Africans abroad: Living the dream — in South Africa

In 2008, Sandras Phiri and his wife decided to up sticks and move overseas to take advantage of larger economies and more opportunities than they had at home. At first, they looked at Europe. The more they looked, the more they realised that Europe wasn’t for them. Instead, they chose something a little closer to home — Cape Town, South Africa.

Asked why South Africa and not Europe, Phiri laughs as he says: “Well, my wife and I did our research. We realised that the costs of moving and setting up a company would be too high … and the weather on that side of the world was much too cold for us.” 

The 41-year-old now runs his business out of one of Africa’s startup hotspots, Cape Town. But his affability and salesmanship suggest he is the kind of person who would thrive anywhere.

Phiri’s self-confessed “life goal” of “touching other people’s lives” comes from early childhood experiences, including losing his parents while in high school, a situation that almost scuttled his ambition for university. But, after graduating from high school in 1997, he was able to attend Copperbelt University in Zambia’s mining capital of Kitwe, thanks to a bursary from the Zambian government and support from his older siblings.

That university experience brought his first, crucial, entrepreneurial lessons and experiences. Still short of the full amount required, he started his first business, selling alcohol. Discovering that there was a ready market in and beyond his university, he applied himself to it with a passion. The business grew and spread well beyond his local market. 

Held back by a limited market 

After graduating, Phiri’s business interests took him in a different direction. He decided to use the skills picked up in computer science classes to start a website development company. It wasn’t long after his new business started doing well that he realised the limited size of the local market was holding him back. By then he was married and the decision to move abroad was a mutual one, for him and his wife. 

Their chosen destination of Cape Town had its challenges, too, he said. These weren’t just the difficulties concerning immigration paperwork that often trip up would-be emigrants. It may have been African but it was still a foreign city and took some getting used to.

“At first, we lived in a windy room in Tableview. I used to brag about it because I thought it was something luxurious. My friends told me otherwise though,” Phiri said, with a chuckle.

“Back home” things weren’t going so well. His company, Webdev, had started to flounder. Phiri was learning one of his most valuable business lessons. “You can’t leave other people to run your business when it’s not fully automated and easily monitored from afar.”

Business in their adopted country was also proving tougher than expected. Simply replicating his Zambian business model wasn’t working. Business dynamics were different and the business was not a fit. The couple were burning through cash and rent payments were looming.

“Soon, the money ran out as our small business ventures weren’t generating money fast enough. I had to find a job. Just when I was panicking that we would get kicked out, I got hired and started work at a place that gave a weekly salary,” he said. 

While employed, he began registering and developing his own companies. 

South Africa requires that new companies be registered through the Companies and Intellectual Properties Commission. That’s now an online process that can be completed in a couple of days. Back then it was more difficult, particularly for a foreigner. But Phiri persevered.

Between 2009 and 2022, Phiri registered multiple companies in IT, entertainment and education. Pranary, his latest, is the one that has allowed him to realise his dream of touching other lives and making a difference.  

The company, which specialises in practical entrepreneurial education for students in Africa and the world, claims to have already helped 50 people launch their enterprises and access funding of more than $1.5-million. It is more than just a school for entrepreneurs, however; it is Phiri’s way of sharing his life experience with young business people and teaching them that there are opportunities in Africa.

Ditch the business plan for a pitch 

“One of the first things that I tell aspiring entrepreneurs is to ditch their business plans. No one reads them, believe me. Banks don’t read them, nor do investors. Create a pitch deck,” Phiri said. 

He believes that teaching people to start up and run businesses effectively will breathe life into Africa’s economy and solve the unemployment situation on the continent. The company’s business name comes from the Sanskrit word prana, meaning “life-force”. 

Teaming up with successful business entrepreneurs worldwide, Phiri allows them to share their stories and techniques with aspiring entrepreneurs, especially the youth. 

“Entrepreneurship is tactical. It’s not a thing that courses based on theory can truly get. You need information you can apply right there and then and not after three or four years,” he said.

Recent mentors have included US millionaire angel investor Sarah Dusek of Enygma Ventures and billionaire unicorn Uri Levine, who started Waze and Moovit. 

Phiri usually holds his events at the Workshop 17 in Cape Town’s busy Kloof Street, one of a number of co-working spaces in the city where would-be entrepreneurs can attend events in person with those from outside of Cape Town. Phiri also engages aspiring young entrepreneurs such as IT entrepreneur Brian Mlambo.

Phiri’s business reaches across Africa and beyond, with students also attending remotely from Slovenia, Turkey, Sweden and the US, with the list of countries growing by the month. The engagement with experienced startup founders and fellow entrepreneurs, especially those who have run startups in Africa, is a big attraction. 

One alumnus is Munyaradzi Dzvene from Zimbabwe, whose pitch deck got him funding for his sustainable food solutions business, Protéin Kings, from a top local bank in Zimbabwe. This was quite a feat in a country without established structures for start-up funding.

“Attending one of Pranary’s workshops at Workshop 17 at V&A Waterfront in Cape Town, which gets broadcast on Zoom for the world to see, was an eye-opener,” said Bupe Mparuri, a University of Cape Town student.

“I’m not sure I want to be an entrepreneur yet, but having the full information to know which path to take truly is very empowering,” Mparuri said.

“It’s a testament that ideas can bring people together in ways no other medium can. People of all ages, races, religions and ethnicities gather and share their business experiences, making it a truly diverse setting.” 

Owen Francis, another alumnus, reiterated Phiri’s message of empowering through shared experience, something Phiri emphasises during the workshops, where participants are often asked to interact with their “exact opposites” in the room.

“It’s great to meet entrepreneurs of all ages and in different stages of their entrepreneurial journey. It motivates you in your ventures.”

It’s that direct communication of an actual experience that Phiri believes is so important.

“You can’t teach a child to ride a bike using text messages,” Phiri said. 

Phiri still lives in Tableview. That early experience may have been tough but it proved useful; it led to the couple discovering Tableview as an area full of entrepreneurially-minded individuals — many of them from elsewhere in South Africa as well as from all over the continent, including many in tech or IT. 

It also turned out to be a community that was safe and welcoming of other African professionals. “It feels African,” said Phiri, who now travels business class, stays in five-star hotels and dines at high-end restaurants.


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