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The Social Entrepreneur Sparking Up Startups In South Africa

Published 3 months ago
By Lillian Roberts

On the highway of accounting, few take the off-ramp into social entrepreneurship with as much dynamism as Rowan Spazzoli.

Topline

Rowan Spazzoli’s latest initiative is Accendio, a consulting agency developing passionate entrepreneurs with bright ideas and projects with potential in sub-Saharan Africa. FORBES AFRICA takes a look at how he got to where he is today.

Background

He started out studying accounting. By his third year, Spazzoli was unhappy and at a loss with what do with his life.

Now, he spends his days and nights breathing life into people’s ideas, and wouldn’t have it any other way.

The story starts when he joined the SHAWCO Siyaya Social Entrepreneurship Initiative in 2013, training entrepreneurs in the township in book-keeping and accounting.

Spazzoli became the co-founder of Phaphama SEDI, which brought Siyaya under its wing. It’s his favorite endeavor by far, and he still sits on the board.

In the last seven years they’ve helped about 140 businesses, and 500 pupils have done the program. They thought students would help entrepreneurs, but in turn, it develops the students. Phaphama creates conscious learners, thinking beyond their own bubble.

“Every year they go find 20 entrepreneurs, they bring 60 or 70 students. And these students who are all in their final year will spend every Saturday of the month — which is a big commitment — helping these entrepreneurs.”

Everyone said it would be silly to change from a strictly accounting route.

“I took the off-ramp off the accounting route,” he says.

He began studying a masters in Economic Development at the University of Cape Town (UCT), while working on startups, and being an assistant lecturing.

One of the startups was Allsafe that aimed to reduce crime through innovative products, such as the Guardian wristband that alerts security nearby when you’re in danger. Allsafe entered the ‘map the system’ competition with the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom.

“The idea is to understand systemic problems and the points where you can help them. I ended up going all the way to Oxford and presenting on the stage at Oxford, which was an incredible experience.”

Now, he runs ‘map the system’ for the South African league.

Crucial to his development was Nova Economics. He consulted on a beef genetics program, trying to improve the health of cattle through selective breeding, while also creating environmental impact.

Though COVID-19 was a shake up for him and the entire world, he began working on his biggest project to date; SMEgo, partnering with Old Mutual. This app streamlines entrepreneurs’ loan applications.

Spazzoli wanted to make even more of an impact, so he created a company to bring the myriad things he was doing under one umbrella, Accendio.

“And what that means is to create a spark, to create the light that can create a fire, that can have lots of impact,” he explains.

Accendio has three major ongoing projects; one works with the Bertha Centre at UCT, working on blended finance projects, another with Viridian rolling out educational curriculum to enterprising hubs in multiple African countries, and working with the African Management Insitute to create an online community of entrepreneurs.

“The journey into a field that’s impact-related has no real set path. If you want to get a job in banking, there’s pretty much a set path, go get yourself a finance degree, go get your experience as an analyst, build that up as you go. But with the world of impact and economic development, there’s no real path. And there’s no real sort of support that exists.”

He puts a caveat out there: entering the field of impact depends on circumstances. There is not a lot of black impact professionals in South Africa because it is crucial to earn and support families, as the burden of responsibility remains high.

“There’s no space, there’s no luxury afforded to them such as being able to take a lower paying job that has more impact. But I also think it’s the responsibility of people who have the resources and the privilege, to be the one to take the first step. And I’m never going to claim that I know everything. But I’m going to use what I can to take that first step to pave a pathway for people to come through.”

He could take on more lucrative commercial contracts, but he wants to nurture talent too.

He says that the world is not going to be lacking if there’s one less person working in banking, but the world would be massively improved if there’s one more person working in economic development.

Spazzoli hopes that the consulting agency will end up rivaling the bigger agencies, while ensuring they work from an impactful lens, creating ground-up solutions.

If he had a big vision for the work he’s doing, it would be to help government and corporate support small business. While initiatives do exist, he adds that they are often not truly effectual, such as mentoring programs – one needs to have capital to run a project, after all.

Tangent

Tiang Moabelo asked Spazzoli for guidance. Moabelo had been moving people’s things out of university residences for $30 in order to help cover his university fees and the cost of living.

Moabelo quickly developed LoadaLot into one of the most thriving student businesses at the time. Spazzoli made a small investment, and got a French investor on board, allowing LoadaLot to build an online system, pivoting the company into being a tech-based start-up.

“But more than just having the impact of helping his business, he now employs six people. It’s been a monumental amount of work, but at the same time, that’s a shift that has meant that six people can feed their families and six people can contribute to their work. And the way it’s structured, everyone has a say: it’s a horizontally organized business.”

There’s many projects Spazzoli is fervent about, preferring to shine the light on people like Moabelo. He’s still lecturing at UCT, and always championing people’s endeavors.

In the coming years, this driven individual is sure to turn sparks into home-warming hearths and flame the fires of sustainable businesses.

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