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The New Wave Of Disruptors

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Africa’s first fully tech-savvy generation, known as Generation Z, is coming of age, bringing to business more innovation and disruption than the millennials (also known as Generation Y, born from the 1980s) before them.

They are the “i-everything generation”, because they are hyper-connected, always plugged-in to devices and daring dreams. These professionals, now entering the workforce, have never known a world without smartphones or social media. As national development plans and Sustainable Development Goals set 2030 as their target for change, the first generation of real ‘digital natives’ that could make that possible, are here.

In South Africa, Generation Z is also the ‘Born Free’ generation, born after the end of apartheid.

These are today’s young adults, born around 1995, who have seen the impact on their parents of the ravages of the global recession and the threats of terrorism.

“It’s extremely difficult, if not impossible, to be born between 1996 and 2000 and have a strong, emotional connection to 9/11. Your brain is simply too young to put the event in a cultural, geographic, or other context. From our research-based vantage point, if you were born in the US and 9/11 has always been history to you — something you literally cannot remember — then you are not a millennial but a member of Generation Z.”

These are the well-articulated words of Jason Dorsey, president, co-founder and a millennials and Gen Z researcher at The Center for Generational Kinetics, on the phone with us from Austin, Texas, in the United States (US).

His research has led him to become a specialist in studying millennials and Gen Zers. He has also delivered many TED Talks on the topic.

According to Dorsey’s research, members of Generation Z need to be connected instantly and constantly, to experience stability, and to make an impact on the world. So much so that they have more in common with their friends on social media,who they’ve never met in person before, than with their own grandparents.

“What we find is that an inexpensive mobile device really does begin to connect people to the world and that internet access changes not just how young people see the world, but how they see themselves in relation to the world. That’s what’s so powerful,” says Dorsey.

“It’s pretty shocking when I go to work in some place like India and to see the similarity [to the United States]. The language may be different, but the interaction and the expectation are very similar. The key to this is they’ve got to be younger but old enough to use some sort of mobile device, or have some sort of a mobile experience.”

Not only are Gen Z well-connected, but they show signs of being a generation focused on spending money on experiences; are less accepting of information presented to them; they strive for realistic stability in the job world; are more advanced in searching for information; are curious to experiment on their own.; and demand a personal touch when it comes to buying or selling products.

“[It is a misconception] that Gen Z are big spenders. But the truth is, Gen Z are increasingly savers that are dealing with the aftershocks of the great recession. Many Gen Zers, and this is the quote that they give during our interviews with them, say ‘I don’t want to end up like the millennials’,” says Dorsey.

Generation 2030: (From left) Lethabo Motsoaledi, Tayla Barter and Kiara Nirghin (Photo by Jay Caboz)

Linda Ronnie, a Senior Lecturer in Organisational Behaviour and People Management, Graduate School of Business, University of Cape Town, in South Africa, says Gen Z are going to be a dominant force in the world to come. With almost five generations of humans now working alongside each other, Gen Z will take up an estimated two billion worldwide. In South Africa, a third of the population is under 21.

Gen Z are authorities on tech trends. They have never known a world where a question wasn’t able to be answered by Google. So what looks like disruption to older generations is a Gen Z norm. Fundamentally this means that they have a completely different view of technology from other generations.

“What we’ve found recently, is that we looked at how millennials and Gen Z go about ordering food for delivery or To-Go, which is a very big trend that we think is going to reshape the restaurant industry. What we’ve found is that millennials will use their mobile app, or restaurant digital website, to go and place an order. They went there because they knew what they order and it was a fast efficient way to order it. When we talked to Gen Z, we found that Gen Z wanted to see what the restaurant offered.

“So one went to order, the other wanted to search around and see what they had. Again not a huge difference in age, but a very different expectation of the digital experience and what drives them to use that channel,” says Ronnie.

Then there is the fourth industrial revolution. As Gen Z is coming of age, it will mean many will have jobs that have not even been created yet and they will be fighting for jobs with non-humans. We are entering the era where machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) will impact the workforce.

This does not mean parents should panic and teach their kids to program instead of Mandarin, but it wouldn’t be a bad idea.

“There are three things we focus on in Gen Z in particular. First is, we want to make sure we teach kids problem-solving and critical thinking skills, because that helps them everywhere and anywhere. It’s a core thing that we want to make sure we are doing. The second thing we want to teach them is to work technology very well, because technology is the grand connector and opportunity creator. Then the third thing is the idea of creative and open-mindedness. Because we are going to go through a time of transformational change, rapid incredible change, we want the next generation to not be fearful of that change but embrace it, embrace that newness and the unexpected because that’s what’s going to give them an advantage going forward,” says Dorsey.

READ MORE: Should we be worried about Generation Z joining the workforce? Here’s why not

For the Gen Zer, topics like equality and diversity will become even more important in the workplace. Major life events, like marriage and parenthood, are being pushed back around the world, even though it looks different in various countries. There is also a different attitude toward entrepreneurship with this generation.

“If you ask people ‘are the millennials the most entrepreneurial generation’, people will guess of course they are always starting their own business. In some case this is true, millennials are very much interested in entrepreneurship, they place it top among career paths and their heroes are increasingly entrepreneurs rather than celebrities and sports stars,” says Dorsey.

“But because of the recessionary aftershocks, Gen Z really does seek out stability right now. They want predictability. They want to know when they are going to work and how much they are going to be paid when. At this stage they seem more risk-averse.

“It is a very pragmatic approach to work and making money. So we think Gen Z will continue to be entrepreneurial but they are really serious about building stability. Being an entrepreneur is not the fastest way for that. What we believe is going to happen is Gen Z will build a business on the side but still keep a predictable income rather than what millennials did and went all in on businesses and it didn’t work and they had the safety net of their parents.”

So what does this mean for African business and emerging markets?

“They are going to be the drivers of consumer growth, they are the drivers of trends and they are increasingly the drivers of the workforce.”

In many cases this will mean developing countries, like many in Africa, will leapfrog and skip generations of infrastructure and move straight to the next big thing, vis-à-vis becoming forerunners of disruption themselves.. Look at the impact of mobile telephony in Africa for example.

“You don’t bring the mindset of a laptop or a desktop or dial up or a landline. You’ve both never had that experience nor been limited by it. So you come in a whole different level without being anchored to something in the past, which we believe is very powerful and can springboard you forward,” says Dorsey.

As the world waits with bated breath, hoping this smartphone-wielding generation will bring fresh ideas and profits, Africa must embrace them too. The disruptors, here they come.

Kiara Nirghin (Photo by Jay Caboz)

Pectin, Polysaccharides And Orange Peels To Combat Drought

Kiara Nirghin, 17

Johannesburg, South Africa

It’s the forward-thinking game-changing idea scientists spend their lives developing and a teenager from Africa beat them to it.

The source of inspiration – powder, found commonly in babies’ nappies that can soak up and retain large amounts of water like a sponge, and that’s now being used to combat drought.

“It’s a low-cost, biodegradable, super-absorbent polymer made out of orange peels and avocado peels.”

It’s not the conventional way to start a conversation with a teenager. While many adults would be left scratching their heads wondering what this means, Kiara Nirghin, the 17-year old science buff, explains.

“The idea came about was when I was looking through newspapers; any media I came across and everything was about the drought in South Africa and what 67% of the world faces. I realized this is a worldwide epidemic and there isn’t really a solution to the drought, or assisting crop survival, and helping poor communities, which it mostly affects, to combat this problem.”

From her home in Johannesburg, Nirghin, who grew up sharing notes on National Geographic and science magazines with her sister, the solution was simple science.

“I thought if you put [the polymer] into the soil of a plant it can absorb large amounts of water and also act a reservoir. [Super Absorbent Polymers] SAPs are already being used in agriculture. But I realized they were very expensive and not low-cost and, were chemical-based and not biodegradable. Being expensive, it didn’t solve the problem because most of the time, drought is affecting poorer countries,” says Nirghin.

Nirghin’s invention, titled ‘No More Thirsty Crops’, was so cool she was awarded the grand prize as well as the Africa/Middle East regional Google Science Fair Community Impact Award at the Google Science Fair at Google’s headquarters in California. Apart from giving her instant international credibility, it also gave Nirghin a chance to take a selfie with one of her heroes, Sundar Pichai, the CEO of Google.

“I knew if I didn’t take a selfie with him I would be really upset,” says Nirghin.

To her, the science behind the invention was more cool than the prize. She entered on a whim, having researched months before she even knew about the competition.

“[My research found oranges] have over 60% pectin and also polysaccharide, which if you cross link it in a polarization process become the qualities of a super absorbent polymer. I was very surprised nobody else hadn’t thought about it this way. So I took a lot of orange peels and started to heat them and see what cross linking would come up.”

Once she broke the science down, it was time to begin testing. Nirghin looked at water absorption in a basil plant for three-six months. Like any budding scientist would do, she used controls and other SAPs to compare her mixture. It meant spending months measuring the soil moisture daily, every three hours, for accuracy.

“The thing that surprised me was I didn’t add any water to these crops, this was for a period of 60 days and these crops were still alive. That was the main thing, keep these crops alive without constant water supplements.”

It was all worth it as the data she meticulously recorded brought exciting results.

In November, Nirghin signed a contract with an agriculture company to begin research and development of her invention on a mass level. The research could take two years; by 2020, it might be ready to roll out and start helping people.

Apart from orange peels, which Nirghin admits she’s getting tired of seeing, she is also done a TED Talk.

“When I was 13 I had bacterial meningitis, that’s inflammation of the membrane along the spinal cord. When I was in hospital, I realized if this is the strength of the brain to endure such immense pain, how can the brain’s strength be used for something else. That’s really what got me interested in science.”

She is also a strong advocate for women in science.

“Why shouldn’t girls be doing science? It shouldn’t be something we are talking about because everybody should be doing science and the fact that we aren’t emphasizing that is discouraging girls,” says Nirghin.

Among her many other interests, Nirghin enjoys watching Masterchef Australia, cooking and coming up with ways to prevent rhino poaching – her other pet passion besides orange peels.

“It’s a misconception that just because you are young doesn’t mean you can’t stop something, you don’t have to wait till you are older.”

Having finished matric with eight distinctions and ranking in the top 5% of IEB candidates for six or more subjects, Nirghin has a slew of universities that have offered her a spot including Harvard, MIT and Stanford in the US.

“My top priority is education in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) and understanding these fields I am innovating in… That’s the amazing thing about South Africa, it’s untapped. Everything is very saturated in Silicon Valley. To come back with knowledge would present so many opportunities in South Africa.”

A strong message from the Gen Zer inspiring Africans to peel off their layers and experiment; age is no bar.

Tayla Barter (Photo by Jay Caboz)

Paid To Play Heroes

Tayla Barter, 24

Johannesburg, South Africa

It has to be one of the strangest hobbies to come out of the internet – Cosplay or dressing up as your favorite comic book character.

For Barter, who goes by the name Kinpatsu, it’s not only a way of life but a way of earning a living. This is because Barter is part of a generation of entrepreneurs using the internet to turn their hobbies into a profession making them R50,000 ($4,300) a month.

“It comes from the word costume play and that’s the core of what cosplay is,” offers Barter.

It was a photo posted on the internet in 2013 that changed everything for Barter. A selfie of herself dressed up as character Jinx from the popular game League of Legends went viral. It was the first time people started taking notice.

READ MORE: ‘Cos We Play

Back then, Cosplay was just beginning to take off in South Africa. Barter was one of a handful of Cosplayers climbing out of cars and assembling their outfits in a parking lot before entering conventions. It was a fun thing for her to do on the weekends.

“We didn’t even think we would be leaving the country for Cosplay, getting international Cosplayers in over here so it wasn’t something we thought would be a business model in any kind of sense,” says Barter.

Fast forward to 2018 and a quick Google search later, and you will find Barter in hundreds of other cosplays. She now has 177,000 followers and counting on Facebook, 23,000on Twitter, 223,000 on Instagram. It has meant she’s now able to travel as a guest celebrity to geek conventions and compete in international cosplay competitions.

From her home in the leafy suburb of Northriding in Johannesburg, Barter has a whole business dedicated to the profession. In 2017, she finished 36 cosplays with an armory of drills; shelves of foam armor and a photo studio in her garage.

Key to her success has been selling her cosplay designs on crowdfunded Patreon, the hobbyist version of Kickstarter. Supporters pledge money and based on the money you put in and the tier, you are given a reward.

Barter found a demand to show how you could turn the characters from screen grabs into cosplays and teach others to do it. Cosplayers spend thousands building each outfit from EVA foam and PVC piping. Even more reason for hobbyists who need direction on tight budgets.

“I thought I’d give it a whole year and see where it’s taking me. By the end of 2017, I was almost completely booked for 2018. Conventions and Patreon picked up and now I can do it full-time,” says Barter.

As businesses migrate toward more online profiles, channels like Facebook have become smarter about making their own money from them. One way is to shape posts, or limit posts to your audience unless you pay to have the reach extended.

In Barter’s case, with thousands of followers, she is only getting 1,000 to 2,000 likes on each post, whereas a few years ago she could hit numbers in the tens of thousands. Another issue is what they call being ‘soft-blocked’. This is when a channel, like Youtube or Instagram, uses algorithms and machine-based filters to identify keywords and block your account.

Shaping and being soft-blocked can severely hurt a social media-based business, especially when those businesses make money from the hits on the internet.

Barter is a hero in her own right among the South Africans who dress as superheroes.

Lethabo Motsoaledi and Matthew Westaway (Photo by Jay Caboz)

They Both Want To Be The Next Elon Musk

Lethabo Motsoaledi, 24 & Matthew Westaway, 26

Cape Town, South Africa

It was an unlikely partnership that brought two engineering students, who grew up worlds apart, together. Lethabo Motsoaledi grew up idolizing scientists wanting to be one, even though she was afraid of breaking computers. Matthew Westaway grew up in Rondebosch, programming computers and doing little else.

“My whole family was doctors, I wanted to figure out what can I not do that’s the same. It was something that needed maths and science, and then I chose engineering. I didn’t choose it because I wanted to program, I hated computers. On reflection it’s because I didn’t want to break them and have to fix them again,” says Motsoaledi.

“I was an internet person. I would always know how to fix any problem on a computer, going deep into the registry. That’s what I would spend a lot of time doing, finding viruses and where the files are. From a young age I was able to fix computers and know what you could do from the internet, solving challenges,” says Westaway.

They saw opportunity where other entrepreneurs see the internet and disruption technologies like 3D printing and machine learning as treacherous rocks rising from stormy waters. They also both want to be the next Elon Musk.

It led them to open their business, Motsoaledi & West (M&W), a Design Thinking consultancy that launched in January 2017. In just one year, they made R1 million ($86,000).

Now, the two graduates work through the night until 4AM to build their ideas. From their offices at the innovation hub, Rise, in Woodstock in Cape Town, they are infamously known as the post-it kids, leaving reams of the sticky squared blocks of paper in their wake as they bounce their ideas off the glass walls.

“Innovation comes exactly in a pack of post-its,” says Motsoaledi.

In their words, they help companies fast-track innovation through applying accelerated design thinking methodology. In an environment that’s so volatile a 17-year-old teen can make your business irrelevant, organizations need to equip themselves.

This is because those companies that are best able to adapt and embrace uncertainty and find creative solutions are growing faster and have higher profit margins than their competitors.

“People tend to think you buy the new technology and then you become innovative, but that’s not the case. The mistake is thinking that you just need to apply a whole lot of technology and algorithms in order to fix the problem. The first thing is solving the problem – what do the people need? Then you can start with using technology to improve the challenge,” says Motsoaledi.

Design thinking is the latest strategy for driving innovation in business.  What they do is get companies to understand their customers’ actual needs and desires rather than focus on bottom-line profits. The duo believe that in order for businesses to thrive they need to transition toward customer-centricity.

This is where their self-designed machine learning can help. Using algorithms, the duo can analyze and automate transcribed text and pick up on the keywords from interviewees.  It brings the data to life and can aggregate insights in minutes, saving companies thousands of hours.

“When you are using this kind of software and programs, sometimes you don’t know what it is you are looking for, or you didn’t know if it would have meant anything. You have to analyze it and let the data tell you what it is it is finding,” says Motsoaledi.

They can tell you firsthand how powerful this data can be. Using their own design thinking the duo established their 3D printing business in 2014, from which successful projects emerged; Printing a 3D ultrasound scan called Hello Baby 3D Prints; and The Hourglass Project, an interactive design piece that helps corporates encourage and track participation in Employee Volunteerism Programs.

“You pick up on a new technology and you figure out what it is that you can do to leverage it. When we were running 3D power we picked up a much more pertinent need that we needed to focus on the – design thinking,” says Motsoaledi.

And should we be teaching our kids to program?

“Girls have a lot of unlearning to do…Where I grew up, girls didn’t program. The way we think about maths and science, we should start thinking about programming…Thinking about all these innovators and inventors, as a kid, I always loved them. Back then, scientists were the celebrities. What I don’t like about society today is that a celebrity is not considered a thought leader or a celebrity is someone who only does acting. I like that Elon Musk changed that. I hope that in South Africa, people become ingrained in the culture of making entrepreneurs our heroes,” says Motsoaledi.

Maud Chifamba, 19, Zimbabwe

At the age of 14, Maud Chifamba, unable to afford high school and having taught herself at home, became the youngest student to enrol at the University of Zimbabwe. Four years later, she became the University’s youngest graduate walking away with an honors degree in accountancy.

There were signs of her proficiency from early on. Chifamba was pushed up a grade when she accidentally was given a Grade 4 exam and scored 100%. That same year, she requested a Grade 5 test paper and was pushed up even further.

When she was seven years old, her father passed away and she fell under the care of her step-brother living on a plot in between Kwekwe and Gweru, Zimbabwe. Having been unable to afford high school, Chifamba home-schooled herself, where her work and innovation earned her a scholarship of $9,993 to go to university. Online searches show her as “Africa’s youngest university student”.

Currently, she is completing both a Zimbabwe Certificate in Theory of Accounting at Chartered Accountants Academy, and a Masters in Accountancy at the University of Zimbabwe.

Abelwe Ndiki, 17, South Africa

At 16, schoolgirl Abelwe Ndiki, noticed many of her peers were overwhelmed with their future career choices. She saw that many young people, especially those that grew up in underprivileged communities, were unaware of the entry requirements for universities. So Ndiki built the Guide Me app to help them find their way.

“I noticed that there was no application that was currently catering to the students’ needs. My app is different from other programs that try to tackle this problem because as a student I am able to efficiently communicate information in a language high school students understand,” says Ndiki.

“My inspiration moment came earlier in 2017 when I noticed a trend of senior students not having a clear idea of what they are going to do in universities or how wide the options are for those seeking financial assistance.”

Along with courses, the app lists bursaries and their requirements. A move which Ndiki hopes will improve the quality of life for students by opening them up to financial assistance options.

“It is also beneficial to students who cannot afford to regularly commute to town to access internet cafés, the fact that they can access the information from their phones was my main focus,” she says.

In matric this year, Ndiki took the app down off the GooglePlay Store while she focuses on her own education. She is on the lookout for a mentor who can help guide her career and business.

Rebecca Andrianarisandy, 21, Madagascar

With just $15, this team of four young women from Madagascar started GasGasy, a bio-compost and bio-gas company. They wanted to tackle the rising issue of deforestation in the region of Itasy in central Madagascar, devastated by charcoal makers cutting down tapia forests.

“What is sad about it is that eight trees have to be cut out in order to have one bag of charcoal,” says Rebecca Andrianarisandy, one of GasGasy’s founders.

Taught by foreign volunteers who specialized in biotechnology, the friends thought this would be a sustainable and environmentally friendly solution for people instead.

“Now, I am 21 and the business has been running for two years now. Up to now, we have sold 27,000 liters of bio-compost considering that one liter equals $0.5.”

The bio-compost becomes a fertilizer combined with an insecticide. Andrianarisandy claims compost not only stops farmers using chemical fertilizers but also stops the soil from becoming infertile for years after, compared with chemical fertilizers.

“FamBIOlena is already proven to have improved 38 farmers’ lives by increasing their harvest from 10% to 65%. As a result, the product will create food security for the farmers and their community as well. ”

While the bio-compost is already being sold to agripreneurs, the team isn’t going to stop there. By 2019, they plan to sell bio-gas as well, having tested their cooking fuel in three households.

A true green innovation first for Madagascar from a young team of teenagers who believe they can change a nation’s ecological destiny.

 

Sharon ShazZ Waison (Photo by Jay Caboz)

Sharon Waison, 25, South Africa

Imagine a job that pays you to play computer games. Well Sharon Wiason, is doing just that. Fresh off a plane from a tournament where she competed alongside South African all-girl team Leetpro in China, Waison is part of a growing industry that plays computer games as a profession, known as esports.

“I started playing competitively at around the age of 14-15, I am now 26, so yeah, you do the maths,” she says with a smile.

“I think esports helps innovate my community as it provides job opportunities. I have made a fair amount of money, not enough to live off but a decent amount. I remember in matric it’s how I had money to go out with my friends… just won little tournaments here and there was great.”

These days, ShazZ, as she is more commonly known, has been kicking ass even against men. She is part of the Pulse-Gaming’s Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (CS:GO) team and is a brand ambassador of ASUS South Africa.

“It was very hard in the beginning for me, because you are a girl in a very male-dominated industry. I had to prove myself for a few years. I got a lucky break where someone took a risk and it kind of paid off,” says ShazZ.

READ MORE: Female Gamers – The New Sport Stars

At the age of 10, ShazZ was diagnosed with the autoimmune disease lupus. She was unable to play sport outside, so she took up computer games instead.

“Games make me forget about everything. You go into another world, you focus on that game and you become the character in that sense,” says ShazZ.

Edgar Edmund, 17, Tanzania

After seeing floods sweep away mud houses in his country Tanzania, Edgar Edmund, then 15, wanted to make a change. He not only wanted to provide an alternative solution to the problem of expensive cement materials, which many people could not afford, but also solve the matter of pollution that was causing a wide range of diseases due to poor waste management.

“Tanzania is a developing country, hence most of the people here are low income earners, hence there is a high demand for affordable products which could at least enable many people to own their own houses regardless of their low incomes,” says Edmund.

The answer hit like a ton of bricks: make building blocks from the very waste causing the problem.

In 2015, during school holidays, he experimented by melting plastic waste in a homemade gas cooker. By mixing the molten plastic with sand he was able to mould durable long-lasting bricks, paving blocks and roof tiles. Edmund also came up with a way of filtering out the toxic chemicals, produced in the process, by engineering a dioxin filter using cooking oil.

The business is still young like Edmund, but he has high hopes for the future. By 2017, GreenVenture Recycles is a full operation with five employees. With more than 15,000 bricks made from more than 1.2 million plastic bags that would have otherwise gone into the environment, Edmund celebrated a turnover of $1,500 in December. The company is putting its profits toward expanding. He says his business has created 100 indirect jobs.

“Plastics are regarded as unwanted materials, that means we get them at a low price and that makes our products affordable but also on the other hand plastics binding sand makes a strong mix and this gives it a long life since plastic takes a long time to decompose,” says Edmund.

In 2017, Edmund was awarded the winner of the Children’s Climate Prize, sponsored by Swedish renewable energy company Telge Energi.

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Cover Story

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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Cover Story

Feisty And Fearless Pioneers Thandi Ndlovu & Nonkululeko Gobodo

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Thandi Ndlovu and Nonkululeko Gobodo, moulded by South Africa’s apartheid past, tore their way into male-dominated sectors , leading them boldly through a quarter century of democracy. Failure was never an option.


On a sunny winter’s afternoon in a quiet suburb of Randburg in greater Johannesburg, a second white Mercedes-Benz pulls up in the driveway of a photographic studio, and finds a shady spot to park.

Already seated next to a pool glinting blue in the sunlight, an elegant woman dressed in black and white sips green tea and talks about her early life growing up in the former Bantustan of Transkei in South Africa.

Absorbed in recounting her story, she looks up as a tall, slender woman, also in a chic black and white ensemble, walks towards her. The two women beam in recognition. They are here to be photographed by FORBES AFRICA and to share their unique stories as businesswomen in two traditionally white male-dominated sectors – auditing and construction.  

This year, South Africa celebrates 25 years of democracy. As the country started shaking off the shackles of oppression in the 1990s, both these women embarked on their paths to greatness. Both had been moulded by the harsh final years of apartheid, gaining the strength and conviction to fight for what they believed in.

In the process, they built successful businesses, changed perceptions and became role models.

And as with all stories of achievement, their journeys came with times of adversity.

Nonkululeko Gobodo. Picture: Motlabana Monnakgotla

Nonkululeko Gobodo: The visionary in auditing

 As a young girl, Nonkululeko Gobodo had very low self-esteem. She was shy and quiet and as the middle child in a family of five children, she felt overshadowed by her very outgoing older siblings. Her mother made it clear that she thought Gobodo wasn’t “going to amount to anything”.

Yet, there were factors in her upbringing, at home and in her community, which shaped her and prepared her for a future as a captain of industry.

Her mother was very hard on her. “I’m someone who needs affirmation and she did the opposite of what I needed. Fortunately, my father was doing that, he was doing the affirmative things.”

As an educator, her father was excited when she achieved “goodish” results at school, even slaughtering a sheep in celebration.

“When my parents were running shops, I used to be the one who would help in running the shops during the holidays. And I was quite young to be given the responsibility. My mother was literally taking a holiday, and I would run the shop perfectly, no shortage or anything like that. So, in spite of the fact that she was too hard on me, she must have thought she was nurturing this talent and making me strong.”  

Growing up in the then independent Transkei (now the Eastern Cape province of South Africa), Gobodo was largely sheltered from the impact of apartheid in other parts of the country.

“I lived in this world where you were sort of cushioned from what was happening in South Africa. So you were socialized to be a fighter, to be strong. My parents used to say that we should never allow anybody to tell us there were things we cannot do,” she elucidates.

It was an everyday thing to see black people running a variety of formal businesses like hotels, garages and wholesalers.

“I suppose I was very fortunate in that I was raised by these parents who were in business, who were working very hard during those times and with very strong personalities, both of them. Within the Xhosa tribe itself, although there is patriarchy and all that, Xhosa women are very strong and they are sort of equal partners with their husbands.”

Still very young, Gobodo fell pregnant. Her parents insisted on marriage. The marriage would end several years later, after the birth of three children, when she was 34 years old.

While taking a gap year working at her father’s panel-beating shop in Mthatha (then Umtata), during her first pregnancy, Gobodo discovered her calling. While her parents thought she would be well-suited to a career in medicine, she found joy in accountancy.

The gap year also revealed her innate strength to stand up for what she believed in. For the first time, she encountered racism. White managers remained in place when her father bought the business from the Transkei Development Corporation (TDC).

“They were really so upset by these black people who had taken over this business, and they were just bullying everyone. So I was able to stand up to them and then I realized I’m actually smart, I’m actually not this thing that my mother was saying, that I’m not just smart, but I’m strong, I’m tough, I can stand up to these men during apartheid years and it was not because my father owned the shop, but it was this thing of suddenly discovering who you are for the first time and just waking up to who you are and suddenly knowing what you wanted to do. Oh wow, accountancy, I didn’t know about that,” she smiles.

She was also inspired by the fact that black auditors did the books for her father’s business. They were WL Nkuhlu & Co, owned by Professor Wiseman Nkuhlu. Her father supported her decision to study BCom and she enrolled at the University of Transkei (now Walter Sisulu University).

Gobodo became a star performer at university and her confidence grew. After qualifying, the university offered her a junior lectureship. While there was no racism in the academic environment, it was here that she had her first taste of gender discrimination. A male colleague instructed her to do filing. She thought this was ridiculous considering her position, and she refused. He treated her as an equal from then on. 

“I made a decision to fight the system differently,” she says. “I was sure there was no system that would determine who I am and how far I can go. I used to say this mantra to myself: ‘Your opinions of me do not define me. You don’t even know who I am’. So I never allowed those things to get to me.”

Early on, she already had a vision to have her own practice, so she was not distracted by her peers complaining while doing their articles. She was determined to take advantage of the opportunity to get the best training she could get. “Those guys never became chartered accountants, so it was a wise thing not to join them,” she smiles.

In 1987, she made history when she became South Africa’s first black female chartered accountant.

Working at KPMG, she grew to rapidly build her own portfolio of challenging assignments.

“It was my driving force right through life to prove to myself and others that there was nothing I couldn’t do. And for me, being black really gave me purpose. I can imagine that if I was living in a world that was readymade for me, life would have been very boring,” she says.

She was offered a partnership eight months after her articles. She would be the first black partner, and the first woman. It was very tempting. But she remembered her vision to start her own practice and taking the partnership would be “the easy way out”. 

So she moved on to the TDC, where at the age of 29, she was promoted from internal audit manager to Chief Financial Officer within three months. Again in 1992, she decided to break “the golden chains” of the TDC to pursue her destiny. But first, she restructured her department and empowered five managers; thoroughly enjoying the work of developing leaders, and setting the tone for the business she runs now – Nkululeko Leadership Consulting.

READ MORE : WATCH | The Making Of The New Wealth Creators Cover

 At the time, her father questioned her decision to leave such a lucrative position to take the risk of starting a business. “Everybody was so scared for me and was discouraging me. I realized these people were expressing their own fears. I have no such fears. And it’s not saying I’m not fearful of the step I am taking, but I’m going into this business to succeed.”

The best way to do that was to step into the void without a safety net. So, no part-time lecturing job to distract her from her vision. “If I had listened to them, how would I have known that I could take my business this far?”

She describes herself as a natural entrepreneur. Yet, the responsibility of leading a business is not a joke.

“It sobers you up,” she says. “You realize you have to make this work, otherwise you’re going to fail a whole lot of people. But when you have the courage to pursue your dream, things sort of work out. Things fall into place.”

Eighteen months into the practice, she took on a partner and felt an “agitation for growth”. It came with a “massive job” from the Transkei Auditor General, and things changed overnight. With only four people in their office, they now needed 30 to complete the assignment and they hired second and third year students who attended night lectures at the university.

“At that time, as a black and a woman, you had to define your own image of yourself, and have the right attitude to fight for your place in the sun. And I can’t take for granted the way I was socialized and raised by my parents. My father was such a fighter. And he shared all his stories at the dinner table. He used to say in Xhosa: ‘who can stand in front of a bus?’, so you just have those pictures of yourself as a bus. Who can stand in front of me and my ambitions in life,” she laughs.

This self-confidence, belief in herself, direction, purpose and her clear vision steered her ever further.

“Unfortunately, I had a fallout with my partner Sindi Zilwa [co-founder of Nkonki Inc, a registered firm of auditors, consultants and advisors], and that was a hard one, a very difficult one. I used to say it was more difficult than my divorce, because that happened almost at the same time. First, the divorce started and a few months later, I divorced with my partner,” she says.

“It was a lonely time. It is amazing that out of hardship, we find an opportunity to grow and move to the next level.”

She went on a five -week program with Merrill Lynch in New York in 1994. On her return, she saw herself being cut out of negotiations to establish a medium-sized black accounting firm. While these plans were scuppered now, her vision still survived and no one could take that away from her.

She approached young professionals who were managers at the big accounting firms in Johannesburg to join her. “But you can imagine, they were young, they were fearful. It took about eight months to persuade and convince them.” 

Gobodo understood their fears as she herself had to overcome her doubts about moving from a small community in the Transkei to the big city. But the visit to New York had helped her overcome her fear. If she could make it there, she could make it anywhere.

Gobodo Incorporated was established in 1996. It was the third medium-sized black accounting firm.

The others were Nkonki Sizwe Ntsaluba and KMMT Brey.

She believes that providence has always sent “angels” to her at the right time in her life. Peter Moyo, a partner at Ernst & Young at the time, gave his time and invaluable experience leading to the establishment of Gobodo Incorporated. Chris Stephens, who was the former head of consulting for KPMG, facilitated bringing a fully-fledged forensics unit to the firm. They took up a whole floor at their new Parktown, Johannesburg offices instead of the planned half-floor.

From a small practice in Mthatha, Gobodo Inc. grew to a medium-sized company with 10 partners, 200 staff and three offices – in Durban, Cape Town and Johannesburg. It was an exciting time.

Gobodo firmly believes that visions are not static. Once a summit is conquered, there will always be another one waiting for you.

The next summit beckoned her 15 years later. Black Economic Empowerment (BEE), a program launched by the South African government to redress the inequalities of apartheid, was firmly established and accounting firms were compliant, and Gobodo Inc. started losing out on opportunities as previous joint-audits done in partnership with the big accounting firms fell away.

She started talks with Victor Sekese of Sizwe Ntsaluba to merge the two medium-sized firms.

Again, people questioned the wisdom of the move. What if the market was not ready for a large black accounting firm?

There was somewhat of a culture clash when the “somewhat older, disciplined, bottom-line” Gobodo Inc. and the “younger, more creative” Sizwe Ntsaluba teams came together.  A new culture combining the best of both emerged. Ironically, while no people were lost during the merger, some were uncomfortable with the culture change and left. 

In the beginning, “a lot of sacrifices had to be made to make this thing work. Like the name. My partners were saying Nonkululeko’s name should be in front because she’s the only remaining founder,” explains Gobodo.

Sizwe Ntsaluba wanted their name up front, and it was a deal-breaker. She decided the vision was bigger than her and she wouldn’t allow anything to jeopardize it. The company name was agreed on: SizweNtsalubaGobodo. The business grew to 55 partners and over 1,000 staff. 

“I think we underestimated how hard it would be,” she says. “Mergers are difficult in themselves, around 70% of mergers fail. People were laughing at us saying ‘ah, black people, they’re going to fight amongst each other and fail’, so we were determined not to fail. Failure was not an option.”

When they did their first sole tender, “you could smell the fear in the passages. There was so much fear”. Then the call came from the chair of the audit committee of Transnet to say the board had decided to appoint SizweNtsalubaGobodo as the sole auditors.

Gobodo had led the way to the establishment of the fifth largest accounting firm in South Africa. Her vision had been realized.

“It was just so fulfilling, really so fulfilling,” says the grandmother-of-three. “So it was time to move this thing forward.”

 She was the Executive Chairperson and Sekese was the CEO. She commissioned partners to find the best governance structure for the firm. Their recommendation was for one leader to lead the firm forward, and a non-executive chair.

“That was going to be boring for me. If I was not going to be part of driving this vision forward, it was time for me to leave,” Gobodo says. “There comes a time that the founders must leave and hand over to the next generation.”

Although she had achieved her dream, it was not easy to let go. The separation took three months.

“I learned a lot about letting go at that time. We have to let go layer by layer. I had to accept that they would do what they had to with the legacy. And here they are now, having merged with Grant Thornton. The dream was to be a true international firm, and now with SNG Grant Thornton, it is still basically a black firm going into the continent. The dream does not die. This is still a black firm taking over an international brand.”

Gobodo now heads Nkululeko Leadership Consulting, a boutique, black-owned and managed leadership consulting firm. Here, she can live her passion for developing leaders. She also sits on the boards of PPC and Clicks. The future awaits her with more promise.

READ MORE : Businesses Of The Future: 20 New Wealth Creators On The African Continent

Side bar: ‘The World Is Not Kind To Strong Women Leaders’

What were the greatest challenges she faced during her career?

“Making a success of your life in the South Africa of the past. As a black person, you always started from a place of being dismissed, as a woman, you always started from a place of being dismissed. So you had to be true to yourself and find yourself for you to be able to succeed. And that was hard. I don’t want to make it as if it was easy.

“The second thing was being a strong woman leader. The world is not kind to strong women leaders. And for me, being a strong woman leader was the hardest thing because both men and women don’t accept a strong woman leader. So you have this big vision, you are driven, you have to move things forward and if you’re a strong man, you’re accepted.

“But if you’re a strong woman, you are not. So you had to grow up and mature and try to find that balance of still moving people forward to achieve your vision, because I realized early that I would not get to the finish line without them. I could not leave them behind. So I always had to find that balance and sometimes, I didn’t do it well.

“Because there was this urgency of moving forward and you have to drag people with you. And they didn’t take kindly to that. Do I regret it? No, not really. I don’t think I would have achieved what I had. I had been given these gifts as a strong woman for a reason. I just feel sorry for strong women leaders, because it is still not easy for them today.”

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30 under 30

Forbes Africa #30Under30 list: Business, Technology, Creatives and Sport

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THE FORBES AFRICA 30 UNDER 30 LIST IS THE most-anticipated list of game-changers on the continent and this year, we bring you 120 of Africa’s brightest achievers under the age of 30 and for the first time, four categories featuring 30 in each: Business, Technology, Creatives and Sport.

From elevator manufacturing, solar energy design, to under-30s conquering the Alps and selling out the Apollo Theatre,  this year’s list demonstrates how enterprising and extraordinary the African youth is.

This list celebrates these pioneers who are building brands, creating jobs, and innovating, leading, transforming and contributing to new industries, in turn, changing the continent. 

“The future belongs to Africa and the future belongs to its youth,” says Jason Pau, Chief of Staff for International to billionaire Jack Ma, co-founder of Alibaba. He says the journey for young entrepreneurs, especially in Africa, is not always easy. Many startups fall by the wayside due to a lack of resources. In South Africa, it is estimated that the small enterprise failure rate is at almost 80% within the first three years.

Chances at success are very slim, yet Africans continue to see opportunity where many do not. The select few celebrated in this list represent those individuals who continue to persevere against the odds. It also serves as a reminder that it is possible.

“People don’t really give enough time or spend enough time in providing the right environment for entrepreneurs to grow,” Pau tells FORBES AFRICA.

So if entrepreneurship is the answer, ensuring that an environment is conducive for business sustainability is imperative.

Together with our audit partner for this list, SNG Grant Thornton, the senior editorial team worked night and day scrutinizing each candidate. For entrepreneurs, we delved into how profitable their businesses were and if they showed signs of potential growth and sustainability.

However, not only does the list look at the financial impact of each candidate, but also their reputation, resilience and ability to be role models to other young Africans.

For FORBES AFRICA, this meant endless background checks, fact-checks, emails, phone calls and research, sifting through over 1,000 nominations that poured in over the last few months. Lastly, the one factor that also played a role in the determination of the candidates was their online presence. Followers are a valuable new currency, and today’s achievers have found a way to leverage off them. This year, when FORBES named Kylie Jenner the world’s youngest self-made billionaire, it observed that her business was built mainly because of her social media and fan following. Many on our list have also been able to build on this in their own way. The creatives and sport stars lead in this regard.

This year, Sport is the newest category, opening up the list to the game-changers who are also Africa’s next generation of leaders. They have won awards, broken records, made social investments and pushed the boundaries by challenging the status quo on policies in sports. However, some of the challenges they still face include lack of resources, a gender pay gap, and an immense pool of untapped talent not yet given a chance to be in the limelight.

But no matter where they are from, these 120 list-makers share one common goal, and that is to build a better Africa.

Being an under-30 myself, I am proud to have curated the FORBES AFRICA 30 Under 30 class of 2019. At the time of going to press, all facts on the following pages were verified to be correct.

The list is in no particular order:


This year marks the fifth milestone annual FORBES AFRICA 30 under 30 list, and we have introduced a new category of game-changers. Together, they are 120 in total across four sectors: business, technology, creatives and sport. Meet the class of 2019, a stellar collection of entrepreneurs and innovators rewriting rules and taking bold new risks to take Africa to the future.

#30Under30: Business Category 2019
#30Under30: Creatives Category 2019
#30Under30: Technology Category 2019
#30Under30: Sport Category 2019
  • Words: Karen Mwendera    
  • Edited by: Unathi Shologu
  •  Assistant: Garreth Mtuwa  
  • Creative direction by: Lucy Nkosi  
  • Lead photography by: Motlabana Monnakgotla
  • Co-photography by: Gypseenia Lion   

Judges of the 30 Under 30 class of 2019

The category experts whose role it was to survey all finalists of the 2019 30 Under 30 list, rank them and provide commentary on each candidate:

  • Business: Anthea Gardner, Founder and Managing Partner at Cartesian Capital
  • Technology: Professor Tshilidzi Marwala, Vice-Chancellor and Principal at University of Johannesburg; he also deputises President Cyril Ramaphosa on the South African Presidential Commission on the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
  • Creatives: Yasmin Furmie, creative and business partner of fashion brand SiSi The Collection, South Africa
  • Sport: Nick Said, the Africa sports correspondent for Thomson Reuters
  • Audit partner: SNG Grant Thornton

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