An Insurance Solution for the World’s Poorest
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because billions of people are missing a crucial step on the economic ladder.
By Nick Dall
- Entrepreneur Ntando Kubheka has launched a platform to insure the properties of millions of poor South Africans — even if if they live in shacks or homes without title deeds.
- Kubheka’s company, Sugar, is gaining steam after launch this year, and he has dreams of taking it global.
In January 1984, Tropical Storm Domoina cut a swath of destruction across the southern end of Africa. That included the mud shack in northeastern South Africa where 4-year-old Ntando Kubheka lived. Fortunately, Kubheka’s father had already started work on a formal home when the storm struck, and the family soon had a roof over their heads again. But the memory of being homeless and helpless “has been embossed on my mind,” says Kubheka. “You don’t forget stuff like that.”
Now 40, Kubheka is on a mission to insure the millions of South Africans who have for far too long been denied access to one of the world’s greatest wealth protectors: home insurance. Sugar, the company he launched earlier this year, sidesteps the need to produce a title deed by simply asking homeowners to name a replacement value. “They know how much it’ll cost to build a new one,” says Kubheka.
His off-the-peg shack insurance, in contrast to the traditional type he offers for brick homes, is a case in point: Consumers choose from four predetermined replacement values and buy a voucher that entitles them to 12 months’ coverage. The cheapest option pays out 6,000 South African rand ($360) if a shack is destroyed by fire (informal settlements are plagued by devastating fires), a gas explosion or a natural disaster, and it costs only 170 rand ($10) for the year.
Kubheka’s intimate understanding of his target market is already paying off. Despite launching just before the pandemic struck, Sugar has already attracted almost 5,000 customers, among them Makhadzi Miyen, an auditor at the National Home Builders Registration Council, who recently insured her mother’s house in rural Limpopo through Sugar. “I couldn’t believe how low the premiums were,” says Miyen. And a couple of months ago, when her mom’s water heater burst late one Friday afternoon, she was amazed at Sugar’s prompt response. “Before the weekend was over she had hot water again. That just doesn’t happen in the rural areas,” Miyen says.
Our focus will always be on the bottom of the pyramid.
Pending partnerships with a major mobile network provider and one of South Africa’s biggest banks could turn Sugar’s growth exponential. But even when he has a million users, Kubheka will not be satisfied. He has his sights set on the billions of people around the world who don’t have access to home insurance. “Our focus will always be on the bottom of the pyramid,” he says.
As simple as he makes it sound, the behind-the-scenes wizardry that enables Sugar to service this market without exposing itself to fraudulent claims is anything but simple. This is where Kubheka’s partnership with Genric Insurance, a niche insurer that focuses on using tech to drive innovation and empower startups, is key. For the past few years, Genric has been working with multiple partners to perfect a “spatial engine” that uses satellite imagery and artificial intelligence to identify any property in South Africa, “regardless of whether or not it’s on the deeds register,” says Cornel Schoeman, the firm’s chief operating officer. “We got really excited when we met Ntando, because he understood the market and we understood the tech.” By calculating the building footprint and material, the tech also gives a good estimate on replacement value.
The son of a prison guard and the eldest of six kids, Kubheka was the first member of his family to attend college. After graduating with a finance and accounting degree at age 19 (“I was too young to really enjoy uni life,” he laments), he landed a gig at a small-town accounting firm. The work didn’t inspire him, however, so one day he bundled his possessions into a battered suitcase and hopped aboard a minibus taxi bound for Johannesburg — the City of Gold.
Armed with only his degree and some savings, Kubheka set himself up as a freelance “accounting–bookkeeper–tax kind of guy.” Just as that business was taking off, he was offered the chance to work on a massive IT system overhaul for an ailing provincial government. “I wasn’t a developer, but I saw it as an opportunity to learn a new skill,” he says. Four years later, he felt sufficiently clued in to start his own IT firm. That business also grew quickly, but he packed it all in at age 29 and pivoted to corporate banking. “I wanted a change,” he says simply.
Only when Kubheka became a product development executive did he realize that “designing and launching new products was my passion.” After completing an MBA on the side, he launched yet another business: the groundbreaking car-sharing firm Locomute. During those two intoxicating years, the social entrepreneurialism bug bit hard, and after successfully exiting Locomute in 2017, Kubheka started actively pursuing his “next.”
He refused to aim low. “I wanted to solve a problem faced by at least a billion people,” he says. And then — just like the tropical storm that had battered his parents’ home all those years ago — it hit him. Building an insurer “for the townships, villages and informal settlements” became a passion project. Securing funding, designing the products and sorting out the tech and regulatory challenges made for an extremely busy 15 months that culminated in Sugar’s launch in January.
But that was just the first step. Current challenges include launching an all-risk insurance product for township businesses, working out how to add a life insurance component to existing offerings and securing the funding to fuel the rapid expansion that Kubheka dreams of.
“I want to give the people no one cares about a chance to create ‘old money,’” says Kubheka. “To really move forward.”
He speaks from experience.
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