Episode 04: When challenges meet tech solutions in Africa - Featuring SweepSouth's Aisha Pandor

December 1, 2020
CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA - OCTOBER 29: Aisha Pandor, CEO and Co-founder SweepSouth, at the SweepSouth offices in Cape Town, South Africa, on the morning of October 29, 2020. SweepSouth is a tech company that matches domestic workers with homeowners through an app.Photo © Charlie Shoemaker/International Finance Corporation
IFC talks to entrepreneur Aisha Pandor about how she came up with the idea for her business, the sacrifices of pursuing it, as well as how she has focused on building a sustainable company in Africa’s tech industry.

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IFC talks to entrepreneur Aisha Pandor about how she came up with the idea for her business, the sacrifices of pursuing it, as well as how she has focused on building a sustainable company in Africa’s tech industry.

Pandor is the co-founder and CEO of SweepSouth, an online platform that connects domestic service providers with potential employers in South Africa.

For more information about the initiatives mentioned in this episode, go to:


Jasmin Bauomy (host): Okay. Tell me if this situation sounds familiar, where you have 50 or more open tabs in your browser because you’re trying to find the solution to a very simple problem in your life.

Aisha Pandor and her husband were living through this exact experience in their home in South Africa when they suddenly had to find somebody to replace the nanny.

Aisha Pandor (CEO of SweepSouth): So it was first that like: ‘Oh, she's, you know, she's leaving. What do we do?’

‘Okay. Yeah. Let's try and Google and look for places that either offer these services. Or let's go onto the classifieds and see who's listing their services.’

And then having phone calls and going: ‘Oh, I don't know if I trust this person on the other end of the line, you know.’ I mean that realization and these sort of discussions between the two of us.

JB: And naturally, just like you and I would, they both thought: ‘I wish there was an app for this.’

Now, depending on who you are in a situation like this, you may start looking into whether this could be a business idea. Maybe you or someone you know builds the app. Maybe you're an investor. So you find somebody who's developing an app just like this, and you invest in them. But also, maybe this idea isn't going to be a business at all.

So in today's episode of Creating Markets, we’re asking: how exactly do you recognize the potential of an idea or a market, and then go on and turn that into a business opportunity?

AP: People responded and the pain point was clear: Everyone in some way or another had sort of been through something similar. So this was probably two months after having the initial experience and idea. Then we started building.

JB: I'm your host, Jasmin Bauomy, and today I thought I'd try and find out how to put your finger on a gut feeling and make it profitable. To do that, I called up Aisha Pandor in Cape Town, South Africa.

AP: I'm the CEO and co-founder of SweepSouth. SweepSouth itself is an online platform launched out of South Africa. The first on the continent for connecting domestic workers and home-service providers who are unemployed or underemployed and looking for work, connecting them to customers who need help with a range of home services.

JB: It's been about six years since Aisha and her co-founder Alen Ribic, who also happens to be her husband, by the way, came up with the idea. But an idea, especially a good one, doesn't grow in a vacuum. It's the result of your lived experience. And in Aisha's case, those experiences begin with having been born in exile in Botswana and being the daughter, granddaughter, and great-granddaughter of people who really made a difference during the time of Apartheid.

AP: My grandfather and my great grandfather were lawyers, as well as being Apartheid activists. And as a child, I was very curious and asked a lot of questions and I think that's sort of what led me into the science route.

JB: Aisha went on to get a doctorate in human genetics, but the world of academia felt kind of isolating.

AP: And isolated from a lot of the problems that South Africa faces. And I felt personally that, as a young South African who is educated and who has a legacy that I'm thinking about, of activism - I wanted to do something that was more directly related to the challenges that the country faces.

News clip: A World Bank report in 2014, says around half this country's urban population live in townships or so-called informal settlements. The report goes on to say that it's places like this that are home to around 60 percent of this country's unemployed.
The government says it will tackle poverty, unemployment, and immigration.

JB: Aisha thought she may be able to address those challenges in the business world. And so while she finished her Ph.D., she also studied for a business qualification and went on to work as a consultant. And while she could see the power of big industries, the corporate world wasn't quite for her either.

AP: And so that's when I got exposed to the idea of building a tech business and maybe starting something up myself. And my co-founder and husband who was going through the same thing, sort of thinking about his role in the world and his purpose and what he wanted to do, had also been working in the corporate space as a software architect and software engineer. And we resigned from our jobs at very similar times and decided to start up something.

JB: Aisha and Alen brainstormed business ideas and they almost landed on tourism.

AP: We thought about a tourism platform, figured out that we like going on holiday, but we're not passionate about the tourism industry.

JB: And that was about that moment when suddenly their nanny said she’s leaving for some time. Aisha and Alen, who were trying to build a business from home and really needed a nanny, got to work trying to find someone to fill in.

AP: Where that culminated was this experience of interviewing people through the agencies. And in these interviews with women who worked for these agencies, you know, just hearing about how badly they were treated and then having a conversation after that and going: ‘Oh, that, you know, that really sucked, that experience was horrific.’

‘Actually, this whole experience was horrific.’ And then: ‘Actually why don't we build something that addresses this problem?’ So that's sort of how it materialized, but it was over a good few weeks.

JB: It always sounds so easy when people tell you how they started a business, but there are a billion little steps we hardly ever hear about like the research, for example.

AP: The very first thing that we did was a lot of googling and sort of like: what does the domestic work industry look like in the country? What does it look like on the continent? What does it look like around the world? Are these experiences that we have very personal, or are they experiences that a lot of other people share? And I think a big indicator to us was just looking at the sheer size of the domestic work industry in South Africa and finding out about the high percentage of working women. A high percentage of the country's workforce are domestic workers.

So, it sort of gave us clues as to the sort of scale that we could get and, and sort of, you know, the scale of impact that we could get, if we could start to solve the problem of access on both sides.

JB: After all that research, Aisha and Alen got to work to build the platform. From the idea to beginning to build it, it took them around two months. That's pretty fast.

And yes, looking back through the nostalgic lens, conjures up these romantic images of starting a business. But the starting phases of a new company can actually be quite rough.

AP: We had put together a little bit of savings and we'd, you know, we had a pension plan through our jobs and we just bought a house, I think the year before.

And we gave up a lot of that to fund the business.

JB: We're talking about real sacrifice here. Aisha and Alen gave up their new house and the little family of three moved in with Aisha's parents to be able to make their savings last a little longer.

AP: Sometimes people romanticize the idea of giving it all up to start the business, but it actually is painful. We were so proud of this house that we had, and we had so many amazing memories, just family time with the three of us and giving up that space. That meant so much to us. It was incredibly difficult. But we did it. We moved in with my parents in mid-2015, and stayed there for the next three years.

I don't know what we were chasing, but it was this idea of like: ‘We have to get to the next milestone. We have to.’ We were very driven.

JB: The sacrifice and hard work paid off. Aisha's original nanny returned and she told a few of the other domestic workers in the neighborhood about the project, and word traveled fast.

AP: I sort of have this distinct memory of coming home after fetching my daughter from school one day. And the school wasn't far away. And so, you know, I left the house and came back like 20 minutes later. And there was this long queue of women from the neighborhood who had heard about the platform through word of mouth. And I was just like: ‘Whoa, like, you know, this is, this is cool.’

JB: Yup. It really is. The reason Aisha's platform shows so much potential is not just that about 6 percent of the country's workforce are domestic workers. It's also that there was a lot of abuse, unreliable employment situations, and bad payment in that sector.

AP: We have a very high rate of unemployment in South Africa and and a particularly high rate of unemployment amongst women, amongst black women, amongst domestic workers. So there was this excitement at the idea of: ‘Another way for us to find work in a way that's relevant to us, you know, in an area that's closer to me with people that I want to work with at rates that I want to work.’

And so that's really where we're trying to fill the hole is like, you know, how do you use this platform to find sustainable work regularly.

JB: The people who offer the services on SweepSouth are proudly called SweepStars. And a few of them sent me voice messages.
Almost every one of them was the sole breadwinner of the family. Some are happy they finally don't have debt anymore.
SweepStar1: I was having no more debts asking for money from people because SweepSouth is paying weekly.

JB: Others are happy. They don't have to face abuse and they can rely on getting work.
SweepStar2: SweepSouth has helped me a lot, like paying my rent here in South Africa, supporting my family in Zim [i.e. Zimbabwe]. During COVID-19, some donations were very helpful to my family.

JB: Look, these are great testimonials. And I think it's pretty clear that the platform's existence is having a positive social impact. So far around 20,000 people have benefited from finding work on the platform. Now turn that into households and dependents, and you're anywhere between 80,000 and 100,000 folks whose lives were somehow affected. Aisha says there's still a long way to go until they have the impact they're aiming for though.

AP: The challenge that we are addressing is an international challenge. The unemployment, the treatment of domestic workers, the lack of access to decent work. And when I say decent, I mean, work where domestic workers are paid decently, can take care of their families adequately with what they've earned or treated decently and with dignity, have agency in how they work and their working conditions and flexibility around how they work.

That problem still exists. And I think where we particularly focus is on emerging markets and trying to address this challenge in emerging markets first on the continent and then outside of Africa. And I think also just, you know, from a scale point of view, 20,000 [people] is a lot, but it's also not a lot.

We've just scratched the surface in terms of the impact that we started to create on that side.
And we're not an internationally known global brand yet. So we've, we've got a long way to go.

JB: Not only are growth and impact part of Aisha's plans, but more so sustainability and resilience, the latter of which was tested during the strict lockdown South Africa went into this year.

News clip: People will only be allowed to leave their homes for medical care or to buy food and medicine.

JB: Here’s South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa at a press conference announcing new measures earlier this year.

SA President/news clip: Swift and extraordinary action is required if we are to prevent a human catastrophe of enormous proportions in our country.

JB: Aisha knew that the people who were dependent on the platform to find work would not be able to feed their kids.

AP: We sort of reached out to some of our investors. We’re fortunate to have a really great sort of impact-focused investor, the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, who helped us set up a seed fund to support the domestic workers on the platform.

And we were able to support the majority of those women for three months. And even post three months when the lockdown was relaxed, we're able to continue that funding and support.

Top of mind for us is like, this isn't just an economic crisis, potentially. It's also a health crisis. And it means that people are going to be scared.

How do we be this voice of education and reason around how to protect yourself and sort of in a sane way. How do we make those interactions safe?

JB: SweepSouth and Aisha have really demonstrated their resilience during this pandemic. And that type of resilience goes hand-in-hand with establishing a sustainable business, which for Aisha, is an essential feature of a successful business.

AP: I think particularly during the pandemic has been this idea of: How are you financially sustainable as a business? And you may be investing in growth and making the conscious decision to raise investment to fuel growth.

But if that investment dries up, can you stand alone as a business and what you need to do to get to that point? So financial sustainability is a big theme within our business. And when you're a low margin business, some of that comes through thinking about other ways that you can add value, which I think is the second part of sustainability, is truly adding value and having a positive impact on your stakeholders.

So people want you to be around. The way I think about it in my own head is, people really giving a damn whether you exist..

And I think that's an international trend at the moment. Driving platform businesses is now that you have this skill of understanding a vertical, and sort of understanding an industry and the space that you're in. How do you get deeper in providing value as opposed to just going sort of shallow and wide?

JB: By now, Aisha’s company has already gone through several rounds of investments and she started to have really good insight into the entrepreneurial ecosystem, not only in South Africa but also on the continent.

AP: According to published data, we’re kind of on par with where Southeast Asia was in 2014. And if you look at the growth in that region in the last six years, the idea then is that we're sort of expecting similar growth in the next six years on the continent.

And so that presents a massive opportunity, I think, for investors, particularly early-stage investors. As an investor, the idea is that you can come to invest on the African continent and benefit from the growth of the ecosystem here.

JB: So tell me, what does it look like right now? The ecosystem?

AP: Yes. I mean, I think we've, we've got this mix at the moment. There are more start-up businesses being started than ever before. You also are seeing more early-stage businesses graduate to growth-stage funding and raise big funding rounds on the continent either from African investors, but also I think, importantly from international investors.

And so you have companies like Twiga foods, for example, in East Africa, who've raised with the help of Goldman Sachs. You have the Paystack guys, you had the exit to Stripe recently. And what that means, for the Nigerian start-up ecosystem. So I think you've sort of got this range at the moment of start-up companies at very different phases, which I think is a good indicator of a really healthy ecosystem that these start-up businesses are growing. And in some cases growing to really promising exits

JB: Aisha is right. The number of innovative tech start-ups on the African continent has grown a lot in the last years. Investors have come to see a lot of potential in these startups, because their technology offers a solution to some of the continent’s biggest challenges, such as education, food logistics, or financial infrastructure. And so, I wanted to hear Aisha’s thoughts on this.

AP: Yes. In many ways, we need to catch up when it comes to just the development of infrastructure when it comes to leveraging technology across big industries and verticals.

I think that's part of the opportunity for founders. I think it's an opportunity for investors.

I also, though, do want to see businesses that are a little bit more frivolous and seem a little bit more out there and a little bit more sort of blue sky and moonshot. Because again, I think that's a mark of maturity.

A lot of internationally groundbreaking ideas are those sorts of ideas. It might just seem like an interesting academic project or a very niche problem to solve.

JB: Aisha has thought about a way to integrate an idea that may be more “out there” into the SweepSouth platform. 

AP: As a customer, our platform should be able to predict when you will next need cleaning, what areas will next need cleaning, and what household items you're going to run out of and when, and to tell you those things without you needing to inspect your home or look into your fridge or your pantry.

And that sort of, machine-learning-driven AI element of the platform is to me, the side of it that feels a little bit more out there.

And I must say, in SweepSouth's case, we have felt like for various reasons and because of the challenges in the industry, It's been difficult to focus on those sorts of concepts when you're just trying to deal with the unemployment issues and then the challenges around transport infrastructure and transport being unreliable, and then, financial inclusivity and then the gender based violence and how that affects people.

So these multiple issues that come up to kind of keep your feet on the ground, which is incredibly important, but at the same time, in our case at least, it has sort of kept us from the sort of blue sky, more technical, complex thinking that we'd sometimes like to delve into a bit more.

JB: At the beginning of this episode, I asked how can I recognize the potential of an idea or a market? And I think Aisha brought us a little closer to the answer. Solving an essential problem helps. Asking if others around you are having the same problem. That helps too. I learned from Aisha that you should pick an idea that can grow, not just horizontally, but vertically. And also, don’t shy away from tech solutions that can seem a bit “out there.”

And now think about countries that have the biggest growth potential in terms of an increasing number of tech talent.

The opportunities are out there. You just have to go out and create them.

And that was it for this episode of Creating Markets. If you enjoyed this episode, tell your friends and family about the show and rate us on Apple Podcast.

SweepSouth is a member of the Digital2Equal program, which is an initiative led by IFC in partnership with the European Commission. The program boosts opportunities for women in emerging markets. SweepSouth also just published a case study about the pay and working conditions of domestic workers. I'll link that in the show notes.

This episode was produced as part of the Africa Tech’s Talking Series. That series was developed to highlight the stories of entrepreneurs who drive Africa’s internet economy. And so, in partnership with Google, IFC has just released the e-Conomy Africa 2020 report, where you find more information about Africa’s internet economy. I’ll link that in the show notes, as well.

Creating Markets is a production of the IFC comms team. Thank you so much to Aisha Pandor for taking the time to talk.

And also thank you to the SweepStars who sent along their voice messages. Special thanks to Sufia Lodhi and her daughter Zara for re-enacting some of Aisha's memories. Other sound effects were added for storytelling purposes. Nicholas Alexander edited this episode and I'm your host, Jasmin Bauomy. And I'll talk to you again soon.