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Two women, worlds apart, agree: business is not for dreamers, but for those with the guts to stick it out. Wendy Ackerman has made a fortune from supermarkets over the last half century; Rapelang Rabana is at the other end of her entrepreneurial career—in the dynamic world of technology and communications. They prove that when it comes to making your fortune there is more than one way to skin a cat.

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They both live in Cape Town, but are poles apart. Wendy Ackerman is on everyone’s rich list; Rapelang Rabana wants to be, but for now is content with being on the FORBES ‘30 Under 30: Africa’s Best Young Entrepreneurs’ list.

Ackerman is polished, prim and proper; Rabana is young, spunky and bright. Both have struggled against what the business world thinks women should be. Between them, they weave a fascinating story of how women can become successful entrepreneurs.

Be warned, anyone who refers to Ackerman as the chairman’s wife. Legend has it that she once received a lunch invitation bearing the words “wife of Pick ‘n Pay mogul”. This did not go down well.

“This makes me cross. Don’t introduce me as the chairman’s wife. I have had to work very hard. I want to be recognized as a person in my own right,” she told Independent on Saturday.

Decades in business have made her a force to be reckoned with and a source of great knowledge, opinions and advice for up-and-coming entrepreneurs.

Born in Cape Town, South Africa, Ackerman attended convent schools during the Second World War. Despite being destined for the retail industry, she majored in history of art, English and psychology at the University of Cape Town (UCT). In her second year at university, she married future retail magnate Raymond Ackerman and moved to Johannesburg, where she lived for 12 years and completed her degree. Taking care of three children at home frustrated her.

In 1964, the year Nelson Mandela went to prison for life and amidst the biggest political crack down in the country’s history, Ackerman was part of the team that put on a Shakespeare festival in South Africa’s townships, with actors from the University of Cambridge. This led to Ackerman giving English lessons in the townships.

When it came to learning economics at the University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, Ackerman dropped out because she didn’t understand the “airy fairy” subject. Outside the classroom, her husband became her teacher and she picked up her business knowledge through osmosis, when they attended business lectures. The couple went to the United States to study supermarketing and worked at supermarkets together—the business that was to make their fortune.

Ackerman says working with her husband has been good, as he’s an understanding person. Their biggest fights were about company policy. They fought over the building of a hypermarket in picturesque Constantia, Cape Town.

She walked into his office, wearing a pinstripe suit, to hand in her resignation letter. She would stay until the day the company broke ground in Constantia. Ackerman says many of the company executives tried to change her mind, warning her that it could be detrimental to her marriage. As far as she was concerned, this was all business and had nothing to do with her marriage. The hypermarket was not built—the pinstripe suit had won.

The journey that led to South African supermarket chain Pick ‘n Pay (PnP) began in 1966 when Checkers, still a grocery store at the time, fired Raymond Ackerman.

“I’ve always had enormous faith in my husband; I was delighted when he was fired,” says Ackerman, adding that he hadn’t been happy at work for a long time.

When the Ackermans moved back to Cape Town to establish PnP, Raymond would call her, whenever he was snowed under, to do anything from human resources to balancing the books and building homes for black managers. The housing project was one of the ways they took a stance against apartheid and says she was never worried she’d push too far.

“It never occurred to him that I might not be able to do something. So I did it. It didn’t occur to me to think that I couldn’t do it,” says Ackerman.

Equally ready for the fight is Rabana. Born in Botswana and called Africa’s Marissa Mayer—the CEO and president of Yahoo—Rabana is the co-founding CEO of Yeigo Communications. The daughter of an architect and electrical engineer, both of whom had moved out of corporate to start their own architectural firm, she spent her first eight to 10 years in Gaborone and left to board at Roedean School—a private school in Johannesburg.

Rabana wasn’t keen on university, but her strict African parents would have none of that. Unsure of what to study, she asked her brother to pick something for her, as long as it wasn’t accounting or actuarial science. She was so uninterested that she only realized she had been enrolled for a business and computer science degree, when she attended the first lecture at UCT. Her brother defended his choice by saying that she needed a challenge.

In an interview last year with Ventures Africa, Rabana said: “Most of us will be familiar with the Chinese proverb about teaching a man to fish as opposed to giving him a fish. My proposition is: teach a man to fish and you will feed him for a lifetime. Expose a man to the internet and he will change his life.”

It led to a Bachelor of Business Science in computer science and finance. Rabana was faced with the question that plagues most graduates: “What now?”

She was tired of starting at the bottom of the food chain. Entrepreneurship was a way for her to make her own way.  Her parents took some convincing—they felt that going into an established company was the way.

Rabana and two of her classmates wanted a solution to the high cost of communication. They spent months prototyping and by September 2006 had a working demo. Lungisa Matshoba was chief technology officer, while Andrew Snowden was head of engineering. The pair ran the development side of the business, while Rabana focused on financing and a business plan. She gave up on banks and went looking for mentors and connections.

“Everything we were doing was cutting edge,” says Rabana.

Yeigo launched in February 2007, promising Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), which had just been made available in South Africa. Two other foreign companies released the same program at around the same time. As far as Rabana is concerned, people need to conquer the fear of someone stealing their ideas to become the next Mark Zuckerberg.

The partnership with Tellfree began with the Swiss company licensing software from Yeigo. Tellfree bought a majority stake in 2008 and provided the young start-up with the infrastructure it needed. In return, Rabana become Tellfree’s global head of research. Prior to this there was a multi-million-dollar investment deal with American company, Quality One Wireless, a mobile handset distribution firm. It fell through after the preliminary agreement.

Rabana says that things were very bad for a long time and that the industry still has a long way to go. The problem seems to be a risk culture that scares most from venturing out on their own in a country where joining a corporate is considered safe. There is also a shortage of accessible networks, and a lack of financing from traditional institutions that think this business is too risky.

It seems that more can be done on this front. Rabana has joined the advisory board for Grindstone Accelerator to assist high-growth technology SMEs. She says that South Africa has lost its competitive edge on the continent, in communications and technology, because of delayed responses to regulatory issues. She cites Kenya’s success as the result of having technology and communications ministers that are in tune with the industry.

Take Israel. In 1993, venture capitalism was kick started by the launch of a prototype government-owned fund called Yozma. In three years, 10 drop-down funds were established and each given $20 million. The country now has 70 venture capital funds, raising around $607 million last year.

Rabana doesn’t feel that she lived under a glass ceiling as she skirted the corporate world. Both hope that women in business will soon find their rightful place. Ackerman has traveled the longest road as her parents didn’t even want her to work.

“They didn’t understand the hunger in me to work,” says Ackerman.

Ackerman once asked her female staff members if they wanted careers or jobs—around 80% said that they wanted a job. She believes that this is because of the many responsibilities these women have at home.

For years, Ackerman didn’t draw a salary, but has always considered her financial independence extremely important.

As for her role in the company, Ackerman says she does the jobs that no one else wants. She recalls how she once went away and handed over some of her work to her daughter, Suzanne Ackerman-Berman. When she got back Ackerman-Berman walked into her office, threw the files on the table and said: “You have a shit job.”

If Ackerman were 20 years younger, she would do it all again and doesn’t believe that it’s easier to start a business today than it was for PnP in the 1960s.

“You’ve got to eat, sleep and drink it 24/7,” she warns.

According to the rising star, Rabana, having a bright idea is not good enough because success is more about execution than anything else.

“Entrepreneurship is a much more personal journey than it is a business journey,” says Rabana.

“Entitlement is a disease in South Africa. I say nobody is entitled to anything. I’m afraid there are no short cuts, you’ve just jolly well got to work—that’s all there is to it,” says Ackerman.

Ackerman says BEE—South Africa’s affirmative action policy—is rubbish and that she didn’t have a glass ceiling to break through, but a glass box, as she even had to fight her husband. She wanted recognition in the company for what she had offered and not just to be the chairman’s wife. It took her 15 years to become a director at PnP.

Although Rabana feels that policies such as BEE have a role in achieving some balance, she too has a problem with entitlement.

“The culture of entitlement fostered by policies like BEE has also undermined the drive of young black professionals and this will cost South Africa dearly,” according to Rabana.

Then there is discrimination. Both women agree that double standards exist. They say, in business, if a man is being kind and gentle he’s complimented, but if a woman does it she’s just being a typical woman.

A born teacher, Ackerman saw the lack in her country’s schools. In 1973, she set up the Ackerman Family Education Trust with the 2% of PnP shares her husband gave her. The trust gives bursaries, worth $353,000 a year, to deserving individuals and has more than 800 graduates.

“I’m not a name at the bottom of a check,” she says.

One of the recipients is Isaac Motaung, the company’s human resources director, who started at PnP as a trolley pusher. He received a bursary to study through the University of South Africa.

Rabana is the chairperson of Ubuntu Africa, a children’s HIV/Aids NGO that provides healthcare and support services to HIV positive youth in Khayelitsha, a township in the Western Cape.

Ackerman, who was recognized as one of 60 women on the 2013 Women, Inspiration and Enterprise Network ‘Africa Power Influencer’ list, once said that retirement was not in her and her husband’s DNA. She still feels that way.

At the other end of the life scale, seven years after the start of Yeigo, Rabana is just beginning.

“Our hearts remain in start-up mode… I don’t imagine I’m anywhere near my peak,” she says.

Rabana sees herself starting a number of businesses in different industries, but still linked to technology. Her latest ventures are a web and mobile entertainment platform for the American market and a local technology-driven education company called Rekindle Learning. The start-up provides a mobile learning application aimed at schools and corporates. The KnowledgePulse uses micro-learning to make the content easier to retain.

With a number of achievements under their belts these women prove that making it in business has nothing to do with your background, generation or environment in 21st century Africa. It’s all about knowing what you want and getting it.

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Forbes Africa | 8 Years And Growing

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As FORBES AFRICA celebrates eight years of showcasing African entrepreneurship, we look back on our stellar collection of cover stars, ranging from billionaires to space explorers to industrialists, self-made multi-millionaire businessmen and social entrepreneurs working for Africa. They tell us what they are doing now, how their businesses have grown, and where the continent is headed. 

Since its inception in 2011, and despite the changing trends in the publishing industry, FORBES AFRICA has managed to stay relevant, insightful and sought-after, unpacking compelling stories of innovation and entrepreneurship on the youngest continent, in which 60% of the population is aged under 25 years.

 Many of those innovations have been solutions-driven as young entrepreneurs across the continent seek to answer questions that have burdened their communities.

 Always on the pulse, FORBES AFRICA has chronicled and celebrated those innovations – prompting the rest of the globe to pay attention and be fully engaged.

 A prime example of this is the annual 30 Under 30 list, which showcases entrepreneurs and trailblazers under the age of 30 from business, technology, creatives and sports. In 2019, we had 120 entrepreneurs on the list, finalized after a rigorous vetting and due diligence process to well laid down criteria.

 We have always maintained the highest standards of integrity in all our reporting.

 As we transition into the next milestone, FORBES AFRICA reflects on the words of civil rights activist Benjamin Elijah Mays, who once said: “The tragedy of life is not found in failure but complacency. Not in you doing too much, but doing too little. Not in you living above your means, but below your capacity. It’s not failure but aiming too low, that is life’s greatest tragedy.”

 With the transformation in the media landscape, the recent awards given to the magazine for the work done by a hard-working, determined and youthful team, serve as a reminder that we are doing something right.

 Early this year, FORBES AFRICA journalist Karen Mwendera received a Sanlam award for financial journalism as the first runner-up in the ‘African Growth Story’ category. In January, FORBES AFRICA’s Managing Editor, Renuka Methil, received the ‘World Woman Super Achiever Award’ from the Global HRD Congress.

 In reflecting on the last eight years, this edition revisits a few of the strong, resilient men and women who have graced our covers.

For some, fortunes have literally changed, as witnessed in the fall of gargantuan African empires such as Steinhoff. Of course, there have been massive moments of triumph too, which have seen some new names feature on the annual African Billionaires List. There have also been moments of tragedy with former cover stars passing away.

 Africa is ripe for the taking and is seen as the next economic frontier. The unique position the continent finds itself in will no doubt give FORBES AFRICA plenty to report on. Here’s to more deadlines and debates for the next eight years.

– Unathi Shologu

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Mastercard: Diligent About Digital In Africa

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Mastercard knows only too well that technology can drive inclusive financial growth with simpler and more efficient ways to do business and life. And Raghu Malhotra, the man spearheading this trajectory in Africa, is also focused on social progress.


In many ways, Raghu Malhotra is like the brand he works for, leaving his footprints in different parts of the world, and in some cases, the most unlikely corners.

On a scorching summer’s day in June 2016, Malhotra traveled 100km east of Jordan’s capital city Amman, to a camp with white tents named Azraq built for the refugees of the Syrian Civil War.

In the desert terrain and hot, windy conditions, people had to queue for hours on end for plates of food handed out of visiting trucks. But some of them, displaced and homeless overnight, expressed their gratitude to Malhotra, President for Mastercard in the Middle East and Africa (MEA).

Mastercard, a technology company that engages in the global payments industry, had distributed e-cards, as part of a global collaboration with the World Food Programme, to the refugees that they could now use to purchase food and other supplies from local shops.

READ MORE | The Big Bank Theory: South Africa’s Banks Of The Future

 “I spoke to the people myself and saw what their lives were… Even those who were doctors with their families and were displaced… They said to me ‘you have restored dignity to our lives; you have no idea how demeaning it is to queue up to be given food’… We actually digitized how that subsidy for food was given. Some of these things go beyond economics,” says Malhotra. 

Beyond economics.

That very simply sums up Malhotra’s mandate for Africa as well.

The New York-headquartered Mastercard, ranked No. 43 on Forbes’ list of the World’s Most Valuable Brands, with a market cap of $247 billion, which connects consumers, financial institutions, merchants, governments and business, is fostering key partnerships across the African continent to help drive inclusive economic growth.

The idea, Malhotra says, “is to get our global skill-set to operate in its most efficient form in every local economy, at the same time, we must do good, and it must be sustainable.”

He calls Africa the next bastion of growth for various industries.

“As a company, we have stated we are going to get 500 million new consumers globally. And Africa plays a big part of that whole story… We want to be an integral part of various economies here,” says the man responsible for driving Mastercard’s global strategy across 69 markets.

Raghu Malhotra President for Mastercard in the Middle East and Africa. Picture: Motlabana Monnakgotla

“It probably took us over 20 years to get the first 50 million new consumers, in my part of the world, which is the Middle East and Africa (MEA). It took us probably five years to get the next 50 million, and last year alone, we put over 50 million consumers [in the formal economy] in MEA. That is part of our whole African story, so this is just not rhetoric; we are actually building our business on that basis.”

Home to four of the world’s top five fastest-growing economies, Africa has the fastest urbanization rate in the world, the youngest population, and a rapidly expanding middle class predicted to increase business and consumer spending.

It’s a continent of opportunity for global players like Mastercard with an eye on the potential of a booming consumer base and small and medium entrepreneurs, most of whom are still not a part of the formal economy. A large proportion of Africa is still unbanked. There is enough business opportunity in offering people digital tools so they can lead respectable financial lives.

READ MORE | The Monk Of Business: Ylias Akbaraly Talks About Secret To Success And Plans To Take Africa With Him

But it is in knowing that financial inclusion is not just about technology, but more about solving bigger problems, as the World Bank says in its overview for Africa: “Achieving higher inclusive growth and reaping the benefits of a demographic dividend will require going beyond a business as usual approach to development for Africa. Going forward, it is imperative that the region undertakes the following four actions, concurrently: invest more and better in its people; leapfrog into the 21st century digital and high-tech economy; harness private finance and know-how to fill the infrastructure gap; and build resilience to fragility and conflict and climate change.”

And in order to enable financial access, Mastercard has a balanced strategy in place, with the right partnerships for inclusive growth on the continent, Malhotra tells FORBES AFRICA.

“Every emerging market has different segments of people and you need to get the right product for the right segment. What we do is a balanced growth strategy across the continent based on timing, opportunity etc… Of course, because the bottom of the pyramid is much bigger, I think what we need is to adapt things differently; that is where the inclusive growth story comes from. That is where the opportunity is, but there is a second part to it…” And that, he summarizes, is advancing sustainable growth, doing good and bringing more transparency and efficiency.

The new pragmatic dispensation of governments in Africa towards ideas, technology and innovation has surely helped open up the stage to newer segment-driven products, especially as Africa already has such global laurels as Safaricom’s mobile money transfer and micro-financing service M-Pesa that took financial access to a whole new level. Also, sub-Saharan Africa remains one of the fastest-growing mobile markets in the world.

READ MORE | Feisty And Fearless Pioneers Thandi Ndlovu & Nonkululeko Gobodo

Malhotra says he finds African governments consistent in how they are rolling out their digital vision, and in trying to collaborate towards creating better ecosystems for their economies, though each is unique with its own dossier of problems.

“When I speak to various governments around Africa, I see a commonality of what their needs are and I also see a commonality in how they are trying to respond. So I think a lot of them realize running cash economies is a very inefficient way of doing things… Also, the consumer base is much more open to new technology because there is no bedded infrastructure or legacy infrastructure. I think where governments need to start thinking a bit more is how much do they want to do completely on their own.”

Part of this transformation on the path to financial progress is alleviating the burden of cash. Cash still accounts for most consumer payments in Africa. Mastercard, which started out as synonymous with credit cards, continues its efforts to convert consumers from cash to electronic transactions, and move beyond plastic.

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Pioneer For Women In Construction Thandi Ndlovu has died

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The cover of the August (Women’s Month) edition of Forbes Africa beautifully captures the essence of the woman I interviewed only a few weeks ago. Gracious, soft-spoken, brimming with life and energy. Dr Thandi Ndlovu impressed the entire Forbes crew on that afternoon cover shoot with her broad smile, and open yet powerful demeanor.

It is with great sadness that Forbes Africa heard of the accident that took her life on Saturday the 24 August 2019.

READ MORE |COVER: Feisty And Fearless Pioneers Thandi Ndlovu & Nonkululeko Gobodo

She had given so much to South Africa and its people – through the apartheid years and during the 25 years of democracy, literally building a better future, first through her medical practice at Orange Farm and then through her company, Motheo Construction Group and the scholarships for tertiary education granted by her Motheo Children’s Foundation.

That sunny winter’s afternoon, I asked her if she, at the age of 65, was considering retirement, and she laughed. A lively, amiable laugh. She told me she was healthy and strong and easily worked 12 to 13 hour days.

READ MORE | WATCH | Making Of The Women’s Month Cover: Thandi Ndlovu & Nonkululeko Gobodo

She loved hiking, and has climbed Kilimanjaro twice, reached the base camps of Mount Everest and Annapurna in Nepal. At the time of the interview, she was training to climb Machu Picchu, the famed ruins in Peru’s mountains.

One of her biggest passions was to make a difference in people’s lives and to motivate people to achieve the best they could. The other was to redress the racial tensions that still remained in South Africa.

Dr Thandi Ndlovu, South Africa is poorer for your passing.

-Jill De Villiers

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