Sweeping The African Continent

Aisha Pandor is on fire. As CEO of SweepSouth, she has — within seven years — grown the company from start-up to becoming South Africa’s largest on-demand home services company. And she’s now scaling the business across the African continent. 

In 2020 SweepSouth launched their home-cleaning services model in Kenya. This month they started operations in Nigeria, and plans are afoot to expand further into Africa. 

The expansion comes at an exciting time for the company as customers emerge from the rigours of lockdown into a spring-cleaning SweepSouth-hiring mood. In South Africa, bookings have bounced back to pre-pandemic levels and Kenya just recorded a 200% increase in business. 

“Economies are starting to recover, but we also know that we have a really great product that demonstrably improves life for both customers and home service providers,” says Pandor. When she and husband, Alen Ribic, started SweepSouth in 2014, it was in response to their own need to hire a domestic worker in a hurry. “For most people it’s a tricky and lengthy process to find the right person by word-of-mouth, then it’s uncomfortable and often arbitrary negotiating a price, and management of services and relationship on an ongoing basis can be onerous,” she says. “At the time, nothing existed that could help us find someone suitable quickly.”

To meet what was clearly a gap in the market, the couple developed an online platform that takes all the effort out of the connection process and reduces any points of friction. Clients are provided with a list of pre-vetted, trustworthy home service providers to choose from, and payment is made through the platform. Providers benefit, too, as they can find work opportunities in areas and at times that suit them, and overall earn higher than market rates.

Today, thousands of bookings pass though the platform per day, and SweepSouth has expanded their home services bouquet to include a plethora of other offerings, including gardeners, plumbers, electricians and builders. 

Cleaning and home care are relevant wherever you go — everyone’s living spaces get dirty and need TLC — and once Aisha and Alen had bedded SweepSouth down as a successful model in SA, they began considering where to spread their wings next.

“When we started the company, it was always with the vision to build a business that would be scalable beyond the South African market,” says Pandor. “We spent years refining the platform into a great user experience and simple, convenient service that South Africans love using. Going into a new region gives us the next big boost in growth.”

Picking the next launch country

Expanding across the African continent — which offers enormous growth potential — is a challenge many ambitious companies in South Africa face, and knowing where to select the next market is key.

“There are so many factors that go into choosing where to go next, so we decided to look at countries where people experience the same sort of home-care needs South Africans required when SweepSouth was started,” says Pandor. 

Kenya and Nigeria were obvious choices, representing big-market regions with a high growth opportunity, ever-increasing internet penetration and digital literacy, and the potential for positive impact on employment, education and economic growth via smart, scalable technology solutions.

“Kenya appealed to us because it felt like an in-between in terms of culture, market segment and dynamics, and also smartphone and internet penetration when compared with West Africa. And Nigeria is a really exciting new venture that we hope will serve as a base for further expansion into the West African region.”

Behind Pandor and Ribic’s astute business sense lies a real desire to help the vulnerable in society. So, while a new market represents a brand new customer base, they’re committed to SweepSouth acting as a catalyst to improve the domestic work and home services space, including helping service providers access dignified work at decent pay rates.

Earlier this year, SweepSouth released its annual  Report on Pay and Working Conditions for Domestic Workers Across Africa, including Kenya and Nigeria for the first time. The report’s findings dovetailed with their new launch, highlighting the extent to which Nigerian domestic workers have been impacted by COVID-19. 

The report shows that about two in five domestic workers in Nigeria have lost their jobs due to the pandemic, and that 48% are single parents, with 65% the main breadwinners in the household. With such hard-hitting statistics — and in a country where domestic workers are excluded from the National Minimum Wage Act — Pandor is cautiously “hopeful and excited that our entry into the market will have a positive impact on their lives.”

Why market research is vital

A thoughtful, considered approach to scaling has underpinned their expansion strategy, with Pandor and her team putting a lot of legwork into each new region to gain an understanding of the market. That includes speaking to entrepreneurs and tech company employees in the region, studying the country’s business governance challenges, and conducting market interviews with people who represent our ideal customer. “We also just spend time in the area to get a sense of the culture there,” she says.

Despite all the prep work, launching into a new market always brings challenges you can’t anticipate until you’re actively operating there, points out Pandor. “In Kenya, for example, we quickly realised our marketing approach couldn’t be the same as it was in SA, where we have good brand awareness and have been operating for several years. We needed a fresh, more experimental approach to marketing, so we did influencer marketing campaigns and formed partnerships with existing players in the tech and consumer market.”

Don’t cookie-cut your business

Their number one key learning so far has been to not try and export the same business model into new markets. “Expanding to a new region is never as simple as taking what we’ve done before and just repeating it. You first need to gain an understanding of the different cultural, socio-economic and business dynamics in that region. Also understand the history around the business relationship between countries, to understand how you will be perceived, and tackle any potential negative connotations to your being there.”

For a company that lives or dies on local adoption, one of their smartest moves has been to work closely with partners and suppliers in the new region who have insight and knowledge into the market.

“It’s also important to hire team members in-country to help lead you in terms of culture and customer sentiment. They have a knowledge of the city, and are a lynchpin in your launch plan,” she says. “One of our learnings here was that we needed to hire for culture as much as for skills. With any remote team members, especially in a new market, you need to feel that they will really fit in with the rest of the team from a values and culture point of view, otherwise it’s so difficult for them to integrate and feel engaged. And listen to their feedback — it’s vital in helping you determine what you should be doing better.”

In a world where scaling your company is a requirement for ambitious business owners, Pandor’s advice is to carefully identify where to expand next based on market size and opportunity for your specific business. Be prepared to iterate a lot, to make mistakes, and to be open to loads of feedback, she says.

Certainly, execution of SweepSouth’s pan-African expansion didn’t happen overnight and took day after day of relenting faith in the model the team had created. “If you want to truly make a difference in your region, find a pain point for your potential customers and solve it. And when you’ve done that, find the next one. You’ll soon make an impact.”

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