BY Fast Company 5 MINUTE READ
Why the next big South African innovation could possibly come from the country’s ambitious community of university students
Entrepreneurship and innovation must rise! This is the motto of the strong-minded students from university campuses across South Africa. Possibly the fastest growing—and certainly the most vibrant and dynamic—student-led movement in South Africa, it has an impressive 53 000 members who have formed 143 entrepreneurship societies across 40 campuses nationally, in under three years.

“You can pitch with beer in your hand if you want to. You can use a PowerPoint presentation. There are no rules. But we only want original ideas.”

This entrepreneurial movement is the brainchild of the BeBold Trust, a non-profit organisation with a simple mandate: provide the spark of encouraging, fostering and growing a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship at university level, and let the students do the rest. With the boundless enthusiasm and energy of dynamic university-goers across South Africa, BeBold believes this is only the tip of the iceberg.

Charles Maisel (founder and CEO) and Tshitso Mosolodi (COO), together with a board of trustees (Mish-al Magiet, Charmaine Groves and Taygan Govinden), are responsible for administering the trust, and their bet is that the next big South African innovation and serial entrepreneur will come from the country’s ambitious community of university students. “If you’re going to approach entrepreneurship as a means to solve the youth unemployment problem, and take it to the next level, then you have to start with the 600 000 people already at university,” says Maisel.

While BeBold spearheaded the movement, one of the key pillars of its philosophy is to let the students define and drive their own movement and take ownership of their entrepreneurial spirit. This has led to the staggering growth and success of the movement in such a short space of time.

Three years ago, BeBold approached universities across South Africa with a proposal of an informal “Popcorn and Pitch” concept: an open invitation to any university student to an informal pitch event where they could grab a box of popcorn and pitch their innovative idea to an audience of their peers in any format they choose. Popcorn and Pitch provides a relaxed and informal environment, with the added objective of providing positive feedback to each pitching student with the purpose of fostering and encouraging a culture of entrepreneurship and innovation among the student body. “There is no format,” says Maisel. “You can pitch with beer in your hand if you want to. You can use a PowerPoint presentation. There are no rules. But we only want original ideas. You can’t go there with ideas for food trucks, hair salons or event management companies.”

Although BeBold assisted the students in forming their respective entrepreneurial societies and co-ordinated and funded the pitch events, everything is entirely student-led. Those who run the societies at the various campuses across the country host the regular informal pitch events throughout the year at which students can present their innovative ideas, concepts or businesses. The pitches may take the form of a casual discussion with the audience, or a presentation with slides and videos—after which the audience members can pose questions about the ideas. Many of the products and services pitched are for students to use themselves, as they understand their market better than anyone else. “Plus,” adds Maisel, “if you have a hundred people attending a pitch event, you’re going to get a lot more feedback.”

The person with the best idea, as voted for by his or her peers, is awarded a monetary prize and the possibility of presenting at the national Intervarsity Pitch Event. Unlike intervarsity sporting events, say, this pitching session is not a competition to beat one’s opponents, but instead is a coming together of like-minded individuals who share the entrepreneurial spirit.

The competition is split into two divisions: Rural and Urban. The Rural challenge focuses on social innovation, and is sponsored by the SAB Foundation; the Urban challenge, sponsored by Bank of America Merill Lynch, seeks any business or social business innovation. The Intervarsity Pitch Event is held annually in Johannesburg, where the top students pitch their ideas to a panel of judges—this time around with a more formal presentation format. Again, the focus is on providing positive feedback, with the best idea as voted for by the panel of judges being awarded R1 million to be invested in the business, and bragging rights as the year’s Intervarsity Pitch Champion. The competition focuses on the target group of 17- to 28-year-olds, of which 75% are representative of the black youth demographic.

These intervarsity pitching sessions have seen some exciting and incredibly innovative business concepts come to the fore. Some of these are currently negotiating funding, while others have already received financial support or have partnered with larger corporations. But the BeBold trustees feel people are often too quick to judge the programme purely on the number of ideas or concepts put into development and going on to operate as startups—missing the point that there is a critical step before that stage. “There are plenty of institutions doing an excellent job of assisting budding entrepreneurs develop and implement their innovative ideas and concepts, and to provide them with funding. The role of BeBold is one or two steps before this stage: It is to encourage and foster the entrepreneurial spirit in university students across the country and ensure the growth of a culture of entrepreneurship among these students,” explains Magiet.

At present, there are five entrepreneurial societies that BeBold has introduced at campuses: general, fashion (in Cape Town alone, there are already eight different fashion brands that have been started), publishing (two student writers have had their books published), biomimicry, as well as media in collaboration with Snake Nation, a multi-platform network for creatives that allows anyone to share their creative works and get exposure in the US market. BeBold’s short-term focus is on assisting students to grow these existing societies and form new ones at campuses across South Africa.

BeBold also provides basic workshops on a number of campuses, called “Seeing the Leaves”, which are run by Maisel—a serial entrepreneur in his own right. These workshops help students see everyday problems in society and gaps in the market from a solutions-orientated and entrepreneurial perspective. The trust further aims to expand the workshops and possibly partner with an existing institution that can assist the students with the next phase of their development, should they wish to take their concepts to market.

Thus far, the BeBold Trust has been incredibly fortunate to have received generous funding and support from Bank of America Merrill Lynch, which is equally inspired by the students. BeBold is now engaging with other funders and sponsors who have shown tremendous interest in the movement.

More than anything else, the trustees are excited to see where the students will take the movement and how they will shape and form it in the coming years. “We expect great things from the students; they are our country’s future, after all,” says Mosolodi.

Pitch perfect

Some of the BeBold success stories from the 2015 Intervarsity Event

NUBRIX (Winner)

Elijah Djan, University of Pretoria

Manufactures bricks from recycled paper, which can be used to build RDP houses and schools, as well as pave driveways and sidewalks. The bricks are rain- and fire-resistant and can withstand 10.2MPa—meeting compression requirements. 

RIKATEC (Runner-up)

Rivoningo Mhlari and Jesse Matheri, University of Cape Town

Produces a digital device enabling cars made prior to 1996 to communicate efficiently and effectively with the driver and roadside-assistance call centre during engine failure and breakdowns.


Muimeleli Mutangwa, Wits

Cleans white and black footwear as a drop-off and pick-up service on campus and in shopping malls, using uniquely developed chemicals.

KYNETIC (Winner – SAB Social Innovation)

Kwasi Yinkah, University of the Free State

A device that uses the principles of electromagnetic induction to convert mechanical energy—from opening and closing a house’s doors—into electricity that is stored in a battery, which can be used during loadshedding or for powering a small energy-efficient light bulb.

DAPS (Winner – SAB Social Innovation)

Mnqanqeni, Thabo Linake, University of Fort Hare

A web-based application used by academic support centres at tertiary institutions to monitor the progress of students. It allows for profiling of facilitators, data-capturing of activities by both students and lecturers, and helps students with course management and consultation bookings.


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