Please give our readers a brief overview of SweepSouth.

SweepSouth is an online platform and an app that you can use as a homeowner to get connected to people who provide home cleaning. We’re doing 2 things:

◊ Making it more convenient for homeowners to find home cleaning.

◊ Improving the lives of those who provide home cleaning by giving them more access to earning opportunities at better rates than market averages.

We are also helping people to schedule their time better. Our workers are often unemployed or underemployed – they might have work once or twice a week – so we help them find more work that suits their open availabilities.

South Africa has 1 million registered domestic workers. How has SweepSouth managed to be successful in a “traditional” industry already saturated with workers?

The number of a million is obviously a big number. I think that to look at the impact our company could have, it’s important to look at unemployment statistics, which puts it into perspective. Unemployment in South Africa is around 27% which is higher than average and much higher than averages for upper middle-income countries of around 6.2% (according to the World Bank). Those with professional qualifications tend to have jobs, and were everyone to have qualifications above secondary school, unemployment would be much lower. But there’s higher unemployment when you go lower down the skills ladder. We’re addressing these issues of supply and demand. Our platform has provided work for 7,000 domestic workers to date and we’ve provided people with stable opportunities. As a tech platform we’re able to scale more quickly and we think that number will ramp up quickly over the next few years.

Please tell me about your own personal journey in starting the company and the challenges you faced along the way. How easy/difficult is it to start a business in South Africa?

I think it’s important to say up front that, despite here being many challenges in South Africa, I am patriotic and a huge optimist when it comes to our country. I’ve been brought up to see challenges as opportunities, and if I had been born in another country, where things work perfectly and where the idea of great innovation is an app for premium coffee to get delivered to you, then that would be one thing. But the opportunity to really make a meaningful impact is an amazing feeling. What’s exciting is precisely that we do have challenges and that if you tackle them, you can have an important impact on the economy and on society that lasts for decades or centuries to come.

Starting a tech business in the country in 2014…the notion was a lot less familiar, certainly compared to countries where it takes less than a day to start a business. For us it was at least a couple of trips back and forth to the banks and other regulatory bodies, and you would wait for certificates for weeks. It was a bit of a hassle, setting up a digital merchant banking account took 2 months and lots of phone-calls back and forth to explain what we were trying to do. There were lots of frustrating phone calls, and even some tears on my part. Even with the bank account set up, they didn’t understand the notion of an online merchant account.

We’ve had to address challenges around connectivity. In 2014 we honestly wondered whether there’d be enough of a market, and enough people who own debit cards, and whether people would feel comfortable transacting in an environment that hadn’t yet been well established because we were the first on the continent. Online buying wasn’t mainstream enough to assume that our specific addressable market was a large part of South Africa’s middle class.

These issues around markets you can address, but having slow economic growth compared to the rest of the world, from a customer point of view, means that you’re competing with the basics in terms of household expenses. If you’re seen as a luxury service, and when people are just trying to make ends meet, when food and transport prices go up this squeezes out potential for spending on other things.

From a domestic worker point of view, we’ve definitely seen the impact of low education and socio economic issues on the domestic work industry. In our township communities, we’ve seen people being exposed to crime on their way to work because they’ve been mugged or robbed. There are a lot of issues which our business has had to contend with. Disruptions in public transport for example – the majority of our workers use public transport to get to clients and a 4 week bus strike has just ended. Things like that have happened frequently.

That sounds like a lot of challenges. Have things changed at all since you started the business?

A lot of things have changed. When you have industries capable of making an impact it’s difficult to ignore them.

In terms of banks, not only do they now understand how important it is to have online merchant accounts, they even have incubators to accommodate startups. Things have changed drastically in the past few years. Things like lack of internet connectivity was one of the direct obstacles we had when we started – we ourselves had to buy cell phone contracts for domestic workers who joined our platform. People couldn’t access the internet. Now we’ve got far better access and clear data costs (although this is still prohibitively high) and it’s a very big change in a small amount of time. I think South Africa can leapfrog other countries with that kind of growth.

Your company has been lauded for female empowerment. What problems do women face in the working world at present in South Africa?

There are a lot. There just aren’t enough women in senior positions, women aren’t decision makers, even if you change the ways decisions are made, it’s difficult to attract women into environments which are daunting or intimidating, where you don’t have people who look like you or understand your challenges. I think that puts women off.

When you speak to a potential partner or investor, that person is normally, because of various reasons, male. When speaking to a man about building a business that addresses problems that women face, it’s difficult to get them to identify. In the worst cases, you can find that you are being undermined, and not being taken seriously.

As a woman you may present yourself differently, and often not as aggressively as men do in the business context. In business, the attributes that men typically express are valued more than attributes commonly associated with women, despite the fact that it’s been proven that women leaders on average bring in higher ROI for investors and other shareholders.

Lastly, why should our readers invest in South Africa?

I think that goes back to what I said initially. We are a country with huge opportunity, and the advantage is you could take a business model, adjust it to our culture and apply it, and then it could work. There’s a lot of opportunity. We have a young population, very eager to work and with a tremendous amount of energy. They’re very enterprising. We’re very positive. The story of South Africa is very positive and exciting story, with good reason. There’s a vision and we’re willing to put energy into that vision.

In more recent political events, we have a new president who understands business well, has a lot of local and international support and is well respected. He’s put his money where his mouth is when it comes to investing in the youth, in investing in employment, as well as getting the private sector to invest in youth and employment. There are lots of untapped opportunities, and our population is ready to take advantage of them. Africa is the fastest growing continent in the world, there’s lots of talent here, and any wise investor looking at maximum velocity of ROI and being part of building great enterprises should be looking at South Africa and at the African continent.