South Africa’s Social Entrepreneurs

South Africa suffers a reputation for horrendous human problems alongside amazing nature. News about what is right within the country rarely breaks through the cacophony of wrongs reported across the Atlantic Ocean. So, during a trip there earlier this month, imagine my delight to discover many inspiring examples of successful social entrepreneurs who are moving the country forward.

In fact, these individuals have created or are growing the bright spots in this beautiful country.  They’ve built businesses and grown nonprofits around their passions or to give back to a place they love while also developing opportunities for others. In reality, South Africa offers our country examples of a better way forward too.

Intriguingly, two of the South African families with whom we spent time — the Vardys and the Steyns — were close to Nelson Mandela after he was released from prison. Their insights and examples helped formulate Mandela’s vision for governing the country post apartheid. But, wherever we went, we experienced other inspiring examples too.

Londolozi and The Varty Family

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More than 40 years ago, as mere teenagers, Dave and John Varty founded Londolozi as one of the first ever non-hunting, eco-tourism models of conservation in Southern Africa. Londolozi means “protector of all living things” in Zulu. The brothers did this in order to keep the land they loved in their family following their father’s sudden death. Please learn more here.

Most of the world thought the boys were crazy. However, they not only proved the naysayers wrong, but they also launched the ecotourism industry, which ultimately lifted broad swaths of rural Africa out of poverty and has spread across the globe. Tourists pay well to stay in luxury accommodations, dine on locally-sourced food and experience extraordinary nature and wildlife at the side of well-trained, well-informed guides. The direct result of this is that surrounding communities enjoy employment, economic opportunity, education and other benefits.

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Sunset cocktail hour — a safari tradition.

As Dave explains during a talk he gave during our visit and in his book, “The Full Circle,” “What emerged was the Londolozi model for conservation development — linking land, wildlife and people together in a hospitality and interpretive wildlife viewing experience.”

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Dave Varty

My photos are inadequate to demonstrate the wonder of our safari experiences, which inspired a more profound awe for nature. (Watch videos on my Instagram page here and here.)

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South-Africa-zebra

Soon, the Varty conservation development model had become a blue print. They exported the model all over Africa and others copied their approach too. The model was even endorsed by former South African president and humanitarian, Nelson Mandela, who visited Londolozi during the year following his release from prison. In the words of Madiba, “Londolozi represents a model of the dream I cherish for the future nature preservation in our country.”

Buntu Philosophy and the Good Work Foundation

The Vartys now explicitly run Londolozi as a social enterprise, based on the Zulu philosophy of Ubuntu — “I am because you are.” During his talk, Dave asks guests to remember, “We are because you are. Because you are here, we employ 250 people, which supports 2,500 when you include their families and helps all the surrounding communities too.”

Londolozi also supports an NGO called the Good Work Foundation. Varty claims that this foundation is creating an education revolution and uplifting rural communities by giving them access to world class education through cutting-edge technology. They have established a number of digital learning centers in areas surrounding Londolozi. More than 10,000 students per year pass through the schools.

The Vardy vision is to do far more to develop Londolozi as a “socially, economically and environmentally responsible business” that creates new systems of living that use land and humans to their highest potential too. They are bold social entrepreneurs indeed.

The Steyn Family, Mobaneng and the Ottery Youth and Education Center

Mandela also spent a great deal of time with the Steyn family, according to the Financial TimesDouw Steyn is one of South Africa’s most successful insurance, technology and real estate entrepreneurs. His wife when Mandela was released from prison, Liz, a former social worker, insisted that they do all they could to help him and the transition away from apartheid. Liz and Douw are now divorced. She is still a determined, feisty social entrepreneur.

Steyn’s sons Louis and TJ act from similar convictions too; most definitely they are their mother’s sons. They set up a foundation in her honor — the Elizabeth Margaret Steyn Foundation (EMSF). We were fortunate to spend time with all of them and see their social entrepreneur successes in action.

Louis and TJ were raised in Johannesburg, a city that has suffered substantial crime and decline in the past decade. Determined to help, they recently redeveloped the area known as “Maboneng Precinct” — transforming abandoned buildings and infrastructure into a hip artistic and entertainment district supporting a plethora of other entrepreneurial efforts. They intend keep this virtuous circle of investment and growth going too.

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TJ is on my left and Louis is on my right at dinner in a restaurant at Saxon Hotel, which was the home they grew up in.

Because the current government is widely perceived as corrupt and inept, it is not likely that public support will help fix what is broken in this city. It will be the Steyns and other social entrepreneurs like them who are determined to redeem and rebuild the city they love, creating opportunities for others as they do.

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Maboneng. An excellent example of before and after renovation work.

Liz acts on her belief that “when you transform one child’s life, you transform their family, you can transform their community too. One-hundred percent!” She served as a trustee of the Nelson Mandela Childrens Fund because of this. She now runs EMS similarly. She proudly gave us a tour of the Ottery Youth and Education Center to demonstrate a program that works and is worthy of greater support. Here, students receive skills training as well as the good education that is possible with small groups, in brightly colored classrooms with attentive, caring teachers.

The computer center, donated by EMSF, was recently dedicated too. But Liz laments, “We need to double the size of this school, which will compound the improvement for others.”

She continues, “The corporations doing business in South Africa are the most logical supporters for this type of school.”

Train the next generation of employees while reducing the population still disenfranchised from apartheid days. With this suggestion, Steyn champions a win/win virtuous circle similar to the ecotourism model.

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From left: Liz Steyn, Principal Moosa Mahadick, my daughter Skatie, me, and my son-in-law Ed

She has more than enough passion and determination to make it happen too. “I’m terrible at looking out for myself. I would just give everything away.” She giggles, “But I am ruthless at asking on behalf of others!”

Principal Moosa Mahadick offers the YouTube video below as further explanation of the Center’s work, but a better one is in development. During our tour, we met two UCLA graduate students making a documentary about the school.


We experienced many other examples of the social entrepreneur spirit and virtuous circle making that seems to be at the heart of current South Africa success too.

Camp Jabulani and the Endangered Species Research Center

Lente Roode turned the farm she grew up on into a refuge for young abandoned cheetahs and elephants who otherwise would die. Eventually this became the large Kapama Safari Park, the smaller and more luxurious Camp Jabulani (named after the first elephant she rescued), which is a member of Relais & Chateau and the Hoedspruit Endangered Species Research Centre (HESC).

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This is Jabulani, the first elephant rescued by Lente Roode, after whom the safari camp was named.

HESC, which is CITES accredited and a member of PAAZA, WESSA and WWF, is so successful that it now breeds and successfully releases cheetahs into the wilderness, helping to replenish the dwindling population.

We’re so impressed with the work, that we adopted one of the babies, “Victoria Love,” from the Hoedspruit Endangered Species Centre, founded by Lente Roode.

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My son-in-law Ed with Crunchy, a cheetah at Hoedspruit Endangered Species Centre.

One of the most successful wine makers in South Africa is a social entrepreneur too — Zelma Long of Vilafonte. Long is a Sonoma County, California resident who is internationally respected as an oenologist and vintner. Just for fun and intellectual stimulation, she’s also earning her PhD in native performance arts. The South African wine industry brought Long to the country to consult in the early 90s. She and her husband were so impressed that they found partners and launched Vilafonte a few years later.

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Photo courtesy of Vilafonte.

Long uses her wine platform to highlight and preserve other aspects of South Africa that she loves, including that it is the “cradle of humanity.”

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Zelma.

One of their wines is named “Seriously Old Dirt” to highlight the fact that the dirt in which the grapes are grown is millions of years old, as opposed to merely 60,000-120,000 years as is true for U.S. wines, like those grown at her Sonoma County home.

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Photo courtesy of Vilafonte.

More impressive, though, is that Long and a South African partner launched the Cape Town wine auction, with the famed Napa Valley wine auction as their vision. It quickly became a powerful virtuous circle.

“It is an annual auction, only four years along, that this year earned R22 million ($1.7 million) specifically for the purpose of education for the formerly and currently disadvantaged children of the winelands.” She continues, “All proceeds go to charities; the costs of the auction each year are borne by donors. It is exceedingly well run not only on the money raising side, but on the money distribution, goal setting, and evaluation side, of the charities to whom the proceeds go.”

Beneficiaries include:

The Trust financial statements are audited by PWC.

“The Cape Wine Auction Trust mandate to support education in the South African Winelands is being achieved through a simple yet unique model of giving. We fund passionate, well-managed beneficiaries in the field of education and support them to maximize the value of the funding they are given,” Long explains. “We ensure that those we fund get to know each other, learn from each other and support one another. This collaborative mindset has already resulted in enormous impact and increased efficiencies.”

Long exudes love of work, place, people — a true social entrepreneur. “Our South African Vilafonte wine and vines project is now 20 years old. We have felt privileged to work this patch of the earth, experience the beauty of the Cape, and watch the amazing, talented, energetic mélange of cultures that is South Africa.”

Love of South Africa and its culture brought successful international banker Paul Harris and his wife back to South Africa after great success in South American banking. They purchased “Ellerman House” — a large home built during colonial times overlooking the Atlantic Ocean in Cape Town, determined to showcase the best South African art, décor, wine and food with it.

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Landscaping beside the Ellerman House Spa and Villas.

As Harris explains here, “We want our guests to experience the best of what this country has to offer. To create this experience, we have an indigenous garden, serve only South African wine and cuisine, and have a renowned collection of local art representing the best of past and present. We also employ a diverse staff that provides guests with the warmest in true South African hospitality.”

“Indigenous” and “renowned” are understatements. The grounds and art are jaw dropping and soul-filling fabulous. No hyperbole.

Ellerman was the last stop of our South African journey. By the time we arrived, after experiencing social entrepreneurism and virtuous circle creation behind the most obvious successes everywhere else we went in the country, we weren’t surprised to be welcomed with a call out to their Giving Back opportunity.

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Ellerman House, at the entry of the Modern Art Gallery

The Harris family raises money each year with a charity art auction at the hotel. The proceeds are used by their Click Foundation to expand the reach of multiple community pilot programs. Harris invites others who wish to help to contact the Ellerman House.  “You will share in the joy, excitement and pride of being part of this exciting country, where we can all make a difference in forging a brighter future for South Africans.”

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My favorite painting on display at Ellerman House.

Example after example offered by South Africans of developing land, people and communities to higher purpose should inspire more social entrepreneurs in the U.S. It certainly inspired me!

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