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#WorldHumanitarianDay: Isak Pretorius

Conflict, climate change, pandemics, hunger, displacement... Never has the world seen such complex megacrises.

Terri Pretorius (Group Marketing Officer), Isak Pretorius (Group CEO) and Abeba Amene (Country Director South Sudan)

Yet there is a group of people who never give up easing suffering and bringing hope. Every year on World Humanitarian Day we celebrate people who give their time, effort and skills to ensure that life is brighter for all of humanity, and especially those in need.

“You change the world by changing one life at a time,” says Isak Pretorius, CEO of ForAfrika, the continent’s largest indigenous nongovernmental organisation (NGO).

ForAfrika has spent nearly 40 years changing lives across the continent. When the Covid-19 pandemic took hold across the world – including in South Africa – in March 2020, ForAfrika was there, working where it could to ensure people survived. At the southern tip of Africa, strict national lockdown regulations temporarily shut schools, non-essential workplaces and other places of gathering, costing hundreds of thousands of people their jobs in the formal and the informal economies.

Community food hamper schemes quickly sprang up to help people who were unable to put food on the table, but Pretorius soon realised these well-meaning programmes were causing a number of challenges.

His ingenious effort to solve them led to him being named African regional honoree in the 2021 Young Presidents’ Organization Global Impact Awards. The organisation is a global community of more than 30 000 chief executives, aimed at ensuring that each one becomes a better leader and better person by improving lives, businesses and the world.

The first challenge Pretorius noticed was that the long queues of people waiting to collect food parcels posed security issues. Also, there was an element of social stigma for many food parcel recipients. On top of that, it was difficult to maintain social distancing rules, and to ensure the quality, quantity and price of the food distributed remained consistent.

But perhaps worst of all, the food hamper system started to have a very negative effect on spaza shops – small convenience and grocery stores that serve local communities.

“The customers that used to be spaza shop customers couldn’t afford to buy food from them anymore; that’s why they were receiving food hampers. But the reality was that the food hampers also meant that those individuals were not making purchases at the spaza shops, and if that continued then the spaza shop owners and their staff would soon be in the feeding lines too,” says Pretorius.

Then Pretorius had an idea – to build an online application (app) that would allow ForAfrika to send people food vouchers by SMS (text message) to redeem at spaza shops. This would allow those who needed them to get food parcels, and would mean the shops were still receiving revenue because ForAfrika paid for each package handed over.

It was important that SMS notification was used because most South Africans own cellphones, but not many own smartphones and data is costly when you can’t put food on the table. This method was also discreet, lessening any social stigma.

Recipients could redeem their voucher, containing a unique code, at a partner spaza shop near to them, this being more like a food purchase than a handout, retaining the dignity of the recipient. Once a voucher was “spent”, a second SMS asked recipients to acknowledge that they had collected their parcel, and that it contained all the listed items, providing a closed-loop proof of impact. Spaza shops were paid a commission per hamper delivery.

The organisation also partnered with early childhood development centres, churches, corporations and other organisations to increase the scheme’s reach. Thousands of vouchers were redeemed, saving the recipients and their families from starvation and malnutrition.

The hampers people received contained good-quality food; the small-enterprise economy was boosted because spaza shops were paid per hamper delivered; and staff from early childhood development centres, which were closed at the time, received incentives to assist with distribution.

Humanitarian assistance is in Pretorius’s blood. ForAfrika, started in 1984 by Pretorius’s parents, Peter and Ann Pretorius, is his heritage.

The second youngest of Peter and Ann Pretorius’s six children, Isak Pretorius was around 10 at the time ForAfrika was established, known at the time as Joint Aid Management (JAM). He was a little boy loving life on the family farm in the Mbombela (then Nelspruit) area when his parents sold up and moved to Johannesburg to start a nongovernmental organisation.

Many years and a Bachelor of Commerce degree in Business Management and Accounting later, Pretorius now runs a multi-country organisation that in 2021 reached 2.9-million people across Africa with humanitarian assistance, from emergency relief to boosting agricultural and other economic skills.

He joined the organisation when, as a student, he decided he “didn’t want to be a barman any more” and asked his father for a job.

For 13 years Pretorius did “pretty much every job at ForAfrika for a while”, an experience that has shaped his views on the world and on humanitarian aid. He then spent 10 years in commercial business in Africa and recently took over the stewardship of ForAfrika from Ann Pretorius. His aim is to develop it into an organisation that uses business development as a catalyst for true transformation everywhere it can.

“Charity doesn’t create transformation,” he says. “It creates perpetual poverty. Tomorrow I don’t want to be helping the children of the people we help today.”

That’s why ForAfrika is focused on working with communities to realise the community’s plans – because it takes a village to ensure sustainable change.

“Most times our strategy for working with a community starts under a tree. We gather there with them and ask, ‘What’s your plan?’ Then we say, ‘Let us work with your plan and bring in the resources and the experience to make sure the plan becomes reality.’”

Pretorius wants ForAfrika to become, in essence, three organisations: an enterprise development agency that helps people across Africa build their own businesses, an impact investment agency that uses capital to ensure sustainable growth, and, where needed, an agency that delivers the type of aid that helps communities come back from disasters such as floods and droughts.

“That,” he says, “will turn us into a for-good enterprise.” And that will ensure that ForAfrika meets its aim of working with others towards an Africa that thrives.

Support ForAfrika on World Humanitarian Day and help create an Africa that thrives.