Young African Leaders

Episode 15 Sandiso Sibisi – Entrepreneur at Accenture, leading Open Innovation in Africa

Episode 15

Sandiso Sibisi – Entrepreneur at Accenture, leading Open Innovation in Africa

How The Journey Began

Sandiso was born in King Edward Hospital in Durban. Her family settled in Eskhawini, a township outside Richard’s Bay. She went to Portshepstone Boarding School, where she learnt to be independent. After matric, she went to Wits University and did a BCom in Information Systems. She also did her Honours in Information Systems. Her dream was to study Fashion design, but her parents did not believe it was a sustainable career. Looking back, she sees that her parents had her best interests at heart. Life has turned out well for her in the path that she chose, and she will be doing something for SA Fashion Week this year, but she is doing it using technology. So it has all come together somehow – her Information Systems Education and her love for fashion design.

In her third year, when she began to think about where she wanted to work, Sandiso applied to work for Accenture, as it was at the time and still is the best IT Consulting Company. They declined her application. The decline was her first heddle of failure. Her desire to work for them didn’t die with the decline, but she told herself she will work for them no matter what. KPMG offered her a position to join their IT team, but she decided to go back to varsity to do her 4th year so that she could try again with Accenture.

Her parents were not going to finance her 4th year studies, they wanted her to go look for work and pay for her own Honours Degree. So she went looking for scholarships. She came across the Accenture scholarship and applied for it, and got it. A year later she joined Accenture as an Analyst doing typical consulting work. She was focused on the production and supply chain realm of things – helping clients understand data challenges and costing challenges. She also learnt a lot about how to run a plant. As she continued to work, she realized she had served really well in her consulting career and had done a good job and excelled in it. It was time for a new venture.

Born to Succeed

So she started Born To Succeed – an NGO for developing young women.  She had somehow started it before it became official because she had already started helping other people on their own initiatives and she realized that nobody was doing anything for young unemployed women. There was a large number of women in that gap – they had gotten matric and thereafter were unemployed and had nowhere to go. Her aim was to be the bridge between and companies that were looking to staff young unemployed people.

A lot of the girls they worked with were blacklisted and couldn’t work for the retail industry. Born To Succeed would come in to vouch for them, saying they have taken these girls through a course and believe they can work for whatever company was looking for someone. What they actually did was to take them through workshops on Saturdays, train them and get them a mentor. They gave these young women resources, tools, and the access they needed.

Accenture Development Partnerships

In her consulting career, Sandiso had done a lot of commercial work and she was ready to walk out of consulting and Accenture let her know that there was something called the Accenture Development Partnerships. They could see that she was interested in development as she was doing the Born to Succeed venture on the side. She applied for it and got it.

Accenture Development Partnerships works with what they call “a consultant that walks on water”. It positioned her well for what she is currently doing because what they do is to work with NPOs, the United Nations, and World Banks. She got to meet a lot of influential people. They attended conferences where one would be most likely to meet people like the deputy president of the country, the United Nations secretary general, the directors, and many other influential people. One of the expectations was that the participants in the program would build their own business, so Sandiso’s business was around agriculture and energy. She was expected to identify or meet potential clients and eventually turn that into an opportunity deal. So basically, she would land a project, staff a project, and get it off the ground. Typically, in an Accenture career, one is offered that opportunity at about 8 years in the practice, but she got an opportunity to do it prematurely, compared to her other peers. And what that did for her was to teach her things like: being a business owner – what it takes to build a business, what you do when building a business. And she is very grateful for those skills and the fact that she got them at such a young age, because it surely paved the way for everything else that she did thereafter.

Young African Leaders Initiative

Sandiso applied for the Young African Leaders Initiative in 2013 and did not get it. One thing that she has learnt in her career is “valuing God’s timing”. At the time when she wanted it in 2013 she felt deserving as she had built the NGO that had helped change and shape lives and had had a great career at Accenture. But she is now grateful that she did not get it at that time because she was not ready. Getting it after doing Born to Succeed (and it having been run for 3 years), having gone through the Accenture Development Program, she was now ready. And it shows because once she went to the YALI Mandela Washington Fellowship, she came back really walking on water.

Young African Leaders Initiative is a great African youth program run by the United States government, where they identify young African leaders in the field of business, civic leadership, and government. You are then deployed to the US for 6 weeks in a university. You go during the US summer, which is during July. You are basically taken through an orientation program of some sort whereby you are rotating around a couple of companies and you learn about how US people do things. So a typical day looks like this:

  • Morning lectures
  • Afternoon panel discussions or off-site tours
  • An evening engagement – in a week they would go to 3 or 4 evening engagements hosted by the mayor, or go for the law faculty’s ball, etc.

That experience helped her build the right partnerships. Because she went there when she had built something solid, she knew exactly what she was looking for. And she thinks it’s very important that when one goes to such programs they actually are clear on what they want to get out of that experience. If she had gone there in 2013 she wouldn’t have been as intentional as she was now. She thanks the Lord for making sure that she waited until 2016.


She came back from the US in August 2016 and then built Khwela. She had learnt of young women who can’t access tertiary education because it is expensive and far from home. So she had a desire to give them access to tertiary education by building a curriculum on a mobile application. She built and piloted it in April 2017. When she entered a competition to actually pitch it at the World Bank Youth Summit in Washington DC in November, she won it. The reception was great and they managed to raise some funds for Khwela and successfully piloted it. But, the project failed.

Challenges that caused Khwela to fail:

  • Money. What it is going to take to enable tertiary education on a mobile device is a lot of money and a lot of time.
  • Timing. When it comes to start-ups, one of the biggest contributors to success is timing.
  • Lack of infrastructure. In South Africa we don’t really have good 3G infrastructure rolled out in all areas. So that is a challenge.
  • Affordability. A smartphone is also still a very expensive device in Africa. Even if you were to give someone the smartphone, they would struggle to access the internet. Even if they had a phone and were just worried about data, Data plans are very expensive in Africa.

Failure was due to wrong timing and not clearly understanding the market that they were working with. They just thought if one has data, one would be able to learn. Not knowing that the problems with infrastructure and affordability would slow them down and cause them not to reach their target market.

Khwela was piloted in different training centres. People were able to use it in a training centre, whereas the idea was that they be able to use it at home, or wherever they are. They found out that such culture doesn’t exist in Rural Areas. Even people who use Facebook use it as a tabloid where they are able to know what their friends are doing and meet people on it. The transition from people seeing the smartphone as an actual tool that could be used as an education platform is very far. So the application was used in class, and when they finished the course they just forgot about it. There was also a lack of drive due to the notion among young people that doing these courses did not guarantee employment. They had seen many people with qualifications but no jobs, and there was Khwela selling education as a means to employment.

Khwela was mostly built for people who can’t access tertiary institutions. People in rural areas where nobody goes. If it couldn’t help such people, it lost its original cause. They had already been doing staff in Johannesburg through Born to Succeed, which was impactful. But they were struggling to reach the rural areas. Another thing was that in order to commercialize the program, they were looking for big numbers, and the big numbers are in the rural areas. They are now working on a non-monetized plan whereby they will create a community of Khwela users and wait for infrastructure to improve and smartphones to get cheaper. When that happens, they will come back on full force, because then the market can access their service.

Social Entrepreneurship Program

Sandiso had gone to study Social Entrepreneurship in 2016. After the World Bank Youth Summit in the US, she came back to SA for a week and then went to Singapore, where she did a Social Entrepreneurship Program. She was afforded that because she had the right ADP Experience and she got a scholarship from them, so she did the course. She met amazing people who helped her draw up how Khwela would look like from a business point of view and helped her shape it. So that is why in the beginning of 2017 she went and piloted it.

Open Innovation in Africa

After the Khwela experience, having realized Khwela was not going to make her money, she applied to study in the UK to do a Masters in Development Finance. She got as far as getting her scholarship. Again, all the work she had done – Born to Succeed, Khwela, etc. was a build-up to being afforded a scholarship. While Sandiso was preparing herself to go study, Accenture was looking for someone to help them build the Open Innovation Business and she agreed to help them till August as she was going to study in the UK. So she helped them draw it up, map it, and see how they were going to work it out. Then they approached her with an offer to look after Open Innovation in Africa. She took the offer after speaking to mentors and her executive coach. They helped her think about what this meant. Firstly, she is a young black female; secondly, that innovation space is so untapped right now. So this meant she was going to be the first woman in innovation in the country, and also in Africa. Her mentors advised her that she can always study, but this opportunity must be utilized now.

She is very excited about Open Innovation from an Africa perspective because she feels like we, as Africa, actually have the biggest opportunity in really becoming the most innovative continent in the world because we have got the most problems. When there are lots of problems, there are lots of solutions. She is also excited about just seeing how much young people have actually embraced technology and innovation. She sees people do more innovative things nowadays, and she sees entrepreneurs really pushing the boundaries and coming up with very interesting business models. She is therefore very hopeful. We are in a time where young people are excited, it’s just that sometimes the excitement doesn’t meet the opportunity. The timing is quiet a challenge, and she is trying to build programs that speak to young people and their needs and get them to the next level.

Open Innovation is a bridge between Accenture and Innovators outside of Accenture, i.e. start-ups, labs, universities – people that are doing ground breaking innovative work projects. What they do is to basically bring those innovators to Accenture. They identify clients with problems and go to the market and search for people that can help them solve the problem. Accenture has become a very big organization, meaning that their innovation curve is becoming a bit flatter. If a corporate is very big, doing something can take about 3 months, whereas a start-up can do it in 1 week. So when they look to start-ups, they look for market validated products that the start-ups have done, products that clients can use to implement their businesses tomorrow. So they look for start-ups around the emerging technology space. Around block-chain, around artificial intelligence. Start-ups that are doing ground-braking work and very innovative products. They then demonstrate these solutions to their clients and their clients usually love them. It does 2 things:

  1. Clients love working with young people and effective start-ups.
  2. They are bringing a product that is market valid. They are not saying to the client let’s go and build this product, they say they have an existing product they can bring to solve the problem. The delivery times are obviously shortened, and clients love that.

Accenture is interested in giving their clients the best solutions, and sometimes finding the best solution means they have to look outside Accenture. So that is why they embrace Open Innovation.

Successful Business Models

In her experience, she feel like many start-ups in Africa are really struggling with the commercialization aspect. She has seen so many great ideas, but very weak business models. She is not sure whether it is because we are not exposed to many business models but it is difficult to find business models that stand out. It is difficult to find sound business models.

The first thing she would ask is that “what’s your business model? How do you make your money?” she gets contradicting answers. Some people are still doing it because it makes sense doing it, they are not thinking about how they are going to make money out of it. Some people have the business model, it’s just that it is as strong as it is supposed to be. It is not going to make the millions you want it to make. She hasn’t created a start-up that has made a million rands but when she looks at a start-up that’s if going to be successful, that start-up needs to be solving a problem for at least a million people to make a million. A lot of problems she sees do not really have that kind of market value. Successful business models are the ones that are able to get people on a platform and then monetize it to get profit.

People in Africa do not buy applications. So do not make people buy your app because they will not buy it. Rather build an app that has a freemium model and a premium model. The important thing is to get people on a platform, then you can find ways to monetize the application later.

There are not many start-ups serving the B2B market. Many of them are serving the B2C market. There is lot of money to be made in the B2B market compared to the B2C.

Structuring an NGO business model in a manner that is sustainable

There are a lot of good social businesses in Africa. MPESA is a great example. They are successful because people are paying for the service. If the problem you are solving is a real problem, then people will pay for it. So ask yourself how big the problem you are solving is.

The reason why NGO’s are struggling is because they have not been asked for the past twenty or thirty decades to justify or to even have a business model.

Donors are now wanting to spread themselves thin. They are wanting to do agriculture, energy, education, etc. and if they want to cut across these different areas they are going to have to invest in one thing and focus on it and then move on to the next one. If you are not sustainable, they cannot find you because you will always be on the receiving end that stops them from doing the next thing. It is therefore important that if you are solving a social problem, people can pay for it. She is in a good position to say this because having done Born to Succeed, she realizes that their biggest mistake was not running it as a social enterprise. She realizes that she could have charged the companies she was giving good candidates to, and they could have made money from the girls they got jobs for by making them pay them once they get the jobs. There were so many opportunities that they could have exploited but they did not think of that. We need to be solving problems that are big enough that people would pay for them.


In terms of her leadership journey

  1. Wherever she goes, she is there to learn and engage. She loves learning and meeting other like-minded people. She loves people and thinks that they are very important in making anything happen.
  2. She is able to build relationships capitalize on those relationships. She values people and relationships.
  3. God’s timing and patience. She has learnt to wait for when it is her turn. When it is your turn, it always exceeds your expectations. But at the time when you are grinding and there is no traction, you doubt yourself and wonder if you are doing something good. But it is important to do good work even when no one is watching because you are actually building a skill that you will need for that breakthrough that is going to come when the time is right.

Habits that are key to Sandiso’s success

  1. She keeps a note book – she loves lists and writes lists everywhere she goes. She sleeps with a note book at night, in case an idea comes while she sleeps then she is able to scribble it.
  2. She exercises, she runs to clear her mind and she gets great ideas.
  3. She relies on the strength from her family and friends. A strong support structure is important because you always get “No’s”. 95% of the responses she gets is No. She responds by just trying again. There is no harm in trying. Sandiso is very persistent person who just keeps trying again and again until she gets what she wants. That is probably one of the reasons why she has become what people consider “successful at a young age”. She processes a No by telling herself there are bigger things ahead.


Plan and visualize for the year. Have a vision board. Stick it up in a place where you will see it every time. It is nice to get to tick what you have accomplished.

Book Recommendation

Platform Revolution by Geoffrey Parker, Marshall Van Alstyne, and Sangeet Paul Choudary.

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