The social entrepreneur driving start-ups in South Africa

On the accounting highway, few take the off-ramp to social entrepreneurship as aggressively as Rowan Spazzoli.

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Rowan Spazzoli’s latest initiative is Accendio, a consulting agency that develops passionate entrepreneurs with bright ideas and projects with potential in sub-Saharan Africa. FORBES AFRICA takes a look at how it got to where it is today.

Background

He started studying accounting. In his third year, Spazzoli was not happy and did not know what to do with his life.

Now, he spends his days and nights bringing people’s ideas to life, and he wouldn’t have it any other way.

The story begins when he joined the SHAWCO Siyaya Social Entrepreneurship Initiative in 2013, training township entrepreneurs in bookkeeping and accounting.

Spazzoli became the co-founder of Phaphama SEDI, which brought Siyaya under his wing. It’s his favorite effort by far, and it still sits on the board.

In the last seven years they have helped some 140 companies and 500 students have taken the program. They thought that students would help entrepreneurs, but in turn, they develop students. Phphama creates conscious learners, thinking beyond their own bubble.

“Every year they go looking for 20 entrepreneurs, they bring 60 or 70 students. And these students who are all in their final year will be spending every Saturday of the month, which is a huge commitment, helping these entrepreneurs.”

They all said it would be foolish to switch from a strictly accounting route.

“I took the accounting route off-ramp,” he says.

He began studying for a master’s degree in Economic Development at the University of Cape Town (UCT), while working on startups and attending conferences.

One of the new companies was Allsafe, which aimed to reduce crime through innovative products, such as the Guardian bracelet that alerts nearby security when you’re in danger. Allsafe participated in the ‘map the system’ competition with the University of Oxford in the UK.

“The idea is to understand the systemic problems and the points where you can help them. I ended up going all the way to Oxford and performing on stage in Oxford, which was an amazing experience.”

Now he runs ‘map the system’ for the South African league.

Crucial to its development was Nova Economics. He consulted on a beef genetics program, trying to improve the health of cattle through selective breeding, while creating an environmental impact.

Although COVID-19 was a shock to him and the entire world, he began work on his biggest project to date; SMEgo, in alliance with Old Mutual. This application streamlines loan applications for entrepreneurs.

Spazzoli wanted to make an even bigger impact, so he created a company to bring the myriad things he was doing under one umbrella, Accendio.

“And what that means is creating a spark, creating the light that can create a fire, which can have a lot of impact,” he explains.

Accendio has three major projects underway; one works with the Bertha Center at UCT, working on blended finance projects, another with Viridian implementing an educational curriculum for entrepreneurship centers in various African countries, and working with the African Management Institute to create an online community of entrepreneurs.

“The journey to an impact-related field does not have a set royal road. If you want to get a job in banking, there’s pretty much a set path, go get a degree in finance, get your experience as an analyst, building it up as you go. But with the world of impact and economic development, there is no royal road. And there is no real support.”

He puts out a warning: entering the impact field depends on the circumstances. There are not many black impact professionals in South Africa because it is crucial to win and support families as the burden of responsibility remains high.

“There is no space, they cannot afford to be able to accept a lower paid job that has more impact. But I also think it’s the responsibility of the people who have the resources and the privilege to be the ones to make the first move. And I will never claim that I know everything. But I’m going to use what I can to take that first step and pave the way for people to get through it.”

He could take on more lucrative commercial contracts, but he also wants to nurture talent.

He says that the world will not fail if there is one less person working in banking, but the world would be greatly improved if there is one more person working in economic development.

Spazzoli hopes the consulting agency will end up competing with the larger agencies, while ensuring they work from an impactful perspective, creating solutions from scratch.

If you had a big vision for the work you’re doing, it would be to help government and businesses support small businesses. While there are initiatives, he adds that they are often not really effective, such as mentoring programs; after all, one needs to have capital to run a project.

Tangent

Tiang Moabelo asked Spazzoli for guidance. Moabelo had been taking people’s stuff out of the dorms for $30 to help cover his college fees and cost of living.

Moabelo quickly built LoadaLot into one of the most successful student businesses at the time. Spazzoli made a small investment and got a French investor to come on board, which allowed LoadaLot to build an online system, turning the company into a technology-based start-up.

“But more than having the impact of helping his business, he now employs six people. It’s been a monumental amount of work, but at the same time, that’s a change that has meant six people can feed their families and six people can contribute to their work. And the way it’s structured, everyone has something to say: it’s a horizontally organized business.”

There are many projects that Spazzoli is ardent about, preferring to shine a light on people like Moabelo. He still lectures at UCT and always champions people’s efforts.

In the years to come, this motivated individual is sure to turn sparks into warm homes and light the fires of sustainable business.

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