Nneile Nkholise was born in South Africa, she studied a Bachelor of Science at the University of Witwatersrand and an ME in Mechanical Engineering at the Central University of Technology. She is a product design engineer with 8 years of experience in the construction, biomedical engineering and agricultural sector. She was the Co-Founder of iMed Tech biotech company optimizing access to breast prosthesis for breast cancer survivors. In 2020, she co-founded 3DIMO, a venture-backed agritech company that automates livestock data analytics to monitor livestock farms’ productivity. In 2016, she was recognized as Africa’s top female innovator in Africa by the World Economic Forum. She was awarded the South African Youth of the Year by, 2017. In 2018, she was awarded Forbes Africa magazine’s 30 under 30, and awarded Industrialist of the Year in Southern Africa at the All Africa Business Leaders Awards. She was inducted as a Harambe Entrepreneurship class of 2018 fellow and Crans Montana fellow, 2019. Outside her work, she is an active hiker, writes love letters, designs toys and tabletop board games and currently learning to fly a Cessna 172.
Nneile Nkholise was born in Lesotho and grew up in a small farming town called Thaba Nchu in South Africa, making her appreciate the art of farming and agriculture. She says, “I had the most glorious childhood, growing up surrounded by my mother’s love and the love of many of her friends who over the years lent themselves to being my mentors and played a pivotal role in helping shape my path in life.”
Her mother is an instrumental part of her success; talking about the value she instilled in her, she says, “My mother was very resourceful, she always had a plan for almost everything. She also had a knack for sales and possessed the inherent ability to sell poison to a rat and have it asking for more. She taught me so much about building product value and the art of selling a product that everyone is selling but charging almost twice the amount for it and still having everyone buying it.”
Growing up, her mother would never give her money when she just asked for it. She says, “She would always demand that I share with her a plan of what I need the money for and how the funds would contribute to my education and things I’m passionate about. Getting a cent from her to buy a sweet was impossible, but getting a dollar from her to buy a book was easy.” This skill greatly aided her while establishing her companies in the future.
Given her love for learning instilled by her mother, she went on to earn a Bachelor of Physics at the University of Witwatersrand. She later enrolled herself to study Mechanical Engineering at the Central University of Technology. She added, “Where I later dropped out following my accidental fall into entrepreneurship.”
Nkholise’s first formal job was in 2010, where she worked as a mechanical engineering trainee at a water treatment company, BloemWater, in South Africa. She says, “They always say your first employer is your god with a small ‘g’, and I can truly affirm that because my first job taught me about building interpersonal relationships and having empathy.” Nkholise worked in an environment where she was the only female working with older men, out of which many had never had formal education beyond secondary school and had never experienced working with a woman the same age as their daughters.
She added, “Beyond my job, I had a more significant role of helping my colleagues build a better appreciation for women in the workplace and build a positive influence for their daughters at home.”
Talking about her career journey, she says, “I’ve had numerous pivots in my career. I started my career working in the water engineering sector, later pivoted to working in the construction sector – during the time when I was working in the construction sector I also served in various leadership positions within South African Olympic Sporting Committee and University Sport and led a South African team to two world student games as Deputy Chef De Mission.”
In 2015, after holding various leadership positions, she decided to deep-dive into the world of entrepreneurship. That same year, she co-founded iMed Tech, a biotech company specializing in designing customized medical solutions, ranging from manufacturing medical prostheses, breast prostheses, and bio-implants. “By launching iMed Tech, I wanted to confirm a theory that women have the power and potential to run companies in the medical technology sector. And not just ordinary companies, but companies that will become multinationals,” she added.
The company achieved various accolades, and due to her brilliant leadership, Nkholise made it to the Forbes 30 under 30 List in 2018. Given her zest for establishing companies, in 2019, she launched 3DIMO that eventually started as a sports tech company that built sports injury sensing devices. They could be sown into athletes’ garments to compute stress loads (for instance, from contact) on specific joints and alert the athlete’s medical team when the stress load on the athlete’s joints exceeded the allowable stress that the athlete can carry at particular joints.
However, when COVID-19 hit, the sports industry entirely shut down. In the aftermath, the company faced numerous challenges because the organization had multiple development works in the process coupled with pilot tests that they intended to run.
However, despite the setback, the pandemic served as a turning point in Nkholise’s career. She explains, “When COVID hit in 2020; I went back home and spent a lot of my time working at farms, helping out on a full time basis. That experience helped me think differently about the challenges that cattle farmers were facing and the opportunities in the sector, which in previous years I had overlooked.”
She added, “So I decided to pull the plug on working in sport and led a drastic iteration of our product focus, market focus and also customer focus into agriculture.”
3DIMO is currently enabling 6,542 cattle farmers in the US and South Africa to create traceable biometric identification of their cattle using a phone camera image of the cow’s nose, which is as unique as a human fingerprint. This helps in tracking animal movement across the value chain.
Nkholise explains, “Of the 250 thousand cattle that we have created IDs for; we have been able to select the top 0.00005% of superior production bulls. We have been giving people an opportunity to partially owning these superior bulls by purchasing a fraction of shares of the bull on our investment marketplace and earning returns from the sale of bull semen. The semen is sold worldwide, but mainly in Africa, to increase beef production quality and reduce production costs using Artificial Insemination.”
Due to her pioneering work in the industry, in 2021, during the Journées de la Femme Digitale, she was awarded the Margaret Entrepreneur Africa Prize, a distinction that rewards women entrepreneurs in Africa and Europe whose projects and innovations respond to social challenges.
In conclusion, her advice to budding social entrepreneurs is, “This world has been borrowed to us by the kids of the house of tomorrow; let’s make it a better place they can call home.”