Thokozani Miya. Picture: SUPPLIED
Thokozani Miya. Picture: SUPPLIED

Starting a business from scratch in SA is notoriously difficult, with at least half of start-ups failing within two years and less than a quarter making it to the crucial five-year mark.

Neo Aviation, an air taxi service launched less than 18 months ago, is one of the few which has already shown it will not just survive but succeed.

The reasons are fairly simple — the company’s founder, Thokozani Miya, identified a niche that was not being filled by existing air charter services and created a concept tailored to fit the demand.

Neo Aviation offers business and private clients flights to dozens of airports and landing strips in SA, Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Mozambique at a fraction of the charter cost by using ultra-light, modern aircraft which need less fuel.

"We sell time. Our clients don’t want to be on the road for long distances and they might want to go to more than one city in a day. We are versatile — we can do that and we can land in very small landing fields as well as large airports," he says.

Neo Aviation charges R18,000 for a return trip in one of its three Cirrus SR22 aircraft — taking three passengers — from its base in Lanseria to Durban. This compares with a rate of about R100,000 from a charter firm.

The air taxi service is flying between 80 and 100 hours a month, more than double the time of six months ago. Miya is planning to expand the fleet with three more planes, including a jet, and has just acquired a licence to fly to countries outside the Southern African Development Community, which the company already covers.

"The demand is huge. We have four regular corporate customers and do no marketing — business spreads by word of mouth," he says. But getting Neo Aviation off the ground wasn’t easy.

The company’s springboard was Miya’s passion for flying, which dates back to his childhood. His application to train as a pilot 20 years ago was rejected and he began his career in IT, working for big names like IBM, MTN, Vodacom, Telkom and Standard Bank. The travelling he did in SA and abroad kept his interest alive, and in 2010 he obtained a private licence to begin flying for fun.

Miya’s interest in entrepreneurship was also part of the equation and he started his own businesses in several sectors, opening a Sausage Saloon franchise in 2002 and starting a corporate clothing company in 2005. Inevitably, he began considering the idea of launching a business in aviation.

Miya’s concept of an air taxi alternative was born in 2011 and he put together a business plan the following year. But there were no funders — no-one wanted to risk financing an idea with no track record of success in SA.

Eventually an executive at Minnesota-based Cirrus Aircraft put him in touch with the man who bought in as his SA business partner, Piet van Blerk. There were more challenges and it took them nearly six years to obtain an air operator certificate.

Miya’s advice to aspiring entrepreneurs is born of his experience. "You have to have persistence, know what you want to do, be able to research the industry and use your connections to get to the next level," he says. Having a skill and experience working in the corporate world is useful as you learn to sell yourself, he adds.

Miya’s other interests also help — being a member of the Toastmasters Club in Johannesburg has honed his speaking, marketing and communication skills. He enjoys reading business books because they open up a "different way of thinking" and his favourite so far is The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene. "That taught me how people use others," he says.