N3 Hero – Vasanth Sonalal. “If you have nothing good to say, don’t say anything”
Vasanth Sonalal is a very busy man. His phone just keeps on ringing, entertaining all within earshot with Baa Baa Black Sheep – his favourite nursery rhyme from childhood! He gives instructions on the “the boiling point of bitumen”, advices someone to “order extra joints” and asks how the “guard rail repositioning in Section 5 is going”. Outside of his office, the yard at US Alan Fencing is a hive of activity, someone is welding, someone is mending a sign, while others fix the brush cutters or sort the recycling. Most of the 120 employees are out on the road attending to repairs, maintenance and upgrades. Amongst all the metal, tools and trucks, it comes as a bit of a surprise to find four people tending a huge vegetable garden at the bottom of the property.
“If only we had the power to give every person a job”, says Vasanth. “It is disheartening to have to turn people away. I really admire people trying to get things together for themselves.” To remedy some of the unemployment and hunger in the local community, Vasanth has employed three women to create a food garden to feed themselves and grow surplus to sell. At the end of the year, the garden will become theirs – “it is important to support them while they get it going, or else how will they feed their families?” There are rows of cabbages, mielies and potatoes, seedling beds and a wide variety of fruit trees all supplied by Vasanth. All the grass cut from the road verges on the motorway is turned into compost and used in the garden too. Astonishing. One hopes other businesses close by will be inspired to follow his example.
Ex-gold miner and father of 10 from nearby Ntabamhlope, Maxwell Njoko, has been with Vasanth for many years and they have a great friendship. “Maxwell has stood by me through difficult times” says Vasanth, by way of introduction. Maxwell responds “This is a good place to work. I want to retire right here in the garden.”
Vasanth’s father, Ramcharan Sonalal, nicknamed Alan, started the business in 2001 and Vasanth joined a couple of years later. At first he was a bit sceptical about giving up his own perfectly good job at the Nestle factory, but decided to take a chance. Vasanth is full of admiration for the role N3TC has played in getting their business up and running, mentioning training, mentorship, advice and friendship. “There is no doubt that N3TC made our business. They are always willing to help and never turn their back on you, no matter what you ask.” Vasanth has played just such a role in getting other small contractors in the area up and running – giving opportunities to those who are willing to learn and work hard. In return for his help, he demands that workers be fairly treated and properly paid, which has earned him the respect of peers and employees alike. He adds “My father set a very good example, working hard and being humble, I am proud to follow in his footsteps.”
Vasanth is proud that his workforce is capable, well trained and able to get on with their jobs without someone watching over them all the time. “I try my best to get things right. If a problem is serious, we need to get onto it straight way”, he says. “We always have a standby team close by for after hours and I believe the guys enjoy their work. Each day is different; they travel to different places, enjoy working in the open air and have different tasks to perform.” Vasanth is considering preparing regular healthy meals from the vegetable garden produce, so the teams have something nourishing to eat when they return after a long day. Such care for the wellbeing of staff should be common place, but it isn’t. Vasanth is certainly an extraordinary man who believes wholeheartedly in sharing his good fortune with others. “I hope that we can start to turn people’s minds with this vegetable growing thing. We need to change our way of thinking about doing business.”