“In the coming years, there will emerge from diverse communities a new generation of high-impact, responsible entrepreneurs; individuals of passion, integrity, and innovation who will be at the forefront of the continuing economic and social transformation of this region. These individuals will be ambassadors of the power of initiative, determination, and excellence, acting as role models that many more will follow in their pioneering footsteps.” – Allan W B Gray
The power of Mr. Gray’s vision is best illustrated by the impact on its participants. Thandolwethu Hlongwane, the founder of payment software solutions company Lipa Payments, coding education platform Zaio and small business financing platform Nisa Finance, shares his remarkable journey. Thandolwethu is one of nearly 1 400 programme participants who have launched ventures with an aggregate value of over R60bn.
I first heard about the Allan Gray Orbis Foundation (AGOF) when I was in Grade 6. My older cousin had received a sport scholarship to attend a prestigious high school. I wanted the same for myself – but lacked the sporting ability. I started to look around for something similar that rewarded academics or leadership.
At the time, my teacher dissuaded me from applying for the coveted Allan Gray Scholarship. She didn’t believe I had much of a chance, given the number of applicants each year. Despite the discouragement, by the end of high school, I was brave enough to take matters into my own hands and apply for the Allan Gray Fellowship Programme, aimed at school-leavers with entrepreneurial potential heading to university.
AGOF’s selection process is gruelling. The first hurdle is a lengthy, intense application form that asks all sorts of intricate questions. Successful applicants are invited to an equally challenging interview, and finally a selection camp, which is a weekend of high-pressure activities, including case studies, presentations and psychometric assessments. As someone who loves solving problems, I found the weekend intense but energising.
The shortlisted candidates were all amazing, which was intimidating, but throughout the selection process, it was repeated that it wasn’t a competition as such, because there wasn’t a fixed number of available slots; rather, it was about each individual bringing their best self to every assessment and pushing themself beyond their comfort zone. I made it through, making university a reality – something my family would not have been able to afford.
In time, I learnt that this “ticket to the game” was so much more than just someone picking up the bill; I was to get academic, emotional and professional support that would go on to change the trajectory of my life.
Driven by curiosity
As a child, I always wanted to be a scientist. Inventing things and tinkering with stuff brought me much joy. However, I came from a family of educators and entrepreneurs, and they had bigger plans for me. They felt that scientists didn’t make money, and that I needed to pursue a “well-paying” profession. With my ticket to university secured, my parents encouraged me to become an accountant. I succumbed to their pressure and registered for an accountancy degree at the University of Cape Town, waving KwaZulu-Natal goodbye and embarking on my new life.
Accountancy was OK, but some of my new friends were studying computer science, and that intrigued me more. My older cousin was a techie. We had spent our childhood playing around on our aunt’s computer, and I had in fact written my first computer programme at 16. I had not considered computer science as an option for academic study, but once I discovered it, AGOF, which funds degrees in most disciplines, helped me to restructure my course to focus on my area of interest and expertise.
This is just one example of the incredible support we received as “Candidate Fellows” – the term used to describe those of us who were invited to join AGOF’s university programme. We were not just looked after financially, but holistically. In fact, each of us was appointed a Personal Leadership Development Officer to help us navigate the challenges we were bound to encounter on our academic and entrepreneurial journeys. But there was also phenomenal entrepreneurial training, coaching and mentorship throughout the Fellowship. I now realise that if you have the drive to create and make a difference, you can be taught the mechanics of entrepreneurship and running a business.
Becoming a Candidate Fellow exposed me to Mr. Gray’s values, and AGOF played a big role in changing my mindset from needing to find a job on completing my studies, to creating jobs for others.
[Mr. Gray] chose to … invest in a small group of high-impact individuals who had the potential to make a big difference. He was intentional about building this community to grow the economy.
Thankfully, AGOF’s support doesn’t end with your degree. On graduating from the University of Cape Town, I became a fully fledged Allan Gray Fellow, joining a community of like-minded entrepreneurs committed to not just making money, but making a difference. This community is known as the Association of Allan Gray Fellows, and boasts members who are now doing amazing things all over the world. As lifelong members of the Association, we are able to tap into this network for support and inspiration. This is the key factor that sets AGOF apart from other organisations I am part of. It all stems from Mr. Gray’s phenomenal vision of responsible entrepreneurship that is focused on profit and impact.
While I was hugely inspired by Mr. Gray, I sadly never got to meet him in person. But his mission was eloquently imparted by Mr. Anthony Farr, who is currently chief executive officer of Allan & Gill Gray Philanthropy Africa.
Mr. Farr explained that AGOF aspires for Allan Gray Fellows to do for entrepreneurship in South Africa what Jamaica has done for sprinting. Just as it seems unlikely that a small island with less than three million people could completely dominate sprinting, the most competitive sporting event on the planet, so, too, it seems unlikely that a small group of entrepreneurs could make a big impact on the country. Mr. Farr noted that what AGOF had learnt from the Jamaican sprinters in pursuit of cultivating responsible entrepreneurs for the common good was: 1. start early, 2. develop a powerful sense of community, and 3. be motivated by a bigger vision.
… I became a fully fledged Allan Gray Fellow, joining a community of like-minded entrepreneurs committed to not just making money, but making a difference.
This helped me understand why Mr. Gray never cast his net wide to fund as many students as possible: He chose to rather invest in a small group of high-impact individuals who had the potential to make a big difference. He was intentional about building this community to grow the economy. Mr. Gray’s vision focused on the power and potential of high-impact entrepreneurship.
Seeing opportunities within the challenges
I founded three businesses while I was still at university. I had witnessed the struggles of the entrepreneurial members of my family who were unable to find financing for their business ventures. My first business, Nisa Finance, aimed to provide a platform for small businesses that automated the necessary steps to apply for funding from multiple sources.
My idea was given legs at AGOF’s annual Jamboree – a three-day event attended by Candidate Fellows from across the country to pitch their ideas. It was both intimidating and inspiring to be among some of South Africa’s brightest young minds.
While working on Nisa, I encountered another challenge. I was a lone software developer and needed help. My classmates were all hustling, trying to make money on the side by waitering and bartending. In typical AGOF style – we are encouraged to see opportunities where there are challenges – solving this problem presented another business idea: I needed to find a way to link student developers with start-ups desperate for their skills. And so, Zaio was born.
Zaio has since grown into a platform that helps people who want to learn how to code, and then connects them with opportunities. Creating jobs and making an impact are such big drivers for me, and this platform is doing exactly that – having trained more than 1 000 software developers so far.
I have always been passionate about financial inclusion, and through my interactions with various businesses, another problem came into focus: Many small businesses transact only in cash and therefore have no track record. There was a desperate need for a solution that removed the need for cash.
I had travelled to Kenya and was so inspired by their “mobile money” and the ability to transact using a mobile phone that I wanted to bring this back to South Africa in a bid to start creating a cashless society. The key challenge: how to make things as simple as transacting in cash. A card payment that could be actioned simply using a smartphone would remove various barriers.
I launched Lipa Payments in the final year of my degree. It was thanks to the support of AGOF that I could run a business and graduate. AGOF helped me with tutoring and mentoring. It was tempting to follow in Mark Zuckerberg’s footsteps and throw in the academic towel, but the supportive team around me helped me to see it all through. After all, one of AGOF’s key values is “courageous commitment”.
It all stems from Mr. Gray’s phenomenal vision of responsible entrepreneurship that is focused on profit and impact.
Being a Candidate Fellow not only gave me access to AGOF’s support, and an amazing community, but also access to E Squared, which provides capital and non-financial support to Allan Gray Fellows, as well as other social entrepreneurs, through various funding programmes. Although I did not draw on its financial support, E Squared’s team advised and assisted me in a number of pivotal moments in Lipa’s journey.
Lipa is one of fewer than 20 companies globally whose payment technology is certified by Visa and Mastercard – an achievement unlikely to have been realised by a team with an average age of 26 who had no experience in digital payments. Since launching in 2019, Lipa has already grown beyond South Africa’s borders to include clients in Botswana and Tanzania.
Lipa was recently acquired by a large JSE-listed group that has an even greater geographic presence in Southern Africa. I hope that the Lipa story will give hope to investors wondering if they should bet on young South Africans. I also hope that it inspires other young aspiring entrepreneurs to take a chance.
We should all aim to be constantly growing, learning and paying it forward.
I am who I am thanks to my family, and I am where I am thanks to AGOF
I am who I am because of my family – educators and entrepreneurs who did everything they could to support me on my journey. My father ran a math tutoring business, while my mother sold Pres Les bedding and Tupperware to put us through high school.
It is through the generosity of Mr. Gray and AGOF’s investment in me, which made university a reality and gave me lifelong access to a network of like-minded entrepreneurs, that I am where I am today.
I remember reading an article by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation that spoke about how we often underestimate the impact of one’s demographics at birth on the odds of success. Things such as where you live, your family, socioeconomic status, gender and race all influence those odds. AGOF aims to level the playing field for many young South Africans.
I am grateful to now have the opportunity to pay it forward by creating jobs and making an impact where it is much needed. I am proud to have created 17 full-time and nine part-time jobs across the various businesses so far.
Within my businesses, I have built a culture of continuous learning – a habit instilled in me by AGOF. We should all aim to be constantly growing, learning and paying it forward. I have stood on the shoulders of others, and now I remain committed to paying it forward.