Teaching the business of social change


Altino Louw’s business turns plastic bags into handbags. It also employs uneducated people from the community in which he grew up. He’s a student of an academy that’s solving social problems by creating entrepreneurs who solve problems. Clearly.

It’s the perfect example of addressing social issues from the inside out. First, identify entrepreneurial individuals from challenging communities. Then give them the training and support they need to start or run their own businesses. In many cases, these businesses will fill gaps and meet challenges within the communities the social entrepreneurs know so well. In other words, the solutions come from the inside, not some external, theoretical place. That’s also how things are taught at the Raymond Ackerman Academy of Entrepreneurial Development (RAA).

Raymond Ackerman is known for building a powerful business. But he’s also known for building empowered business people. In January 2005, he established the Academy, in partnership with the UCT Graduate School of Business. The vision? To offer quality education to young South Africans who have financial or socioeconomic challenges, so they can improve their own lives and make a difference in their communities. The result? The latest statistics show that of the 400 graduates to date, 81% are economically active and 40 are running their own businesses.

This is just the beginning.

Good Teaching for Good Business

My own experiences and work in the development sector have shown me that the playing fields are still far from equal in South Africa. So the need for an entrepreneurial academy cannot be stressed enough.

Entrepreneurship empowers individuals to create businesses that employ, empower and uplift other people. It’s a skill that has the potential to play a vital role in creating a vibrant and sustainable economy for the benefit of all South Africans. The question is, how should it be taught?

At the RAA, we have three main areas of focus: Business skills development, innovation and business idea development, and personal development. This is a more holistic approach to education, but we feel that it’s essential in helping young entrepreneurs develop all the skills that will lead to their success.” – Elli Yiannakairs, Director of RAA

This holistic approach is directly in line with Raymond Ackerman’s own business philosophy. He believes that “doing good is good business”. In fact, the strategy he used to build Pick n Pay is what he calls “the four legs of the table”:

  1. Administration
  2. Merchandise
  3. Advertising and Social Responsibility
  4. People

Not Just Business People, But People

Ackerman’s four-legged strategy considers people an essential component of any solid business base. So the RAA aims to develop students not just as entrepreneurs, but also as people (which helps make them better entrepreneurs in the end). “The most exciting thing about my job is working with young people who are resilient and inspiring,” says Yiannakairs. “Being a part of their transformation and future journeys is what I love best.”

As personal development facilitator at the RAA, I couldn’t agree more. Of course the training is strong on economic know-how and hard business skills. But it’s also rich in self-exploration and personal development, both of which help to create nuanced business people who then go on to make a difference to other people through their ideas and work.

It’s a privilege to interact with these people and witness this process every day. It’s a four-legged, full-circle effect that I’m happy to be a part of.

Students doing good

  • Sizwe Nzima (RAA graduate, January 2012) was listed on the 2013 Forbes magazine’s ‘30 Under 30: Africa’s Best Young Entrepreneurs’ for his innovative business, Iyeza Express.The business delivers chronic medication by bicycle to patients in Khayelitsha township, so they don’t have to stand in long queues at clinics and hospitals.
  • Abigail Florence (January 2010) won third place in the 2013 National Shanduka Black Umbrellas Incubator Business Awards for her business, Elves at Work. The clever company uses seamstresses from the struggling textile industry to custom-make interior decorating accessories. Sewing and craft training are also offered.
  • Darren Barnes (January 2008) was profiled in the July 2013 Financial Mail in the feature, ‘Darren Barnes is 25 years old: success story’. His homegrown below-the-line agency, Perfect Solutions, now turns over R10 million a year. More importantly, it employs 16 permanent staff, uses 300 temps and offers internships to support local entrepreurial individuals.
  • Melilizwe “Meli” Gqobo (January 2012) is co-founder and partner at The Hubspace Khayalitsha. It’s a shared office space in the Cape Town township that provides much-needed resources for local entrepreneurs – there are currently 20 sponsored members, 14 of which are small businesses and the rest NPOs.

South Africa has a lot of money to invest in entrepreneurs; one just has to knock on the right doors. Our hope is that we will serve as a safety net for young entrepreneurs who need continued support or who are just starting out.” – Meli Gqobo, RAA Graduate 2012

RAA Alumni in Numbers (as per April 2013)


  • working:   210
  • with own business:    40
  • studying:    37
  • learnerships:    4
  • looking for employment:    28
  • not contactable:    40

– 13 graduates are currently studying and working

How the course works

The Raymond Ackerman Academy of Entrepreneurial Development (RAA) runs a six-month short course for a class of around 40 students at a time. Many students need to become economically active as soon as possible, so studying for longer than six months would be difficult for them.

The programme is a registered short course at the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Business. This means students graduate with a UCT short course qualification (pitched at NQF Level 5) from what is considered the best business school in Africa.

The selection process is stringent and thorough as significant resources are invested in these students (on average R20,000 each).

In general, applicants need to have completed school. But this is not a hard-and-fast rule – we work on a case-by-case basis and the person is more important that the paperwork.

“Our plans are to continue to innovate in providing quality education. We’ve also realised that some graduates need ongoing support after the course. That’s why we started the Graduate Entrepreneur Support Service (GESS) programme, which piloted in 2013 and will run in 2014. We’re very excited about this programme… excited to see what comes next.”
– Elli Yiannakairs, Director, Raymond Ackerman Academy of Entrepreneurial Development

→ Interview with Altino Louw, RAA class of 2013


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