While December is everyone’s favourite time of the year, it also presents a unique problem. It’s the time of year when most people head home for the holidays and while that makes great material for Christmas movies, it does mean that many of those who have had a helper for most of the year now find themselves struggling to find domestic workers to aid them during a very messy time of the year. At least that is the position that qualified geneticist and SweepSouth founder Aisha Pandor found herself in back in 2013. Instead of going taking to social media to complain, Pandor and her husband turned their problem into a business and created SweepSouth, an app-based platform that connects domestic workers with employers on an ad hoc basis. The app has become something of a hit in suburban circles thanks to its ability to demystify the process of finding someone to help out at home. So much so, that it recently celebrated its millionth booking. We caught up with Pandor to find out more about about one of SA’s big tech successes.
How did SweepSouth come to be?
I studied science and I have always been really passionate about it but while I was doing my PhD I started to think more about the broad scale applicability of my work. I am an impatient person and I found research to be far removed from being able to make a tangible positive effect in a reasonable amount of time. Long story short, I decided to leave the research space and look at business because it felt like businesses can grow and as they do, help you solve issues around unemployment. Anyway, my husband and I had both quit our jobs and were working on different business ideas. In December 2013 our helper went on holiday and we were trying to find a temporary replacement for her. We found that incredibly time consuming and difficult to do. That gave us an idea and so we started doing our research.
We also realised that the industry was very very old school. It had not progressed probably since democracy. I mean some people didn’t even have contracts and people were still being treated very badly. In short, we saw a big problem and thought to try and solve it through technology and by building an app and a platform that would help people get access to decent work at good rates.
How did you convince an “old school” industry to adopt technology?
It has been a big challenge on both sides. On the customer side, e-commerce was still relatively new in the country at the time. Uber had just launched in the country and other online platforms were still quite new. On the domestic worker side, it was a case of getting people to understand that we were not a labour broker or an agency. Instead, it was a platform for you to get work and if you want to establish a long-term relationship with an employer through us that would also be fine. Then there was the fact that many domestic workers just didn’t have smartphones or only used their smartphones for Whatsapp and Facebook. So there was a lot of work to do around getting people to understand that this was something that essentially hadn’t existed before.
What lessons have you learnt so far?
There have been a lot of lessons that I have personally learnt through building this business and one of them is the importance of taking your time and patience. If you want to build something that is going to be around for decades to come it’s going to take time to build it. So yeah, I have had to become more patient. Mind you — not too patient. We’re building a high growth startup as well, so I guess it’s about finding a balance.
Companies in the gig economy have often come under fire for their labour practices. How are you dealing with this?
Creating an environment where people are treated fairly has been top of mind for us since we started, especially because we are operating in an industry that, historically, has been so exploitative. It has been a big part of our mission to bring about positive change. It is core to why we exist and I think that may not be the case with other companies in the gig economy. Even then, we are not really a gig economy business. Most of the bookings that happen on our platform are recurring, ongoing bookings as opposed to something like an Uber where you may only ever see your driver once. We are trying to build something where you can create ongoing relationships with the customer and the service provider and you cannot do that if you treat people badly. We also cannot treat people badly and expect that they will continue to work with us, especially when they can just connect with customers off the platform.
How else have you tried to make a positive change?
Because improving people has been at the core of what we are doing, we offer free educational courses for our Sweep Stars (the company’s name for the domestic workers who partner with us) that include financial inclusion programmes. Recently we launched the Warrior project which offers free support to victims of gender-based violence. But we are also cognisant that we are operating against established problems and have to be realistic about what we can and cannot tackle. One example was that when we first started SweepSouth we had very high rates because we wanted to secure what we felt were good wages for our Sweep Stars. We had no customers at those rates so we had to bring them down to something closer to what people are currently being paid and we can slowly increase them.
What has been the main driver of growth for you?
I think one of the biggest things has been that we are solving a real problem. Treatment is an issue and compliance is very low. So many workers and employees don’t even have contracts. If you ask one of the million domestic workers in this country whether or not they have had a bad experience with an employer, I’m sure the vast majority of them would say yes. We have come in and created a platform that addresses those issues and does it conveniently. The other part of this is that we have been able to use technology to scale up quite well.
How have things gone during Covid-19?
It has definitely been tough. We have obviously had to do a lot of thinking about our safety protocols. We have a business where you are bringing together two parties who are going to be present in the same place, so we have to think about how to do that safely. Financially the impact has been big as well. Many people have lost jobs and thus been less able to use our services. That has obviously had a major effect on our Sweep Stars. A lot of people didn’t have support. A lot of people had government support, but many people didn’t though. So I am incredibly proud of the fact that we were able to put together a R12 million fund at short notice that was able to help a little. The pandemic has also forced us to become creative. If you remember during lockdown the president would come on TV and change the rules with immediate effect, so that forced us to become agile because you didn’t know what transport or curfew regulations were going to be.