Azola Mayekiso has travelled a long way in her career and achieved more in a relatively short space of time than people 20 years her senior… but her most important work was the result of a chance conversation that derailed her perfect plans to launch her own social impact venture. But today she couldn’t be happier.
After working for more than 15 years as an investment expert and fund manager, Azola Mayekiso realised a landmark achievement in her career. It was an achievement that marked the pinnacle of a stellar career for someone still very young in corporate terms, and was an achievement that had required her to draw on all the skill and experience she had built up through her career and on the back of her Bachelor of Business Science degree, an MBA and an MA, all of which she poured into her eight years at Vunani Capital.
“I devised a turnaround strategy for Vunani’s asset management business that proved to be a huge success. When I was seconded into the subsidiary in 2010, it was a R6-billion business, but by the time I left, it had more than doubled with assets under management to the value of R15 billion,” says Mayekiso.
During the three years after she left Vunani in early 2016, she served as CEO of Sanlam Investment Management , so it was safe to assume that she had put in one hell of a big shift and that a sabbatical was well in order post her tenure at Sanlam.
“You know, when you are in these jobs, they are really, really, really demanding and, at some point, in order not to lose yourself, you really need to just get yourself completely out of it and do something completely different, right?” smiles Mayekiso.
She made the decision to take a break from it all, a sabbatical of sorts, handing over the reins of CEO of Sanlam Investment Management in exchange for the chance to take a bit of a break. To find herself, to recharge and to get ready for her next big opportunity.
She had the perfect plan in place to utilise her sabbatical. She was going to go on a retreat, almost like a spiritual retreat to the East, to get closer to God and immerse herself in that culture.
Then COVID-19 struck the world!
“In March 2020 we had lockdown, and that threw my plans completely out. I ended up working for my daughter and being actively involved as one of the moms in the play school that she attends. Then I got an opportunity to pursue an entrepreneurial role, because I’m quite multifaceted and I get bored if I don’t occupy my time with many different things,” she recalls.
Soon after, an opportunity to step into the role of CEO of the National Housing Finance Corporation presented itself unexpectedly… and it was too good to resist, putting Mayekiso’s plans of charting her own destiny on ice.
“Ironically COVID was good for my career, although it was a terribly traumatic period during which I lost my mom in July of 2020. That was the biggest shock of my life but that very event changed my perspective and what I wanted to do going forward.”
The pain was intensified as her mother fell ill with COVID during the hard lockdown, which meant she wasn’t able to visit her in hospital or travel to see her, as interprovincial travel was not permitted.
“I didn’t get a chance even to say goodbye to her because we weren’t allowed to travel, and even if we could, you couldn’t even visit people who were hospitalised. Not being able to say goodbye was so painful,” she recalls. “It was all so sudden—I just could not believe what had happened.”
COVID took her mother quickly, as she was in ICU for just 10 days, having arrived at hospital with her oxygen saturation levels sitting at only 38%.
Devastated and frustrated with lockdown, Mayekiso started re-engaging with the market looking for opportunities, but this time she wasn’t looking for a challenge and a paycheck… this time it was different.
“I didn’t just want a job for the sake of a job, I was very clear in my mind. In fact, I had reached the point of planning to launch my own Social Impact Fund when this NHFC opportunity came along—and I had also enrolled myself for a social impact course at the UCT Graduate School of Business… and right then was when the call came from the head-hunter, SPI,” Mayekiso recalls.
However, that call changed the course of her spiritual journey, and her journey to the East was replaced by a stay-at-home retreat in South Africa in the comfort of her own home and via a screen linking her to a spiritual teacher.
“He is actually still my spiritual teacher, but our sessions were initially all held online. I did achieve my spiritual growth, although I am sure it would have been richer and more of a feast for the senses had I made it to the East,” she smiles.
On 1 March 2023, Mayekiso took over as the CEO of the National Housing Finance Corporation, which is also an implementing agent for the National Department of Human Settlements for the First Home Finance subsidy programme.
“The NHFC offer totally derailed my plans, but it was a chance I couldn’t pass up as it is in the public sector, and what attracted me was the mandate and the scale of impact that this entity can achieve. If we are able to get it to a point where it is an entity of size and consequence, then the difference we can make to people’s lives becomes enormous,” enthuses Mayekiso.
“Shelter is one of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and if you are able to deliver a decent dwelling affordably, then you would have achieved a lot in terms of changing the lives of people on the ground. The problem we face is that the RDP backlog is estimated at 2.6 million households… and these are people who can’t afford to provide themselves with housing. We’ve got a bridging loan facility for the delivery of that particular housing development, and we are a development finance institution, so we exist in order to facilitate access by developers to affordable finance for the delivery of RDP housing, social housing, affordable housing for rental and ownership, as well as housing for people that want to build incrementally.
The NHFC also supports companies that disburse micro-loans, for people who want to build their homes incrementally or want to extend their existing dwellings incrementally. The organisation offers a surprisingly wide range of funding services and expertise, going as far as doing refurbishments to housing stock owned by metros & municipalities; by working with emerging contractors. Not only do these contractors get work from the NHFC, but they also receive invaluable training from the organisation.
“These contractors are small enterprises and entrepreneurs and the whole aim is to ensure that they graduate from where they are into higher levels of CIDB grading. And we also provide them with all manner of training just around how to launch and manage their business, produce financials, keep proper records, and all that stuff,” adds Mayekiso.
Key to their work is the First Home Finance (previously FLISP) subsidy that is available for a first-time buyer or new home builders. The subsidy is aimed at facilitating affordability of either buying a first home or building a first home. The subsidy amount tops out at R169,265, which can be utilised either as a deposit towards a mortgage or towards the costs of building.
“Sadly, affordable housing stock is just not available at the lower income levels, and no-one is able to raise a mortgage that earns at that level. In fact, our research tells us that it’s really the people who earn from R15,000 and above that are able to qualify for mortgages based on the currently available housing stock. So that needs to be corrected,” says Mayekiso. “It’s policy intervention that is required as well as innovation through for example alternative building technologies. These have to be robust & sustainable and should also have the ability to bring down the costs of delivery as well as the speed of delivery compared to the traditional bricks and mortar convention.”
Their grant facilitation division is geared to accept applications from all South African beneficiaries who are going to be applying for a mortgage for their first home or want to build their own first home. Something that particularly excites Mayekiso is the fact that the mandate and scope of the NHFC is soon to be expanded when they become the Human Settlements Development Bank.
“We are going to migrate and assume that broadened mandate in terms of what we are expected to deliver. We are also going to really start embarking on a process of change, but not change just for the sake of it, but rather change because the organisation needs to be nimbler and more responsive, because the work it does is just too important. So, we cannot afford to be complacent,” adds Mayekiso, who has deliberately taken her time to analyse all the parts and processes of the NHFC and contemplate appropriate changes, rather than darting in to shake things up without a full understanding of the implications of such changes.
“The kind of change in culture that is going to be driven in the organisation is one of high performance and with this migration to become the Human Settlements Development Bank, we will become a substantially bigger entity with greater impact so we will have to inculcate a way of operating that makes us effective. We are going to have to boost our balance sheet by leveraging the shareholders equity that currently sits on it so we will be embarking on road shows to raise capital not only from our domestic capital markets, but we will also look outside South Africa to get grant capital in as well as affordably priced debt facilities. By the time we go to the market, our house will have to be in order with financial ratios that will enable us to raise the capital we require with relative ease. This fresh capital injection, both from our shareholder as well as the capital markets and philanthropists, is going to be so important in terms of fulfilling our mandate.”
After graduating from UCT Azola started working for Alexander Forbes investment consultants, which was a fascinating experience and a brilliant training ground for the future financial star.
“Doing the investment consulting work at Alexander Forbes we sat in the middle of the demand and supply side of the equation. Our raison d’etre was to advise institutional investors such as retirement funds & life companies on investment policy formulation, investment strategy, asset allocation, portfolio construction, asset manager selection as well as monitoring of the performance of those asset managers,” she says.
Aside from ensuring that the retirement schemes were able to ensure a comfortable retirement for their members, they also had to educate the trustees themselves, an interesting dynamic in the industry is that many trustees get elected to positions of major financial power and influence by virtue of being really popular, rather than having a full depth of knowledge with respect to investing or running a retirement fund scheme.
“There’s a lot of education that has to happen and as investment consultants we have to do that. It was a true privilege in that we got to understand the demand side of the equation very deeply and got an opportunity to help the trustees deliver on the investment objectives that had been set for the retirement schemes,” says Mayekiso.
From Alexander Forbes she moved to a boutique investment firm, where she continued with her investment consulting services along with heading up the retirement fund support services unit.
The experience was invaluable but short-lived, as she answered the call of a scholarship opportunity that she had arranged through a Dutch agency called Nuffic that afforded her the time to tackle her masters’ degrees in the Netherlands and UK.
But the “study break” did so much more for this future leader in terms of life experience.
“Studying and living overseas was completely life changing. So many of my friends told me that they were so inspired by how courageous I was to just up and leave South Africa as a 26-year-old back then and to study overseas on a full-time basis.”
The real growth for her was taking the step of accepting the opportunity and travelling into the unknown, all of which was initially something of a culture shock.
“The first thing you’re confronted with is just how much cheese and milk the Dutch consume! And the meat in the supermarkets looks already cooked–it’s brown, not red, which is very different from here in South Africa,” she laughs.
She moved on to the UK to tackle her MA coursework, and she decided to stay in the UK to write her dissertation. That’s when a big break came. As a UCT student she had done vac work for African Harvest, which subsequently became Vunani Capital. She maintained contact with their executives throughout her tenure at Alexander Forbes, which led to a job offer post-studies and saw her return to South Africa sooner than she expected.
She went on to spend eight years moving around the Vunani Group, picking up invaluable experience and helping to grow the company to great new heights. Her success was all the more notable as a woman in the financial sector, which is predominantly male-dominated, although women like Mayekiso are doing incredible work in breaking down barriers.
“In her book Equal But Different, Dr Judy Dlamini talks about how women are just as gifted as their male counterparts, and a lot of empirical work has already been done to point out how detrimental it has been to the world to ignore 50% of the world’s human capital,” says Mayekiso. “Nonetheless, I think it is incumbent on women who take up spaces to give themselves permission to be recognised voices and to make a contribution towards shaping the consciousness of society.”
Mayekiso highlights the challenges of not being given the space to be able to assert yourself as a woman but adds that she believes that it is incumbent upon women to adopt strategies in order to overcome those kinds of barriers.
“We need to get to a point where they can, you know, society doesn’t have a choice but to listen, and to permit women to do what women want to do in society, but I think there can also be change agents in the form of men that champion the cause of women,” she says. “At the same time, it’s important for women to assert themselves as well as have strong role models to follow. What it talks to is resilience, grit, ambition and just having the sheer courage to actually take the 1st step. That is critically important, but it starts with you making the choice, and making the decision to say, ”I’m not going to be a bystander, and watch things happen around me, I’m going to partake in helping to shape things and to be the change I want to see.”
This is a strong message from Mayekiso, and one of the major challenges of her work with the NHFC is getting the message out to the public and ensuring they understand what it’s all about.
“This access to the home finance grant is basically free money for people with a household income between R3,501 and R22,000 per month. So it’s important that people who employ South African citizens and residents in this income bracket help to educate their employees about the scheme, how financially empowering it can be for them, and to help them apply,” says Mayekiso.
For information about the grant, log on to www.nhfc.co.za or call the contact centre number 010 085 2199. There’s no cost for employers, only the benefit of their staff’s life being improved dramatically, which should ensure a happier and more fulfilled workforce, as well as benefitting the economy as a result of so many more families being financially uplifted.
The NHFC will soon roll out an information campaign to build the concept of “first home finance” as a household name and how it works, who it is designed to benefit and why the government is doing this, but it’s important for the message to be spread as widely as possible. Mayekiso is also keen for people to speak to their own retirement schemes about the work being done by the NHFC to encourage the Trustees to look for investment opportunities such as affordable housing in order to invest their own retirement savings for social impact.
“If you belong to an employer-sponsored retirement scheme, you can begin by asking questions around what social impact investing their scheme is involved in. Not everyone knows that you are able to invest the money that you are contributing every single month into your retirement kitty towards something that’s going to be beneficial to society,” says Mayekiso. “We will be going to the pension funds as the NHFC to encourage them to join us in this crusade and to bring their capital to speed up the process of helping to provide housing for as many South Africans as possible.”
The NHFC disburses in the region of R1-billion per annum, but Mayekiso highlights that, given the scale of the problem and the backlog, it should be close to R10-billion per annum. That’s why she is urging individuals and employers to ask the trustees of their retirement funds to consider making a difference to our nation’s housing needs.
There is a bigger problem facing the NHFC and South African citizens… the lack of affordable housing stock.
“I would say that it’s in short supply, but the truth is that it doesn’t actually exist, especially now that interest rates have been on an upward trajectory over the past five years. Another thing we need to do is to educate ourselves and the market about alternative building technologies, how effective they are, how economical and robust. They are also better positioned to facilitate the quick delivery of housing that is cheaper and more robust, largely because traditional bricks and mortar structures come at a far higher price,” adds Mayekiso, highlighting that there isn’t wide acceptance of these alternative building technologies among their target market. “People still want their traditional bricks and mortar, otherwise to them it’s not a real home, so that’s a barrier we need to get over, but it’s also a way the public can play a role through educating those around them.”
Mayekiso is driven by a passion to bring affordable housing to all South Africans, but for her a long-term goal—and something that would be a real game-changer for the organisation—would be to cultivate everyone in the organisation to be believers and champions of the change that needs to happen in the sector.
“We are a change agent in that our shareholder is actually not giving us a choice in terms of making a difference towards transforming the sector, the property sector itself, but obviously, we can only transform it in as far as our mandate,” says Mayekiso. “The reality is that at the moment we work with developers who come to us with projects… but the opportunity we are going to have once we become the Human Settlements Development Bank is that we will not have to rely on property entrepreneurs coming to us for funding the projects they have initiated. That’s when we will be in a position to initiate some projects ourselves based on the needs we have identified on the ground and based on what our research informs us to do. That’s going to be incredibly exciting and I’m really looking forward to that,” enthuses Mayekiso, who completed her MBA at the Hanze University of Applied Sciences Groningen in the Netherlands in 2008.
At present, the NHFC’s loan concessions are granted without asking for anything in return, but going forward they will be ensuring that this funding goes hand-in-hand with the South African transformation story, with the NHFC requiring the use of black professional services and materials suppliers in the delivery of each housing project. They are actively looking to support black emerging developers and to help them develop to the point where they can be mid-sized companies that can run on their own without the assistance of the NHFC. This will be a huge boost for black quantity surveyors, women quantity surveyors, as well as young architects, consulting engineers and even people with disabilities.
“We want to see those people supported in terms of our own procurement processes as the NHFC, but we’re also going to rely on developers to procure and do things to mimic what we are doing to make the circle bigger, so that’s an incredibly exciting development that’s on the horizon, along with creating housing for hundreds and thousands of more families year after year,” smiles Mayekiso.