The fear of being stifled in a corporate world drove her to seek options in entrepreneurship

Ms Matsi Modise

With two successful social enterprises under her belt and currently occupying a chief executive position in a thriving company, Ms Matsi Modise (left) says looking back 11 years, she does not have an ounce of regret over the decision she made to leave the corporate sector then.

The Founder and Chief Executive of Furaha Afrika Holdings was a keynote speaker at the recent EDHE (Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education) Entrepreneurship Intervarsity awards ceremony on 27 November. This event saw 28 finalists from 16 public universities gunning for top positions in, namely: Category One: Innovative Business Ideas, Category Two: Existing Business (Tech), Category Three: Existing Business (Social Impact) and Category Four: Existing Business (General).

The University of Witwatersrand alumnus said she wished she had been exposed to a programme like EDHE 16 years ago, when she was completing her Bachelor of Commerce in Accounting. She felt consoled, nonetheless, by the stance that the sector had taken by promoting entrepreneurship as a feasible option for students.

A journey of a thousand miles; taking the plunge

Back in 2008, Modise received an internship opportunity at Investec Bank. During that time, many of her peers aspired to work in investment banking. With both hands she grabbed this opportunity that went on to gain access to business accounts with fat balances. However, instead of settling in the comfort of being privy to such accounts, the exposure got her wishing to be on the other side. Two years later she quit a cushioned life in Sandton -- a job with countless prospects – which, sadly for her, did not align with her own enormous dreams.

"Something inside of me did not identify with a 9 – 5 job," she told the 130-odd audience made up of senior leaders in higher education, students and representatives of the private sector at the Premier Hotel in Kempton Park, just outside Johannesburg.

Becoming a social activist

In 2010, she returned to her hometown in Phuthaditjhaba, Qwaqwa, in the Free State. The fearless self-starter was alarmed by the challenges she found confronting entrepreneurs in townships. "There was something terribly wrong," Modise said. "For someone who had lived a privileged, sheltered life, going into township environments and working with township entrepreneurs was a rude awakening. I was angry. I could not believe that in a country that had so many young black entrepreneurs, the challenges could be so dire. The barriers to entry were high. That was when I had my ah-hah moment."

It took her five years to build two entrepreneurial social enterprises. These are the South African Black Entrepreneurs Forum (SABEF) and SiMODiSA Start-up, a venture through which Modise is determined to push for policy reform in South Africa. She is currently the Vice-chairperson of the latter. She mentioned the red tape that entrepreneurs face, which often impedes their business pursuits. She also named tax as an impediment, the absence of incentives for entrepreneurs and labour laws that do not distinguish between big corporations and small and medium enterprises. She cited India, where certain start-ups are allowed by policy to operate tax-free until they are better positioned, financially. Registration of intellectual property (IP) and funding were also on the list.

She said a lot of high-growth start-ups in South Africa opt to look for different jurisdictions to register their IPs because Government has made that process difficult. With regard to funding, Modise admitted that South Africa does not have the culture of early-stage investment in businesses. She said a lot of the successful companies that have gone global had to attain international investors -- not because local investors are not keen, but simply because they lacked the capital to do so.

According to Modise, encouraging people to start businesses whilst not creating enabling environments with access to investments, markets and success is a futile exercise. That is what inspired her to make a contribution in policy reform.

The purpose of her two non-profit enterprises was first to shape entrepreneurship in the townships. It was also to explore how they could shorten the route that these entrepreneurs take to access the resources they need.

How she birthed Furaha Afrika Holdings

Over time, Modise figured that social enterprises, vital as they are, could not build the wealth she required to give back to the very communities she was trying to develop. That was the founding thought behind Furaha Afrika Holdings, a company that specialises in the development and holistic shaping of enterprises. They also focus on technology development as a means for companies to deliver content. She said corporate appetite for that service had grown tremendously in this period of the CoVID-19 pandemic.

"I was tired of having to go cap-in-hand, begging corporates and organisations to give us money for the good work that we were doing. I had to make a decision to say that I want to be on the other end where young entrepreneurs, non-profit organisations can come to me because I have the resources to be able to say 'here is a million rand, I want to invest in your business." Thus, Furaha Afrika Holdings was born in 2013.

South Africa could do much better

After 11 years of entrepreneurial experience, Modise could state with confidence, that the South African government has not yet made it attractive for people to establish businesses.

Furthermore, she said it was time South Africa and its citizens took their representation in the world more seriously. "We need to start creating and promoting our ecosystems," she said. "We are very terrible at our own public relations. Countries like Kenya are getting a lot of attention from the West. You know, when they [the West] think technology, entrepreneurship, they think Kenya. They do not think of South Africa. We are not telling and sharing our own stories and, we do not see ourselves as globally relevant entrepreneurs. That needs to stop."

Savouring her achievements and calling for more female entrepreneurs

She left Investec with no particular plan but sheer determination to carve out a different future for herself. Today, Furaha Afrika Holdings has grown to become an enterprise with R10 million-plus turnover. Modise understands the impact that her success could have on other female entrepreneurs. She told the Intervarsity audience that the entrepreneurship landscape needs more high-impact female players to build multinationals -- no more subsistent enterprises. "We need more women who are going to break the barriers; build your own ladders and a South Africa that we all want our children to live in because things cannot continue as they are," she concluded.

Group of Studentpreneurs
Ms Modise wants to see women grow their businesses beyond mere subsistent enterprises to high-impact multinational ventures.

Her challenge to female entrepreneurs to claim the spotlight resonated well with EDHE's new phase focus. Dr Norah Clarke, the EDHE Director, announced a Student Women Economic Empowerment Programme (SWEEP) programme that will focus from 2021, on promoting female representation in entrepreneurship. Lamenting the low participation of women in the Entrepreneurship Intervarsity -- manifesting in only seven females out of the 28 finalists in 2020 and four out of 27 in 2019, Dr Clarke said: "We want that never to happen again. And we want women's participation to be based on merit. We do not want special programmes to help women as if they are lacking somehow. No, they are not. We want to put SWEEP in place to help identify and remove the obstacles that prevent student women from participating fully and confidently in the economy."

The EDHE Intervarsity finals were a culmination of what has been building up from the first quarter of 2020, at all 26 public universities. The Intervarsity is one of EDHE's three annual flagship programmes alongside the annual EDHE Lekgotla and the annual Student Entrepreneurship Week. The EDHE programme, a partnership between the Department of Higher Education and Training and Universities South Africa, is funded mainly from the DHET's University Capacity Development Programme.

Nqobile Tembe, the writer, is a Communication Consultant contracted by Universities SA.