes with no strings attached is most welcome. Lines of credit are much better than conditional aid. We should be able to borrow, develop and pay back. This is the type of help we need and not donor money."

A country develops with lines of credit and not with aid that comes with conditionalities, he says. Dr Mafoti says brain drain was disastrous in the short-term but good in the long run as skilled personnel return home to share their knowledge and experience once they decide to return to their country of origin.

"Until the economy improves, we must create a congenial environmental that is going to allow our children to dream," he says.

His public service activities have ramified into all kinds of government run institutions, boards and committees both local and international.

The list of awards and honours Dr Mafoti has received for both his personal achievements and contributions to science and to the field of research and development is impressive. Mafoti is a member of various professional societies including the Zimbabwe Academy of Sciences and the American Chemical Society.

He remains committed to turning Sirdic into one of the premier institutions in Africa and the world which acts as an engine for innovation in the country.

Mafoti is married to Ann Ntsoaki and the couple have two children – son Fadzanayi (29) a mechanical engineer in Oregon and daughter Muchaneta (19) who is studying law and accounting at a university in the UK.

He has another daughter Simphiwe who works for a South African government ministry. "The teaching of science needs to be skewed towards application. We need to start bringing the practical side of our education system. Science is the future. Chemistry is the basis of everything. Zimbabwe needs a university to teach polymer science," says Dr Mafoti.

The chemical industrial scientists maintains a persistent steady and positive approach to the challenges facing the country.

There is no doubt that his great enthusiam for and great support of science education and deep concern for Africans to drive the research agenda will consolidate Sirdic's thrust to find solutions to Zimbabwe's pressing problems.

Words from prominent African scientist Phillip Emeagwali capture the feeling that science can liberate Africa despite the enormous challenges the continent faces: "The greatest challenge in your life is to look deep within yourself, to see the greatness that is inside you and those around you.

"I once believed my supercomputer discoveries was more important than the journey that got me there. I now understand the journey to discovery is more important than the discovery itself.

"I learned that no matter how you often fall down, or how hard you fall down, what is most important is that rise up and continue until you reach your goal."