Isak Pretorius is the Africa regional honoree for the 2021 YPO Global Impact Award. The award focuses on YPO members making an impact outside the organization that is both sustainable and scalable, affecting people, prosperity, peace or our planet.
While aid in Africa is often associated with international organizations, for YPO South African member and JAM International (JAM) Group Executive Director Isak Pretorius, sustainable impact needs to be more aligned with community members and the private sector. Founded in 1984 by his parents, Peter and Ann Pretorius, as a development organization providing aid to vulnerable communities in Mozambique, JAM has scaled its operation to seven countries, directly helping tens of millions out of poverty. In 2018, it was awarded the prestigious Presidents Ubuntu Award by the South African President, recognizing the outstanding work done by a South African organization across the African continent.
For Pretorius, who has been in leadership positions in the humanitarian and business sectors for the past two decades, the COVID-19 experience is a powerful reminder of the importance of engaging the private sector for truly transformative local-led action. “Now more than ever, we need to evolve our understanding of traditional aid work and bring the for-profit and nonprofit worlds closer together,” he says.
Roots in Africa and her people
While growing up, Peter Pretorius would take his son to refugee camps or malnutrition clinics during school vacations. “I learned a lot from these early experiences,” says Pretorius. “I think the beauty of being a child is you see the world in a simplistic way. I grew up connected with these kids and experienced through their eyes life in humanitarian disaster places like Mozambique, Congo and Angola.”
These early experiences also created a deep connection with the continent and her people. “I have a sense of belonging to our continent. I often describe myself as an African first and a South African second. South Africa happens to be the country on the continent I was born into. But growing up, I felt like I was part of the continent, intertwined with its people,” says Pretorius.
As he grew into adulthood, Pretorius also recognized the potential for Africans to build their own future and break from the colonial past. “Whether that’s enabling a community to feed itself, or an economy to reach its potential, the personal challenge, and opportunity, has been recognizing the potential and trying to ensure that we make that potential become a reality for Africa to thrive.”
Complementing humanitarianism with entrepreneurialism
“There’s always been an entrepreneur inside of me,” says Pretorius, who started his first business when he was 10 years old selling American baseball caps brought from a trip to the United States. “My heart has always existed in the impact side of things, but my head has always existed in the business world. At times it’s been an immense conflict for me, partly because I grew up thinking you had to be a part of one world or the other — you either served humanity or business. My heart was in one place and my head was in the other.”
After graduating with a business degree, he joined his father’s organization, working his way up from office driver. In 2012, combining his interest in the business and humanitarian sectors, he became involved in private equity and impact investment. He is currently the Co-founder and CEO of Afriscope, a business activator in sub-Saharan Africa marketplace, while continuing to lead JAM.
“What my dad had built on the humanitarian side of things had an incredible impact. But as we continued to save lives and stabilize situations, I felt we weren’t transforming the environment. Could we guarantee that the next generation of children would not be living in a similar condition?” says Pretorius. “Traditional aid creates perpetual poverty, a more comfortable form of poverty that people exist in for longer. It does not transform lives and allow people to thrive.”
Using his business relations and experience, Pretorius led JAM to follow a community development approach, with business collaboration and impact as an integral component of its humanitarian offering.
As a result of these efforts, JAM has been able to scale the overall impact of the organization to become one of Africa’s largest indigenous nonprofit organizations — directly assisting more than 20 million in the past 25 years and increasing the organization’s annual fundraising from USD6 million to the current USD58 million.
Helping communities in the wake of a pandemic
Since COVID-19 lockdowns started to impact African countries in March 2020, poverty levels began to accelerate. “In South Africa alone, close to 3 million people lost their jobs last year. The number of people that we were providing direct assistance to went from just over 100,000 to close to 500,000 in the space of a few months. While we were dealing with that on the one side, on the other side, small businesses were being obliterated as a result of COVID-19 and the economic impact,” says Pretorius.
In response, JAM designed and spearheaded an electronic food voucher system designed to improve COVID-19 food basket distributions. The program helped increase social distancing and reduce food lines while incorporating the commercial supply chain, including small traders, into the distribution and providing a closed loop proof of impact to donors. “While scaling our reach by fourfold in a short time, we addressed the business challenge because we need these small traders to survive.”
In the initial six months from launching the voucher system, JAM issued more than 25,000 vouchers, providing more than 3 million meals in partnership with 443 small- to medium-sized enterprise (SME) partners. The system was launched in South Africa and is now being rolled out across five additional African countries and expanded beyond just food distribution to other sectors of JAM activities such as agricultural development. In total, 3.9 million lives were impacted positively in 2020 because of JAM’s interventions, more than 150 million meals delivered, saved nearly 80,000 dying from malnutrition, drilled and equipped 110 new water points (boreholes) to provide water and sanitation to more than 150,000 people and provided COVID-19 education to over 1 million people.
Traditional aid creates perpetual poverty, a more comfortable form of poverty that people exist in for longer. It does not transform lives and allow people to thrive. ”
— Isak Pretorius, Co-founder & CEO of Afriscope and JAM International Group Executive Director share
Businesses and humanitarian organizations working side by side
As Pretorius continues to advise business leaders on ways to shift from the traditional aid model to developing more commercially sustainable solutions, he offers the following advice:
- Understand the community that you are targeting for impact. For Pretorius, business leaders should personally take the time to understand the community needs, “otherwise, you build the bridge to nowhere.” He adds that while the head of your Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) can be a great administrator, business leaders need to take ownership and show a personal level of commitment to help ensure successful intervention.
- Be true to your business values and offering. Staying relevant to the business values and offering makes good business sense, says Pretorius. “I always like to communicate to other CEOs to start by looking at the community their business operates in to see how best to serve that community. I believe that when the impact is good for your business, not just good for the community, it will become more sustainable.”
- Act out of empathy. Whatever aid objective, the actions must come from a place of empathy, says Pretorius, not from pity or guilt. “When actions are rooted in genuine empathy, based on community understanding and relationship building, it (the program) engineers far greater impact. Act out of empathy rather than pity, and out of commitment rather than guilt.”
- Empower local communities. Investing in developing local communities is key to the investment’s sustainability, says Pretorius. In South Sudan, JAM employs more than 300 people, of which 98% are South Sudanese. “Why would they exit the country? They are serving their people.” In another example in one area in South Sudan, more than 60,000 people have benefitted from the production output of 985 nutrition gardens, owned and run by women. These small farms enable families to grow commodities and guard against malnutrition while producing sufficient crops to sell on local markets. “This shifts (aid) from humanitarian assistance to development aid to building business and building economies. As programs develop along that whole continuum from nonprofit to for-profit, the focus shifts from humanitarian, lifesaving assistance to development to business building.”
- Have the long view but set tangible targets. Business leaders need to take the long view, says Pretorius. “It (aid) is not a one-off project. It’s a long-term commitment,” says Pretorius. “As in building a new business, you don’t expect it to deliver high returns in year one. But set tangible targets and measure each step of the way.”
As for his personal objective, Pretorius says his mission for a thriving Africa is lifelong and multi-generational, but he also celebrates with each small success. “Seeing the individual transformations — when a mother takes her child home from a malnutrition clinic alive, when a woman sells her agriculture products in their local market, or when a small trader survives because of our virtual system — that’s thriving,” he says. “The ability to provide better opportunities for children is what keeps me going. As Nelson Mandela said, ‘The true character of society is revealed in how it treats its children.’”