How I Started a Sustainable Architecture Company In South Africa (After Being Homeless)?

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Kayla Jacobs-Knight

Kayla Jacobs-Knight

Co-Founder
Adam Knight Sustainable Architecture

Team Size

2 – 5

Revenue

Not Disclosed

Location

South Africa

STart Date

2 – 5 years ago

Today my interviewee is Kayla Jacobs-Knight from Adam Knight Sustainable Architecture based in South Africa.

Kayla and her husband founded a company that provides a building model that is completely self-sufficient, using Renewable energy, Water and Waste Management, Permaculture and Bio architecture as an alternative to traditional building and architectural practice.

Kayla is incredibly driven, an inspiration and has certainly achieved a lot. Her story is even more incredible knowing that her childhood was one of real heartbreak and trauma. It’s an interview you don’t want to miss!

INTRODUCTION

PLEASE TELL US ABOUT YOURSELF AND THE BUSINESS YOU STARTED?

I grew up in Cape Town, South Africa, just after the end of Apartheid as a coloured woman. My parents divorced when I was 5 years old and my mother raised us. We lived with my grandmother in a household of 23 people, in a wendy house in the yard that could only fit a queen-size bed and a cupboard, I shared a bed with my mom and my sister until I was 17 years old. We were dirt poor.

I was emotionally, mentally and sexually abused, at 6 by my uncle and raped twice as a teenager, our neighbourhood was riddled with alcohol, crime and gangsterism, a typical cape flats suburb and so I found myself becoming an introvert.

I was a difficult child, years of trauma left me with severe anxiety and I was diagnosed with a borderline personality disorder after more than one failed suicide attempt and 6 years of self-mutilation.

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Throughout this, I loved reading, often finding solace in the stories of others, I taught myself at 3 years old, always excelled at school and matriculated Cum Laude with 8 certificates and 6 medals, as well as teenage pregnancy.

My eldest daughter was born in my first year of university. I was accepted into the University of Cape Town, a previously whites-only university and studied Fine Art. I dropped out in my second year after my grandmother passed away and got on a train to Johannesburg to find a job, only to find out I was pregnant again with my second child.

That’s when I met my Partner Adam Knight, an architect 27 years my senior, we married and moved to a rural area outside of Durban to raise our son. Together we built our company, after years of living a nomadic life.

At first, it was incredibly difficult to maintain our lives, I am also an artist, so I worked on a few arts and crafts projects and my partner got a few little jobs here and there.

We struggled for years. Some days barely eating, people would bring us food and clothes. We lived in a tent for a year with the local rural people in KwaZulu-Natal, not ever earning more than R20, barely enough to get by with 3 children at the time. My journey was always centered around my spiritual growth and after the most intense year of survival, I prayed for a break, from this life of suffering. Someone must have been listening because a month later we moved into a house, not perfect it had no windows and ceilings and it was on a farm 16km from the closest town.

I received a phone call from a friend after drafting a business plan for our architectural company, specializing in Green Architecture and self-sustainable design, not long after drafting a proposal, we landed our first huge project, an Innovation Hub.

Now we are in our third year, still doing well. We are working on a few projects centered around self-sufficient development and adding value to the built environment.

sustainable architecture
Off Grid Casino Resort and Hotel

THE JOURNEY

HOW DID YOU COME UP WITH YOUR BUSINESS IDEA?

My husband worked as a bio architect for 23 years before we met. When we decided to register the company, it was based on our 6 years of travelling South Africa and seeing what was lacking in the communities we were in.

The name of the business was straight forward. We wanted people to understand the difference between what we offer and how architecture has been perceived, as one of the most wasteful and destructive industries.

We also looked at the global market for inspiration, seeing what works and what didn’t. The world is changing from being based on finite resources to become more aware of cost-effective, non-destructive solutions that tackle core issues of food security, Cost-effective housing and Renewable resources. We have brought this understanding into our service.

PLEASE DESCRIBE THE PROCESS OF LAUNCHING YOUR BUSINESS.

It was tough. It took so much time, energy and faith in myself, on the business side of things while Adam handled the architectural process.

I did almost everything by myself, Google and YouTube have been my best friend. Whenever I needed to do anything I would find as much information as possible to fully understand something.

At first, things were quiet. It was difficult figuring out the best way to reach the desired clients. Once I figured out my niche things have eased up.

I learnt that not everyone wants your product or service and that is okay. I learned about the diamond method, working backwards by first identifying who you are serving and why.

WHAT HAS BEEN YOUR BIGGEST ACHIEVEMENT AND YOUR BIGGEST CHALLENGE ALONG THE WAY?

Biggest Challenge: Our biggest challenge was learning how to not put all our eggs in one basket, as they say. Having more than one project running is vital to making your business a success.

And also overcoming self-doubt, especially as someone who has come from the background I have, has been a great challenge.

Biggest Achievement: My biggest achievement has been having the President of my country viewing our proposal for the Innovation Hub and being offered the opportunity to design the Smartcity.

HOW DO YOU PROMOTE YOUR BUSINESS?

Social Media has been my main source of advertising, but most of the jobs I’ve gotten have been via networking and personal relationships.

However, we are working on a better marketing campaign, using social media and paid advertising as of lately to expand our business.

WHAT IS YOUR VISION FOR THE FUTURE OF THE BUSINESS?

My business has been slowly moving past the start-up phase, I am excited about the opportunities we’ve been given and am looking forward to the expansion of our business into the rest of South Africa.

We are planning a few independent Off-Grid development projects that will not only benefit us but also the greater community.

RECOMMENDATIONS & FINAL THOUGHTS

PLEASE RECOMMEND ANY RESOURCES AND TOOLS THAT YOU USE TO RUN YOUR BUSINESS.

The best tool is a great attitude and willingness to learn. Everything else falls into place when you are motivated.

Facebook has been great for networking and a professional email really helps.

WHAT ARE YOUR FAVOURITE BUSINESS BOOKS, PODCASTS OR BLOGS?

Wow! My life from the age of two has been filled with books, I read almost any and everything that is interesting and relevant to me.

Personal development books have been the most useful. Also reading up about successful people, but my focus is mainly on personal and spiritual development.

I have recently been listening to podcasts, Patrick Bet-David has been one of my favourite business podcasts as well as Vusi Thembekwayo.

WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO OTHER WOMEN WHO WANT TO START THEIR OWN BUSINESS?

 

You are enough.

Don’t give up, have faith in yourself.

 

Especially in this age of information you can be and do anything as long as you are focused and have a definite intention.

 

Just remember that you are capable, you are magnificent.

 

We all have a gift to share with the world. Find yours and then you will find the utmost satisfaction.

Violeta Semenova

Violeta Semenova
Founder
theBizLadies

Welcome to the Biz Ladies interview series!

If you’re new to these series, I interview women entrepreneurs on how they started their business, what was the idea behind it, how they got where they are, the struggles, the reality and more.

By sharing their stories, we want to inspire other women to get started.

If you are interested to share your own story on the Biz Ladies LET ME KNOW!