Are SA Entrepreneurs Born – or Can they be Nurtured?

 By Ross Drakes, incoming president of The Entrepreneurs’ Organisation (EO)

South Africa has a unique and thriving entrepreneurial spirit and so often, the first time a person gets the taste for becoming an entrepreneur is when they are a child or student. Their perception of the world is not inhibited by why things cannot be done or why things cannot happen. There is a very true sense of just being able to get on with it.

While there is no silver bullet to solve youth unemployment, which accounts for about half of South Africa’s young people, but one area which certainly has the potential is entrepreneurship. How then do we unlock this potential?

One way is to remember the lessons learned from our youthful entrepreneurial selves which can be applied not only to businesses today but also as a means to inspire other young people wanting to start their own businesses.

As an example, myself and a friend of mine, Ed Martin used to make photocopies of a Garfield colouring-in book and sold the copied pages to our friends during school breaks. We made the photocopies at Ed’s mom’s doctor’s practice. We also offered our customers, at an additional fee, our Koki pens to colour in the pages. We were making massive profits until our supplier, Ed’s mom, cut us off from the photocopier and our business ground to a halt.

Waheed Adam (51), another EO member and CEO of Prime Group, started his first business out of necessity when he was about 9 years old. To help his dad support a growing family, he learnt how to make copper-wire beaded bangles that uniquely (at the time) could expand to fit all sizes and sold them to the public and retail shops. On one occasion, a retailer bought the merchandise but failed to deliver on payment. Today, Prime Group is the parent company of a diverse number of businesses in the financial advisory, property, redecoration, mobile and telephony industries.

Meanwhile, EO member and CEO of iLearn Richard Rayne (38), started his business when he was still at university. He began by selling computer equipment and computer training which turned into iLearn and just celebrated 16 years of operating. Before that though he was the top advertising sales person for his school magazine and created parties at clubs with a well-known DJ and secured branded sponsorship.

Such stories serve as inspiring anecdotes and there are many which get shared on a daily basis through the EO network. It is no wonder then entrepreneurs are contributing to just under 60% of GDP, according to Small Business Minister Lindiwe Zulu. EO is focused on the totality of the entrepreneur and we look to support the members who believe in building something from scratch.

Nurturing an entrepreneurial spirit among South Africa’s youth is a critical way to encourage a spirit of entrepreneurship. Education at primary school level and parenting play such an important role in this aspect. Whether schools are running fetes and students need to manage a stall for the day or it is introduced into the teaching curriculum. Parents can also support their children either by discussing with them how businesses work and what happens when goods or services are sold. They can also help nurture a business their children create.

EO member, Murray McWilliams (48) and owner of Tractor Outdoor, encouraged his ten and 7 year old children to run a business making kombucha, a fermented health drink prepared from sweetened tea, fast becoming popular among health conscious consumers. The kombucha is sold to work colleagues, friends and students of his wife’s yoga practice.

As we celebrate youth month, we can analyse and consider all of the reasons for why entrepreneurs don’t get off the ground and what is holding them back. We can point to the failings of policy-makers and institutions which don’t support the entrepreneur and make as many excuses as there are new business licenses waiting for approval. We can wait for government to make things better, to improve our lives and show us the way. Or, we can continue to share stories of inspiration and success and show that South Africa is full of enterprising individuals.

To quote Rich Mulholland, no one ever sits back at the end of their life and regrets all the things they tried and failed. Regret comes from the ideas you never actioned. I believe the future of South Africa is in the ideas people have to fix the problems they see around them. My challenge therefore to aspiring entrepreneurs is for you to step up and bring that idea to the market. Even if it means your journey begins with selling the photocopied pages of Garfield colouring-in books.

About the Entrepreneurs’ Organization

The Entrepreneurs’ Organization (EO) is a global, peer-to-peer network of 12,000+ influential business owners with 160 chapters in 50 countries. Founded in 1987, EO is the catalyst that enables leading entrepreneurs to learn and grow, leading to greater success in business and beyond.

EO opened its First South African chapter in Jhb in 2005, a chapter followed in Cape Town in 2011 and Durban in 2015. On the rest of the continent, EO has chapters in Dar es Salaam (Tanzania), Nairobi (Kenya), Abuja & Lagos (Nigeria) and Mauritius. EO announced that it plans to expand to Accra (Ghana), Angola (Luanda) and Pretoria. The focus is now on the rest of Africa and the MEPA region.

There are currently 850 member entrepreneurs across the region, employing 347 000 people, with an average turnover per business of US$5m pa.

Contact: Claire Williams <>