Inyathelo in the Headlines

Coffee in Cape Town with Noel de Villiers - BIG ISSUE, THE 20 May 2011

Taking the transition from being a donor-reliant NGO to a social enterprise — a self-sustaining busi-ness that does good — is a difficult step. So challenging, in fact, that there are only 25 organisations in South Africa that have officially taken the leap to become a social enterprise, while there are still over 100 000 NG0s.

Noel de Villiers, an en-trepreneur who started Avis car rental company in South Africa, is one of those who leapt into the social enterprise arena with Open Africa, a non-profit organisation he founded 15 years ago. Open Africa aims to sustain livelihoods across rural Africa by encouraging travellers to visit ru-ral areas to have authentic, life-enriching experiences while spending money in that area.

With Open Africa, De Villiers — winner of the 2010 Inyathelo Philanthropy Award — has put to the test his belief that business can be a means of social upliftment. The Big Issue caught up with de Villiers to chat about the growing social entrepreneurship sector in South Africa.

Q: What's the difference between an NGO and a so-cial enterprise? Traditionally, an NGO is an or-ganisation which relies almost exclusively on donor funding, which is okay up to a point, but miraculously our political prob-lems would disappear. I found my-self saying, "That is pathetic! If we don't create jobs, it's not going to work." I had ideas; I thought that Africa had huge potential in tour-sm. At that time it only had a 2% market share [in global tourism] but it has all of the natural assets which appeal to a world that is in an environmental crisis. I figured that if this crisis is going to make people want to reconnect with na-ture and reconnect with their own humanity, the best place to do that is Africa. I was talking about these things to a point where people started saying to me, "What's the point of just talking? Why don't you do something?" So I did.

Q: Tell us a bit about the journey of Open Africa since its launch: We developed our first route in 1999. We've got 61 routes now in six countries and we've reached the point where we have a model — it's not perfect but it's replica-ble and it has the potential to do what we set out to do. It's a long-term project and now we need to scale it — we need to make it panAfrican, so we've been focusing our attention on how to do that.... If we can increase Africa's tourism market share to 5% we can create five million jobs.

Q: What was it like to win the Inyathelo Philanthropy Award? To be totally honest, in a sense I was embarrassed. I've been humbled by my social space expe-rience to the point where I have a natural aversion to self-aggrandise-ment, and that's because I've real-ised I'm not as smart as I thought I was. You realise that, whatever you do, you really are standing on the shoulders of other people. Often people think that your success is reflected in what car you're driving, what kind of house you live in, what social circles you move in. In the social business space all those things go out the window. Instead you're more inclined to think, "Am I succeeding? Am I making a difference?" And you realise you're a very small cog in a very big wheel. So yes, I was humbled to win it but I wouldn't normally advertise it.