Armed with international and government expertise, AfDB’s Akinwumi Adesina says growing food is what will help lead Africa out of poverty.
Akinwumi A. Adesina has just got off a transcontinental flight but shows no signs of jetlag whatsoever. He is immaculately dressed in a sharp suit complete with his trademark bowtie –a red one today – and is full of boundless energy. He is the man with substance, style and a sound bite for every occasion.
The 58-year-old cannot let long days or long flights rob him of the zest he needs to run a mammoth development bank in Africa.
“I am somebody who is focused in life. The only thing that gives me satisfaction is seeing people transform and not just in terms of one or two but in terms of tens of millions of people. That is what keeps me awake every day and that is what I do,” he says.
This tireless energy has led to his ascent as President of the African Development Bank (AfDB). He assumed office as the eight president of AfDB three years ago in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire.
Adesina’s reputation to deliver targets despite the odds has consistently earned him the moniker of risk-taker amongst his peers.
This was so even in 2010 when he took on as Nigeria’s Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development was asked to set targets for his term.
“I said in three years we would be able to produce for Nigeria an additional 20 million metric tons worth of food. And they said that is too high. The Minister of National Planning told the President [of Nigeria], and the President said ‘Akin, you have set such a high target, why don’t you cut it down a little bit’. I said ‘Mr. President, I was not elected, I was appointed. So if I say I can do something and I get all the support I need, then I have no reason to not achieve it and if I don’t, fire me’,” says Adesina.
By the fourth year, he produced 21 million tons of food exceeding his original target.
In 2013, Adesina won the FORBES AFRICA Person of the Year award for his bold reforms in Nigeria’s agriculture sector.
When Adesina was a student, his professor at university told him he would not gain admission to the prestigious Purdue University in the United States (US) because of his inability to solve a mathematical problem. Adesina cancelled his admission to Cambridge University, where he had already been accepted for his PhD, to take his professor up on his challenge.
“I did not know what Purdue University was at the time so I researched it and it turned out that it was a world-class institution. I decided to go there instead and I came back with a distinction in my PhD. I visited my professor to prove to him that I did not fail and that was my point made.”
At the time, his wife, Grace, had also gained admission to study for her PhD but opted to stay behind and take care of the home while Adesina attained his qualification.
“I am fortunate to have a fantastic wife who grounds me very well and goes through a lot of debates with me about what to do. She is an excellent partner. She is extremely sharp so I cannot debate anything or write a policy document without discussing with her and when I was minister, for example, before I would go to the federal cabinet with any paper, I would have a debate with Grace. Everything I do is a collective effort with Grace. And every success I get today, let’s say I will give 56% of the credit to her,” says Adesina.
That support has been a key pillar in Adesina’s success. His achievements speak of years of hard work.
Poverty was not an alien concept for young Adesina who grew up with four siblings in an area with poor sanitation and inadequate facilities. His deep, abiding connection to agriculture today goes back to his roots, and his ancestors.
His father was a farmer who taught Adesina that class did not matter and the importance of education as a social leveler. Adesina knew from an early age that he wanted to do something for the greater good of society.
“I have a sense of responsibility, that God put me on earth to do something. At the end of the day, I am an instrument. And so I must use my God-given talent to ensure I am able to help others, provide hope for others and make sure we bring hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. Nothing makes me happier than that.”
And to him, agriculture is the most powerful tool to reach that goal. According to Adesina, the African continent is spending about $35 billion on food imports alone resulting in a significant loss of jobs that could have been created had Africa been self-sufficient.
By 2030, the size of the food and agriculture business in Africa will be worth a whopping $1 trillion, he says.
“Agriculture is the coolest thing you can think about. Nobody drinks oil, but everybody eats food. So those that want to be millionaires and billionaires of Africa are going to come out of that sector. In agriculture, I believe that Africa can industrialize. Look at the Netherlands, they only have agriculture and that is one of the richest countries in the world.”
Lessons for life
Adesina earned his first-class honors bachelor’s degree in agricultural economics from the University of Ife, Nigeria, in 1981. In 1988, he completed a PhD in agricultural economics at Purdue in the US, where he won an Outstanding PhD Thesis Award for his research work. He also won the Rockefeller Foundation Social Science Post-Doctoral Fellowship in 1988, which launched his international career in agricultural development.
It was at Rockefeller in New York that Adesina would learn one of the biggest lessons in his career. After joining the foundation as a young scientist, Adesina was invited to lunch by his boss on his first day of work.
“I thought we were going to a great restaurant. We got to the side of the road and he saw the guys that were selling hot dogs for $1 and he bought it. He said ‘let us go back to the office’. We went back to the office and he said ‘what would you like to drink’ and I said ‘Sprite’. And he said ‘at Rockefeller Foundation, we don’t have Sprite, we have water’. And he gave me water and that was my lunch. He shook my hands and said ‘welcome to the business of managing a dead man’s assets. Find the sharpest mind you can find in the world, give them money to do great things and then get out of their way’.”
Adesina has never forgotten that lesson. He is passionate about finding the right team and empowering them to achieve greatness. His love for agriculture also led to several innovations in the sector that would empower farmers with financial assistance through the Rockefeller Center where we worked for a decade between 1998 and 2008.
Adesina became even more purposeful about looking for a long-term fix to poverty alleviation in Africa by building a viable and scalable model to provide financial assistance to farmers. When he served as Nigeria’s Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development from 2010 to 2015, he implemented bold policy reforms in the fertilizer sector and endorsed innovative agricultural investment programs to expand opportunities for the private sector. Here too, he took risks.
“We launched what was an electronic wallet system designed to register farmers in Nigeria at scale. I thought to myself ‘what is the most important thing I can do for the country as a minister’ and I felt I had to put farmers at the center of it. I went after the fertilizer cabals in Nigeria and we ended the corruption that was prevalent in the industry for 40 years. It took us 90 days and we took the power of mobile phones and registered about 15 million farmers in Nigeria and we were able to reach them directly to give them seeds and fertilizers.”
Another issue he had to tackle was the issue of bankers lending to farmers.
“If I was a farmer and I walked into a bank, all the banker will see is risk. I felt European farmers were supported by banks and African bankers should have the same privileges and be supported,” says Adesina.
He set up a $350 million lending facility that was backed by the Central Bank of Nigeria, which would reduce the risk of lending to these farmers by commercial banks, resulting in about $3.5 billion of financing for farmers in Nigeria.
Agriculture for continental change
Adesina says he sees himself as an agent for change.
“It is not about me. For example, take a look at electricity; my own philosophy of development or growth is very simple. I believe if I am not ashamed of something, then I am not going to change it. If I am ashamed of something, then I will change it. The very fact that Africa doesn’t have electricity makes me ashamed and the fact that Africa is not able to feed itself makes me ashamed so it is those things that drive me,” says Adesina.
Currently, the total production of power in Africa’s largest economy is about 5,000 megawatts compared to 44,000 megawatts for South Africa. Adesina has had a singular focus on leveraging the power of agriculture to transform the continent for the past decade.
Agriculture forms a significant portion of the economies of all African countries. As a sector, it can therefore contribute towards major continental priorities, such as eradicating poverty and hunger and boosting intra-Africa trade and investments, rapid industrialization and economic diversification. Adesina believes this should be the focus for Nigeria, if it is to achieve double-digit GDP growth.
“If you look at China, its ability to [take] 700 million people out of poverty was due to a faster and innovative growth rate. We must grow at double digits for a very long period of time. Secondly, we have to do a number of structural changes in the economy. Simply relying on oil is not good enough because oil prices continue to fluctuate and of course as this fluctuates, over 90% of government income is dependent on the sector, so it affects everything.”
He believes it is not only important to diversify the economy but most importantly, increase the productivity of the diversified economy. Currently, Small and Medium Scale Enterprises (SMEs) account for about 85% of the private sector and the fact that the productivity of that sector is very low is a major cause for concern for the Nigerian economy.
Are Nigerian youth lazy, banking on the notion that Nigeria is an oil-rich nation? Adesina disagrees.
“Nigerians are the most hard-working people I have ever seen in my life, they do not need too much of government help, they just need the government to supply the resources. So if you can fix the electricity problem, Nigeria’s entrepreneurial drive and capacity will work and industries will work.”
The prevailing narrative is that agriculture is everyone’s business and national independence depends on its development because it enables countries to escape the scourge of food insecurity and it provide employment for the youth. For Adesina, it is imperative to harness the power of this sector in order to achieve economic growth and development.
‘Not looking for a job’
With a distinguished career as a development economist and agricultural development expert with 25 years of international experience, in 2015, Adesina added a new milestone to his illustrious career by becoming the first Nigerian to serve as the President of AfDB against the backdrop of global and regional headwinds, including depressed commodity prices and the derailing Ebola epidemic that reduced tourism revenue for many economies in West Africa.
“When I was sworn in as president, I said to them I am not looking for a job. I said this is a mission to create prosperity for the continent, bring a lot of resources for the continent and make the continent happy,” he says.
And that is exactly what he has been doing for the past three years. Under his leadership, Adesina launched the ‘High Fives’ initiative which includes light Africa, feed Africa, industrialize Africa, integrate Africa and improve the quality of life of Africa.
“It sounds simple but the United Nations just did an analysis and concluded that if you focus on these five things, it will achieve 90% of the Sustainable Development Goals,” he says.
During his tenure so far, Adesina has restructured the AfDB as an accelerator for Africa’s Sustainable Development Goals while simultaneously leading big reforms at the bank. First on the agenda and perhaps most critical was ensuring the AfDB remains Africa’s premier development financial institution. The bank currently maintains a ‘Triple A’ rating by all four global credit rating agencies since Adesina took over as president.
This was swiftly followed by tackling the issue of declining income. In 2015, before Adesina joined the group, the bank’s income had declined to $492 million. Within a year, income grew and by 2017, it stood at $783 million.
“What really excites me is in terms of the impact we have had on people. In terms of electricity, just last year, we connected about 4.4 million people to electricity. In agriculture, we connected 8.5 million people to get access to better technology and in transport, where we invested in railway, it has helped about 14 million people. Water and sanitation are also very important and we have helped about 8.3 million people to have access to that,” says Adesina.
This has also helped transform the global perception of the bank. AfDB was rated the fourth most transparent bank in the world. His reforms have also improved employee satisfaction by moving it from a score of 82 out of 100 to fourth best company to work with in Africa (after World Bank, Chevron and Exxon Mobil) as per the 2018 Careers in Africa Employer of Choice Survey.
But what really keeps Adesina up at night is how the bank through entrepreneurship development can alleviate the issue of youth unemployment in Africa.
The biggest business in the world
“Sometimes we pass by gold all the time and see gold as dirt. And we look at agriculture like that when in fact it is the biggest business in the world. So for me I really want young people to be in agriculture as a business,” says Adesina.
Africa, the world’s youngest region, continues to be confronted with high levels of unemployment and poverty. According to data from the International Labour Organisation, in sub-Saharan Africa, the youth unemployment rate is at 12% with the African region accounting for the highest rate of working poverty – those who earn less than $2 a day.
According to the 2016 African Agriculture Status Report, the region’s rapid population growth is due to rising life expectancy and declines in death rates, particularly of children. Youth unemployment, vulnerable employment and working poverty levels in Africa are at an all-time high making youth employment an important policy priority in most countries on the continent. Consequently, there are more young people here than ever before.
Adesina believes this must be the focus of greater economic development.
“We have to catch people young. Look at how agriculture is projected in our movies. Every time they are depicted as poor and in villages so it conveys an impression that if you go into that area of business, you will be poor. So one of the things we have to do is to change that perception of agriculture. Some of the richest people in Europe and the USA are farmers.”
The second aspect is in the area of knowledge transfer. There are various business opportunities in the value chain of agriculture including processing, marketing, logistics, transportation and food retail. These represent big business opportunities for Africa’s youth who may not be interested in farming to still get involved in the business.
The third area Adesina believes we need to look at is technology.
“If you take a look at ecommerce today, people used to go to the market and still do but I can tell you in the very near future, most of what is called the open market will go down because people want to have different kinds of healthy food quickly. So people will be delivering food to people’s homes and they are not going to go to the markets anymore.”
Then finally comes the all-important issue of finance. One of the things Adesina did to tackle this was to set up a program, ENABLE Youth, to help youth focus on agriculture. Last year, the AfDB invested some $300 million in eight African countries to support young people to enter agriculture as a business, with a proposed roll-out to a further 30 countries on the continent.
Coming up in November is the first-ever Africa Investment Forum (AIF) in Johannesburg, South Africa, where Adesina will unveil plans of $120 billion as bankable projects for the African continent.
“It cannot be business as usual, it must be business unusual,” he had said when announcing the AIF in May.
Amongst African leaders, Adesina is a rarity with a forward-looking view of Africa.
What is the legacy he would like to leave? His answer is evocative and inspiring.
“I have always been proud as an African. I will live an African, die an African and resurrect as an African. And in the case of Nigeria, I will live a Nigerian, die a Nigerian and during the resurrection, opt to come out as a Nigerian as well with the green-white-green flag in my hand.”
A pioneer, he turned down the best international jobs to return to Africa because his heart was set on his homeland.
Adesina is the new face of investment on the continent and a man on a mission to change Africa, with style, substance, and a master plan.
“In his short period in office, Dr Adesina is already trailblazing. It is clear he has a demonstrated commitment to unlocking the potential of agriculture in Africa. I applaud his continued effort for creating sustainable yet innovative paths out of poverty for many of the continent’s rural inhabitants. I wish him continued success as he carries the very heavy portfolio of investing to transform Africa’s economic, agricultural and industrial sectors.”
— Mohammed Dewji, CEO, MeTL
Lights Camera Connie!
You Only Live Twice
The Two Faces That Mean Business
A complete irony that just as the words ‘women power’ are mentioned in the room, the power goes off.
It’s a cold winter’s day in Johannesburg and the Greenside suburb that we are in for this interview is encountering unscheduled load-shedding.
The word power was in describing Phuti Mahanyele’s and Stacey Brewer’s ascent to corporate celebrity.
On this day, just before the photoshoot, they are quivering in the cold, dark studio, defiantly relating separate stories about their successes, but united in their quest for excellence in a renewed South Africa. They are resolute about gender dynamics and what it has meant to stave off stereotypes and rise to being leaders in their individual spheres.
Sipping hot coffee out of a styrofoam cup, Mahanyele talks about success born of years of hard work.
It was not just blood, sweat and tears that defined her growth, but also sacrifice and illness.
Today, she is one of the richest self-made entrepreneurs in South Africa, a mentor and businesswoman commanding the boardroom.
This is a world away from apartheid South Africa into which she was born.
She was born in the urban township of Soweto, home to icons like Nelson Mandela, Richard Maponya and Trevor Noah. Here, she first learned about struggle, power and resilience.
In the 1970s, it was a place of defiance and resistance. She credits her parents’ hard work, in the face of a racist South Africa, for her success. Her father, Mohale Mahanyele, one of the country’s pioneers of black business, taught her that limitations are actually opportunities.
Mohale knew hardship. He grew up in a four-room house in the township with 12 siblings.
“He once told us how he told his friends he wanted to have a degree and they would all laugh. I remember him telling us that one of his friends said to him, ‘you know, if you work hard at this job, one day, you won’t have to catch a bus because you would be able to catch a taxi. That’s how good life can be’. But my father had other plans for his life and worked hard to make it happen,” says Mahanyele.
At the time of his death in 2012, Mohale was one of South Africa’s most successful businessmen who served on many boards. He left a wealth of knowledge and a legacy.
“My father used to include us in everything and travel with us. I remember going to events with him as his partner. He was not afraid to expose us to things he wanted us to achieve. We would go with him to gala events and meetings here in South Africa and oversees,” she recalls.
It steeled her for a future in the cold, dark world of business.
“I remember at one gala event, my father was sitting next to the CEO of a large mining business. The CEO was a very big personality in South Africa but for some reason, they didn’t get on well. At this event, they sat next to each other and I was in the middle. I was so confident that I took it to myself that since he won’t talk to my dad, I would speak to him. I remember speaking to this man and he would look at me awkwardly and respond to me very briefly and I would ask him another question,” chuckles Mahanyele.
She says her father spoke to her like she was an adult business woman. He also had a career plan for her. He wanted her to study economics, but she wanted to be a ballerina. Like an obedient daughter, she followed his instructions and went on to study for a bachelor of economics in the United States (US).
“Even after finishing the economics degree, I still wanted to be a dancer but my dad had a whole plan for me. He had even worked out which companies I should work for,” she says.
It was only when she was working on her thesis for her MBA in the United Kingdom (UK) that she fell in love with business.
“I was looking at how black economic empowerment would impact black business. I then had an interest in mergers and acquisitions because I saw this as an area where one could create opportunities for black-owned businesses in South Africa.”
After graduation in the US, she returned home to work for her father. She says it was interesting but she quickly discovered that working in an environment where her father was the boss was not ideal.
“You could never really achieve anything without it being attributed to your father,” she says.
In 1995, just a year after South Africa became a democracy, she moved to Cape Town to work at a company where her father had no influence.
“I remember going to interviews and they didn’t know anyone with my surname which was wonderful.
I knew I was getting that job because of my own merit.”
It wasn’t as fulfilling as she thought it would be. She was employed as a brand manager but had little to do.
“I had a title, a lovely office and everything but there was no work. I essentially could show up, do nothing all day and nobody would care. I wasn’t expected to do anything. I think it was a time when people were just trying to fill the numbers to say they have a black female employee except I had zero to do. Everyone was busy and the person who had worked in that position before had work but I didn’t,” says Mahanyele.
She quickly realized it was time to move on. To properly arm herself with enough tools to disrupt the world of business, she swapped her high-paying job for a less-paying position in advertising.
“They were launching SABC 1, 2 and 3 and I was recruited as an account manager back in Johannesburg. It was very busy and I worked unbelievable hours but I loved it because I needed to grow.”
As she was working, she realized there wasn’t going to be any longevity on the job. This was when she left to study for her MBA in the UK. She then applied for a job at Fieldstone, an investment banking advisory service firm in New York.
“They were not looking for anyone and they had never had a black person from the African continent apply for a job so it was a bit weird. I heard ‘no’ several times but I kept applying.”
When they realized she wasn’t going to stop, they offered her an internship. It came with a small stipend, long hours and no benefits. Even though it was less than she was used to, she grabbed the opportunity with both hands.
“It was very difficult at first because I was from the African continent and I had never been to an Ivy League university. People I worked with were from Ivy League and it was difficult competing with them…I made the most of it. At home, it had not made sense that I would go from a corporate job to having an MBA and then an internship. It seemed as if I was going backwards but I knew I wasn’t going backwards because I was getting experience in an industry I had zero experience in.”
With hard work, at the end of the internship, she was offered a job.
“I didn’t expect it at all because I remember one of the difficult times during that internship was when I tried to speak to a black female partner so I could introduce myself. She was shocked I was there and assumed I was lost. She quickly showed me the way to where the interns sat.”
Mahanyele dedicated seven years to the firm. She went from intern to associate, then associated director and finally the vice president of the company.
“I worked long hours and one more thing I used was what I learned from my father. He taught me to always have good relationships with people. It doesn’t mean you have to be best friends with everyone but it means whenever you engage with people you are positive and it’s meaningful. That’s how I managed to climb the ladder fast,” she says.
After seven years, it was time to move back home. With her skill and experience, she was immediately snapped up by a big organization.
“I was used to working long hours to get the work done but here, I had a team and at 5PM, they would all leave to go home. I remember the first time it happened, I thought there was a meeting somewhere and my PA had forgotten to tell me about it. I remember calling one of them and he told me he was home. I said ‘what time are you coming back?’ and he said ‘why?’ and I’m like ‘the sun is still up’. I was shocked but quickly realized everyone came at 8AM and left at 5PM.”
She says it was a difficult time for her as a leader. She assumed that her team was demotivated and had many of them in disciplinary hearings.
“I realized I had to understand my new environment. People here had a different way of doing things. Because you go home early, it doesn’t mean you are not productive,” says Mahanyele.
“What I didn’t realize was that the problem was with me because I hadn’t looked at the environment to realize the culture here was that people did what they needed to do at the time.”
It wasn’t long before she was recruited by South Africa’s current President Cyril Ramaphosa as the head of the energy division of his then business, Shanduka Group. She was soon chosen as the CEO of the group.
“The boardroom was very interesting. We weren’t seeing a lot of young black women. I remember one of my colleagues telling me that they walked into a boardroom and one of the board members assumed she was one of the tea ladies and immediately placed an order…I remember even being on a flight and sitting next to a person I had only read about and he started flirting with me telling me what apartment he could buy me even though I was married,” she recounts.
She didn’t let these gender setbacks deter her.
At the helm of Shanduka, she managed the group’s multi-million dollar investments in South Africa and on the rest of the continent including in energy in Mozambique, and telecom in Nigeria. Shanduka had big investments in companies such as McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, SEACOM, Aggreko in Mozambique and in other sectors.
“What I loved about Shanduka is that it was business that wasn’t just focused on returns but focused on impacting the lives of people. When we launched the business, we also launched a foundation.”
In 2015, after a decade of service, she left the company after making bold moves boosting the company’s profits. During her time at Shanduka, Mahanyele was responsible for securing important transactions such as the China Investment Corporation (CIC) – which was the corporation’s first direct investment in South Africa – which owned 25% equity in the Shanduka Group at the time. She also sealed a partnership with Aggreko that increased Shanduka’s skills in the temporary power sector. This translated into the company becoming one of Eskom’s private power suppliers.
Soon after her departure, she founded Sigma Capital Group, a privately-held, majority black-owned investment group. It has interests in power and infrastructure, real estate, technology, media and telecommunications, consumer goods businesses and financial services.
It was a tough journey here. A few years before this venture, the long hours almost cost her her life.
“Sometimes, we can overlook ourselves. I focused a lot on what was going on at the time. My father had passed away, we were finalizing the closing of Shanduka and I had a lot of stress. I remember I was in a board meeting and I had a massive headache. I took it that maybe if I went shopping, the headache would go away but instead I collapsed in a shopping center in London…”
She felt better, returned to South Africa and collapsed again on her way to a meeting. She lost her short-term memory at the time and struggled for a long time.
“Fortunately, I had a great neurologist who I don’t see any more, thankfully.”
She had to redesign her life.
“It’s about looking after our health and managing stress. My schedule has changed significantly. I don’t manage as many things at the same time and I don’t put as much pressure on myself because I realize you can die young,” says Mahanyele.
One of the things she still does though is mentoring young people. One of her lucky mentees is Emmanuel Bonoko, a public relations entrepreneur and part of the 2016 FORBES AFRICA 30 Under 30 list.
“I am blessed to have mentors like Phuti Mahanyele…She taught me that small things count a lot, she taught me to keep putting in more effort and learning from others, never to be ashamed of struggle, humility, start small, to arm myself with education and to adapt with trends,” says Bonoko, crediting Mahanyele for his success.
According to Mahanyele, mentorship is an important part of the growth of an economy. She says a lot of young people lack confidence.
“It’s something I often see missing in young people. Just having the confidence to approach someone that you don’t know and try to build a relationship towards something you want to achieve,” she says.
With all the work, there has been recognition too.
In 2007, she was named a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader. The Wall Street Journal counted her among the Top 50 Women in the World to watch in 2008. In 2011, Forbes named her one of the 20 youngest power women in Africa, and in 2014, she was named FORBES WOMAN AFRICA Business Woman of the Year.
It’s clear that this bright star is still adding to her net worth, rising, inspiring and disrupting business.
The Futurist In Education
Equally adamant about disruption is Stacey Brewer, swimming with the big fish in South Africa’s booming education sector.
According to Berkery Noyes, an independent mid-market investment bank in the US, in 2015, there were 415 mergers and acquisitions in the education industry valued at a whopping $17.75 billion.
In Africa too, there has been a spike in demand for quality.
Caerus Capital LLC, an investment and advisory firm that focuses on healthcare and education businesses in emerging markets, says 25 million children are expected to join private institutions in the next five years. In its Business of Education in Africa report, it predicts that one in four children will be enrolled in private schools by 2021. If this prediction is true, it means investors could pocket between $16 billion to $18 billion over the next five years.
Those with money – and ideas – are taking advantage of the opportunity.
In South Africa, last year, the country’s first education impact fund, Schools Investment Fund, announced an investment of nearly R200 million ($15 million) to build four new schools.
Although she wasn’t inspired by the high-profit margins, through her venture, SPARKS Schools, Brewer is making her mark. She is an unlikely candidate for education entrepreneurship but like Mahanyele, she relentlessly pushes for success.
“I think my first word was ‘no’. I don’t like rules and regulations, so I’m naturally a person who loves to create her own space… I really like to figure things out and especially when people say it’s impossible to do, it makes me want to do it even more,” says Brewer.
Also similar to Mahanyele, her life changed while she was doing her MBA.
“I was actually shocked; I didn’t even realize the state of education is so bad in the country. The professor was showing us how much we spend on education and the fact that we prioritize education but we are ranked at the bottom of the world. I just thought that it’s completely unacceptable and it just makes no sense and that’s when I did my thesis on it,” she says.
Armed with research, a co-founder, Ryan Harrison, who understands technology, and people who believed in her, in 2011, she took a bold move and founded SPARKS Schools to help improve the state of education in South Africa.
“I literally spoke to everyone I met about my idea and asked for referrals. If I hadn’t done an MBA, I don’t even think I would’ve had the idea, I don’t think I would’ve had the courage and support to go out and launch by any means…I honestly don’t believe in the fact that someone else could steal your idea if you share too much. I mean most ideas are out there anyway and the difference between that is actually the execution process and the passion and believing in it completely because that’s the only thing that keeps you going when times are tough,” she says.
She finally received R60,000 ($4,500) in seed capital to travel overseas to explore the idea.
“We took a lot of inspiration from the US so we had to go see if it was viable. We looked at Rocketship, a school in the US which pioneered blended learning there. We went there to see if it’s possible to take inspiration that would work in South Africa.”
Brewer was impressed.
“The results the kids were achieving were unbelievable. They were competing against affluent schools in the area, they were working with second language English speakers, they were working with families from a complete mixture of backgrounds, and a lot of them were from disadvantaged backgrounds and yet they were competing with affluent schools. It was very impressive in terms of what was possible and from there, we said we absolutely can do it and then two of their staff members came to join us,” she says.
It wasn’t going to be easy. They needed to raise R4.5 million ($340,000) to start a school. They tried to raise funds but doors were being shut everywhere they went.
It was dark times because they had no track-record. All they had was a dream to open a network of schools which would disrupt South Africa’s education economy.
“You lose confidence at some point because you’re not sure if it’s ever going to kick-off. But luckily, Ryan and I could pick each other up when one was down and times were tough. We had to find another way, as we really had nothing to lose. If it didn’t get off the ground then it didn’t, and we would have to find a job in that case.”
Luckily, through a contact at the Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS), where she did her MBA, they got a lucky break.
“The entire experience was really tough. It was only when the first person said yes, and put in money that we felt better. At first, we were like ‘are you sure?’ It came as a surprise because everyone else was just saying ‘no’.”
It was a start to a multi-million dollar company. Their initial investor introduced them to a group of other people who also invested.
They opened the first school in a house in Randburg. It had six big rooms, a kitchen, lounge and a pool. They used a lot of PR to get publicity and build credibility.
“We recruited our first family while seated in a coffee shop. I take my hat off for families who started with us because it is high risk,” says Brewer.
Their model of education won many parents over. The vision was to build a network of schools that offer better education at the same price as government. Here, they mixed traditional classroom learning with computer learning.
This kind of teaching was a hit. They enrolled 160 children within the first year. They then opened another school in Cresta, also in Johannesburg.
“We opened it up in 2014, but we had originally planned to open it up in 2015. We then realized that the model was working, the demand was high and we went for it. In fact, by 2015, we had four schools in total.”
Today, there are 15 SPARKS schools around the country. Brewer plans to open another six next year, including their first high school.
“Our high school model is going to be different. We haven’t formally announced the model yet but we will offer a whole lot of different subjects…It’s going to be an evolution,” she says.
The way they teach has already evolved. The school has two blended learning modules. In the foundation phase, which is Grade R to 3, they have lab rotation and Grade 4 to 7 is the flex model where the high-level children get introduced to a concept in the classroom, and then they leave the classroom and go to the lab where they get to interact with the data software to allow for extended reinforcement of what happened in the classroom. Right from Grade R, the children are rotating like in a high school and go to their special subject teachers for particular subjects.
“In our flex model, each child is on a different rotation, moving from different modalities of learning from online, to group work, to getting into practice, to direct instruction with the teacher. In the lab rotation for the foundation phase, there’s actual software that the kids use for a maths program and a literacy program. It’s all about mastering, as they will go on the different levels. We have no text books and it’s all about doing different projects.”
Here, teachers go through extensive training to be able to handle this type of system.
“It gets tough for other teachers who have experience from other traditional schools. It takes about six months for them to fully get used to the teaching system. It’s just so different from the other schools,” says Brewer.
Although aligned with the national program, Brewer says their learners should be way ahead, as they are constantly benchmarking international standards.
“What I love about this model in particular, is that its personalized learning. It doesn’t matter when the learners come to us; we are able to get them up to speed…We don’t screen any of our children, it’s a first-come-first-serve basis, meaning any child from any community can achieve and grow…An example would be that in the country you’re only expected to know how to read when you are in Grade 2, whereas our learners can do that in Grade 1.”
SPARKS Schools have over 7,000 children and they employ over 750 staff. She is now focusing on growing the school network with hopes to double the number of schools they currently have in the next five years.
“When I did my MBA at GIBS, I was always worried because people see entrepreneurs as calculated and that they only worry about making money. But I was like, there’s got to be another side to it, there has to be social good,” she says.
This success has earned Brewer much praise. Many call her an innovator.
“I don’t necessarily think of myself as an innovator, but it’s something we definitely want to do as an organization, to completely disrupt the education sector and not just locally, but internationally as well. We deliver education on a high note and get our kids ready for what the future may hold,” she says.
Although Brewer grew up watching her father build businesses, she says she never ever thought she would end up becoming an entrepreneur.
“Even now, I’m still not sure if I am an entrepreneur. It’s just so funny – it’s just this title. I’ve always been someone who wants to create change and I don’t wait on other people. If social entrepreneurship is about someone who is adamant to create a social change, and move the human race, then I’m absolutely that person.”
According to Brewer, success doesn’t mean the end of fear. She says, even after opening the school, she was paranoid that something might go wrong or things would fall apart. Even today, she says worries about absolutely everything.
“Now I have just built up a huge amount of resilience over time. I don’t take things as personally as I used to,” she says.
One thing she is afraid of though is the future of education in Africa. According to Brewer, Africa’s classrooms, as we know them, are changing. She says the classroom of the future will be ushered in by high demand for futurist classrooms such as what they offer at SPARKS Schools.
In the words of poet W B Yeats, “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”
Brewer is just the spark that was needed in the dark.
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