These South African entrepreneurs are making big waves in Africa

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By Kelly Fisher, Account Director at Irvine Partners


From a business perspective, South Africa has long been viewed as a gateway into the rest of the African continent. Many international organisations have begun their African journeys by setting up shop in South Africa. The same is true for big local enterprises, with Shoprite, Standard Bank and MTN among the most prominent. 

But African expansion is no longer just the preserve of international companies and large corporations. Increasingly, entrepreneurs are also starting to grow their startups in new African markets. They’re also not confined to traditional fields such as retail, financial services and commodities. Instead, they’re innovating across a range of industries including domestic services, education, and agriculture. 

One of the most high-profile South African startups to have expanded into Africa in recent times is SweepSouth. Founded by husband and wife team, Aisha Pandor and Alen Ribic, in 2014, SweepSouth aims to bring technology to the home services industry and take the hassle out of booking a home service professional. 

Having established itself in South Africa and attracted the attention of international investors,  SweepSouth expanded to Kenya in early 2020 and to Nigeria the following year, in September 2021. It further consolidated its position on the continent with the acquisition of Egyptian home services marketplace Filkhedma in December 2021. 

“With a rapidly growing middle class and increasingly ubiquitous and affordable levels of connectivity, it was impossible for a technology-first company like us to ignore the opportunities available on the rest of the continent,” says Pandor. “And, while expansion is an important part of any company’s growth story, we also acknowledge how important it is to act as an enabler of job opportunities.”

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Given the continent’s demographic makeup, that ability to enable employment will be critical. Africa’s median age is under 20-years-old, with 60% of the population under the age of 25. As countries around the continent continue to develop, their working-age populations will keep growing. It’s critical that there are as many opportunities as possible for those people.

Equally critical is ensuring that those young people have the skills necessary to take full advantage of the opportunities available to them. That, in turn, starts with a solid school foundation. 

One South African company that’s aiming to make a difference on that front is Ambani Africa. Founded in 2018 by South African-born entrepreneur, Mukundi Lambani, Ambani Africa offers interactive mother-tongue education for K-12 learners, bringing together a mobile app, online language tutoring, augmented reality, and YouTube channels to help pupils learn in their native language. Since launching, Ambani Africa has expanded to offer its services in six African languages, including isiZulu, isiXhosa, Kiswahili, Setswana, Sepedi, Tshivenda and English.

“Technology’s most important role is as an enabler,” says Pandor. “Whether it’s a desire to work or to learn, companies that enable people to meet their needs stand a much better chance of succeeding in Africa and anywhere else around the world.” 

Another example of a South African company using technology as an enabling and empowering force across the continent is Thola. Founded by a team led by Nneile Nkholise, a fifth-generation farmer, Thola connects farmers/producers owning high production farms with people interested in agriculture, to create a connected marketplace that enables people to own high production virtual farms, with assets from the best producers in the world. 

So, for example, producers such as aged winemakers can offer fractional ownership in bottled wine futures by allocating shares in a barrel of wine to investors in its early years, and providing returns later when the asset has reached maturity.

While each of Africa’s 54 countries has different characteristics and market conditions, each of these companies has identified common problems that need to be solved. Beyond that, they’ve found ways to use technology as a way to help people address those problems themselves. 

For Pandor, it also illustrates that South African entrepreneurs shouldn’t constrain themselves to their home country as they look to grow. 

“Once you realise how powerful technology is in helping people solve universal problems, you start to understand how it can be applied beyond our borders,” she says. “As access to technology and connectivity is improved across the continent, the opportunities available for enterprising entrepreneurs will only grow.”

“Any entrepreneur that limits themselves to South Africa may be constraining their ability to grow,” she concludes. “Think about it: which would you prefer? The prospect of a potential market of 60 million people, or one of 1.2 billion?”

Kelly Fisher is a communications specialist. She sharpened her pen in motoring journalism before moving into comms, marketing and PR. She is also co-host of the local Brown Girl’s Guide podcast.

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