BY Fast Company 5 MINUTE READ

The early ’90s brought democratic change to South Africa, filling the country with hope and the prospect of new possibilities. Some of this spirit has clearly imbued Alexandria Procter – born at that time intoan active Port Elizabeth (now Gqeberha) family, her father adermatologist and mother a lawyer who started the first Office of the Family Advocate in the Eastern Cape – with a defiant passion and purpose that has driven her to tackle challenges and build solutions, becoming the golden girl of the tech startup scene blooming in Cape Town.

As a student, Procter, along with cofounder Greg Ramsay-Keal, created (and is currently CEO of DigsConnect), the first and largest digital marketplace for student accommodation in South Africa. DigsConnect raised a R12 million seed round 13 months after starting, making Procter one of South Africa’s youngest self-made female millionaires. At the time, it was the largest seed round raised by a female founder in South Africa. Her background offers many clues as to what shaped her journey to becoming a top Businesswoman.

Early on, there were clear signs she was, in a sense, a troublemaker. “I was the youngest person in the history of my school to [be given] detention in Grade 1, when I was just five years old!” says Procter, an indication she was set to struggle with the world in its current form. She attended the DSG, a private all-girls boarding school, where she was often in trouble at school because she refused to be told what to do.

Matriculating at 17, Procter turned down a scholarship to Rhodes University, which she had won by achieving a Top-50 placement in the De Beers English Olympiad. She opted instead to circumnavigate the globe by herself, venturing to India, South-East Asia, the United States and South America.

On her return to South Africa, she enrolled at the University of Cape Town for a Bachelor of Science degree, majoring in physics and philosophy. While at university she coached debating in Khayelitsha and Langa. Four of her debating students made it into the South African national youth team.

The pivotal moment occurred when she was elected to the university’s Student Representative Council (SRC). The SRC role elevated the magnitude

of her responsibilities, one of which was to help students find accommodation. This was at a time when academic institutions in South Africa were experiencing protests across their campuses. #FeesMustFall was a student protest that called for change in university campuses. At UCT, students built a wood and tin shack on campus to highlight their levels of frustration over the challenge of finding accommodation.

To put this in context, South African tertiary-level students often live in poor, unsafe accommodation located in the run-down parts of cities, or informal settlements, or in areas that are far from their campuses. This applies particularly to black students.

Where on-campus accommodation is available, residences are often overcrowded and in a run-down condition. This hampers students’ ability to study and learn. As a result, the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) has prioritised the provision of much-needed student housing and accommodation through its Student Housing Infrastructure Programme (SHIP). The programme aims to make available 300 000 student beds at 26 universities and 50 TVET colleges over the next 10 years.

This then was the situation Procter encountered during her time as an SRC member and student. Frustrated with the university and government not solving the problem fast enough, she decided to solve it herself. Over a weekend, she built and launched the website that was to become DigsConnect version 1. She says that the most important thing however that happened to her was meeting Greg Ramsay-Keal, now cofounder and COO of DigsConnect. “Greg is the most extraordinary person I’ve ever met. None of this would be possible without him. He was the one that spotted the opportunity when my fledgling website’s traffic was exploding, he convinced me that we should turn this into a business.”

Since launching the company in 2018, Procter has served as its CEO, co-founder and head of product. DigsConnect has connected just shy of 100 000 landlords and tenantsto date, and generated about more than R100 million in lease value for landlords while ensuring students in South Africa can find a home. With their strategic partners, DigsConnect has a presence in more than 400 cities worldwide, listing more than 1.3 million beds. The company is now headquartered in London and Cape Town, and Procter says they’re growing fast, and on track to generate R1 billion in lease value by 2024.

Procter views DigsConnect as more than just a platform for students. In describing the motivation for and the impact of the platform, she said: “The beauty of marketplace technologies is that they democratise access to the supply and demand of services, meaning that the value gained from consumers is distributed among more sellers.

“A more fertile market, one that not only generates access to more sources of revenue, but also permits more merchants access to said sources, better serves the economy by negating the stranglehold a property sector under a monopolistic scheme might have.

“In the case of student housing, it means that instead of one developer getting a multibillion-rand tender and building all the residences, now everyday South Africans can invest in smaller, more accessible, commune-style properties, and rent these out to students.

“This means tens of thousands of people benefit, instead of just one; more people with more money, and more places to spend it, precipitates a more heterogeneous flow of commerce and that is the essence of a thriving economy.”

Procter also thinks the platform has a more far-reaching impact on students. “For the students, having a vast, safe and meticulously- curated database, which can be easily sorted to accommodate their specific requirements, represents a massive shift in their autonomy as consumers. No longer will they be subject to monolithic, and often subpar, housing standards. “ nstead , in this competitive marketplace, landlords have the incentive to offer the highest standards of living so as to attract tenants. Practically speaking, every year the standard of private student accommodation is improving, and those that do not improve, or charge too much, quickly find themselves with vacancies. “Hence, we see that when a free market enterprise is structured to specifically address a social imperative, it has the capacity to enable constructive, tangible, change on both sides of the mercantile Relationship.”

Alexandria has kept the business going through times of high demand as well as low, when the Covid-19 pandemic lockdowns drove students away from campuses. The market has believed in her venture. Their initial seed round has been followed by two more investment rounds, though they are primarily revenue supported. DigsConnect’s CEO believes in growing sustainably, supported by value creation for the users.

Beyond her work as a startup founder, Procter was also appointed by President Cyril Ramaphosa to serve on the board of the National Youth Development Agency, where she is the youngest board member. She has recently launched her own venture capital fund, Pharos of Alexandria Ventures, which has a focus on biotech, healthtech and infrastructure in Africa. Pharos has made its first investment into a longevity startup out of Oxford.

Next year, as she continues to push the envelope of entrepreneurship, Procter will share some of the lessons she has learned during her journey in a book dealing with African start-ups which will be published by NB Publishers.