Isak Pretorius of JAM International: “Do only what only you can do ”

Do only what only you can do — This was a breakthrough for me that I wish I understood earlier. What I mean here is that particularly as leaders, we need to ensure that we are only doing the things that only we can do in the organization. Otherwise we are doing someone else’s job and allowing […]

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Do only what only you can do — This was a breakthrough for me that I wish I understood earlier. What I mean here is that particularly as leaders, we need to ensure that we are only doing the things that only we can do in the organization. Otherwise we are doing someone else’s job and allowing them not to, which hugely impacts culture, performance and ultimately means that you and your management team are not focusing on the things that are most critical to the organization’s success.


As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Isak Pretorius.

Isak Pretorius’s 20 years of humanitarian services and business experience on the African continent has helped shape his passion to address the diverse needs of Africa’s communities and businesses. He is the Group Executive Director of JAM International, one of Africa’s largest non-profit organizations and CEO of Afriscope, a business activator in the sub-Saharan Africa marketplace. He is passionate about helping Africa thrive through Transformational Development and bridging the gap between the not-for-profit and for-profit worlds. Isak is also the Africa regional honoree for the 2021 YPO Global Impact Award. He was recognized for designing and spearheading an electronic food voucher system to improve food distributions during the COVID-19 crisis, reducing food lines and increasing social distancing, while incorporating the commercial supply chain to protect and support small businesses through this volatile period.


Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

While growing up, my father and social entrepreneur, Peter Pretorius, would take me to refugee camps or malnutrition clinics during school vacations. I learned a lot from these early experiences. I think the beauty of being a child is you see the world in a simplistic way. I grew up connected with these kids and experienced what life was like in humanitarian disaster places like Mozambique, Congo and Angola.

These early experiences also created a deep connection with the African continent and its people. I often describe myself as an African first and a South African second. South Africa happens to be the country on the continent I was born into. Growing up, I felt like I was part of the continent, intertwined with its people.

One specific experience however was a real game changer for me. I was in my early twenties, working in South Sudan (when it was all still one country) during a very fragile time of war between the North and South with extreme famine in the South. The situation on the ground was extremely dangerous, and most of our operations were done via airlift. I flew in that day with the first aircraft, and we quickly unloaded as it was very dangerous for an aircraft to be on the ground for any period of time. Shortly after the aircraft left and we were busy preparing the supplies for distribution, we noticed that a lot of people were coming out of the bush from another area, and we had not catered for these people in our supplies. This is a very dangerous situation because when you have highly vulnerable people and not enough supply, you can end up with serious conflict.

We went to meet the people coming out of the bush, with an aim to separate them from the group we were there to assist, which were the locals from that village. In doing this, I noticed a mother carrying a child who looked very sick. I approached the mother and put out my arms in a gesture to take her child from her, and as I took the child, the woman started crying profusely. I could feel that the child had a high temperature and was in an almost comatose state, so I asked her if she was crying because her child was so sick and was concerned for its well-being.

What happened next changed my life forever. The woman responded with aggression and almost shouted at me. She told me I don’t understand; she told me that when her village was attacked the night before, although she has three children, she could only carry one, and then she broke down crying again. I stood there totally shocked. This woman had in the preceding 24 hours decided which of her three children would live and which would die. I remember feeling anger towards her at first, wondering how she could leave those two children. I would have died with all my children rather than lived with one.

Then it hit me, this woman was stronger than I would ever be, had greater courage and believed in the power of saving one life. As hard as that decision must have been for her, she did it; she picked up the one she could carry and saved that one life. That day I realized you don’t change the world with grand gestures. You change the world one life at a time; you change the world by believing in the power of one.

I committed myself that day to spending the rest of my life in the pursuit of changing the world one life at a time. Fortunately, her story has a positive ending because her child ended up in a school we built in that area, received daily school meals and was given a chance at life.

Looking back, there’s always been an entrepreneur inside me. I started my first business when I was 10 years old selling American baseball caps brought from a trip to the United States. My heart has always existed in the impact side of things, but my head has always existed in the business world. At times, it’s been an immense conflict for me, partly because I grew up thinking you had to be a part of one world or the other — you either served humanity or business. But now I realize that the two can co-exist, in fact they are far more impactful when they do.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

I learned that culture eats strategy for breakfast!! In stepping into leadership, I had a very aggressive and bold strategy that had been well researched, had a clear roadmap and well-defined KPIs. The strategy was launched, and performance management systems implemented, all textbook stuff. How can we fail? Then I started to notice that we weren’t making the progress we needed to, that we were falling behind, so I intensified the performance management to borderline ruthless levels. We still weren’t making sufficient progress, and I had a growing group of unhappy people. Then one of my mentors had a chat with me about culture and shared the belief that culture eats strategy for breakfast. It was less about the plan and more about the people implementing the plan and the environment (culture) you as a leader create. I started focusing less on the strategy and more on the culture, less on the plan and more on the people. In three years, we not only achieved our initial strategy but blew it out the water with 600% growth and a highly motivated and committed team, plus we had a lot of fun doing it.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

The story that first comes to mind is a rather embarrassing but very funny one. In my early leadership role, I was traveling extensively while working on new business development and in the two weeks that preceded this event, I had been in five countries, on three continents, spanning from North America to Japan. Needless to say, the jet lag and fatigue were extreme.

I had developed a routine on airplanes, the moment we were in the air and the seatbelt sign was off, I would get up and go change into a comfortable tracksuit to help me relax and be comfortable for the flight. This flight was no different. I got up and went to change. The configuration of this aircraft had the toilets at the front of plane so when I came out from changing and walked back into the cabin, I noticed that people were smiling, laughing, some even gesturing to the person sitting next to them to look forward, at me. Then I looked down and realized that not only did I have my suit pants in my hand with my shirt, I also had my tracksuit pants in my hand. I was standing in front of a full aircraft with no pants on, just my underwear. So, I bowed in a gesture to end the show and disappeared back into the bathroom as quickly as I could. When I finally built up the courage to come out again, this time with pants on, I entered the cabin to a round of applause.

The lesson I learned from this is that it’s important to take care of your personal well-being, mentally and physically, or you will burn out… and always remember to put your pants on!

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

Since COVID-19 lockdowns started to impact African countries in March 2020, poverty levels began to accelerate across our continent. The number of people that we were providing direct assistance to went from just over 1.1 million in 2019 to close to 4 million in 2020. With more than 150 million meals delivered, we saved nearly 80,000 dying from malnutrition, drilled and equipped 110 new water points (boreholes) to provide water and sanitation to more than 150,000 people and provided COVID-19 education to over 1 million people.

It’s however not just about the magnitude of interventions. We measure impact more from a transformational development perspective. Our vision is of an Africa that thrives. To make this a reality, we can’t just focus on reaching high numbers of people or even just on life-saving interventions. We have to take a more holistic view, a long-term view that meets a community where they are at and maps out a roadmap to help them thrive. Our theory of change is based on our Transformational Development Approach, with the key pillars being:

  1. Households have access to timely, sufficient and appropriate humanitarian assistance when disasters occur.
  2. Households are able to build back better, experience early recovery and transition towards community development.
  3. Households are resilient, experience economic empowerment and transformational development.

These pillars are achieved through the implementation of the following categories of interventions: 1. Emergency Response, 2. Water, Sanitation & Hygiene 3. Food Security & Livelihoods 4. Health & Nutrition, 5. Education, 6. Economic Empowerment

We seek to bring the not-for-profit and for-profit worlds together and to use innovation in what we do. An example of this would be our COVID-19 responses in South Africa. Close to three million people lost their jobs last year. This increased the level of need within the country significantly (those on direct JAM assistance went from just over 100,000 to close to 500,000). While we were dealing with that on the one side, on the other side, small businesses were being obliterated because of COVID-19 lockdowns and the economic impact.

In response, JAM designed and spearheaded an electronic food voucher system designed to improve COVID-19 food basket distributions. The program helped increase social distancing and reduce food lines while incorporating the commercial supply chain, including small traders. With small traders and SMEs forming an essential part of our expanded distribution network and being compensated for their services, JAM was able to keep them in business and their staff employed.

In the initial six months from launching the voucher system, JAM issued more than 25,000 vouchers, providing more than 3 million meals in partnership with 443 SME partners. The system was launched in South Africa and is now being rolled out across five additional African countries and expanded beyond just food distribution to other sectors of JAM activities such as agricultural development.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

Wow, how do I choose because there are so many, but one that comes to mind is Mathew, a young boy in Angola, who was suffering from acute malnutrition. When I met him, he was lying in a malnutrition clinic at death’s door. His condition was so severe that his skin had started to rot and come off his body (in the final stages of malnutrition the body fights desperately to keep the essential organs alive and so everything else starts to die, including the skin). Fortunately, he was now in one of our malnutrition clinics and receiving assistance, however he was so severe that I honestly didn’t think there was any hope for him. Six months later when I returned to the same clinic, they brought a healthy young boy to me and asked if I recognized him. I said I did not and then they told me this is Mathew and showed me the pictures of when I had last seen him. He had been given a second chance at life through our immediate assistance, but also through ongoing interventions, his family were able to better provide for him now and keep him healthy.

Another one is Joyce, a woman in South Sudan, who had already lost two of her three children to malnutrition and her third child had just been admitted into our malnutrition outpatient program. Joyce explained that she had no ability to provide for her children and that she was so scared that she would lose her third and final child. Joyce herself was not healthy. We enrolled her child in our malnutrition program and nursed him back to health. But, the part that makes Joyce’s story stand out for me is that when we enrolled her child in the malnutrition program, we simultaneously enrolled her in our agriculture based livelihoods and economic development program. We partnered with Joyce to help her develop a nutrition garden, with the initial aim to ensure she had the diversity, quality and quantity of food needed to keep her child from slipping back into a malnourished state, and secondly to increase her production to a level where she could sell her produce. Today, not only is Joyce’s child provided for and Joyce is in good health, but she is also part of a group of close to 1,000 woman who work together in the agricultural livelihoods program where together they supply more than 60,000 people with fresh produce through their production and the market linkages we have helped create, including being the sole suppliers of vegetables to the United Nations Peace Keeping camp in their area. This has fundamentally transformed Joyce’s whole household’s income and life.

Joyce even testifies to the fact that because she is now a significant contributor to the household income, she has obtained far greater rights within her home, in a country where women’s rights are often almost nonexistent.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

We need to realize that we are part of a community that is far larger than just our family, neighborhood, city, nation or racial group. We are part of an interconnected global community, and we need to see people in disadvantaged communities as part of our community. If we start to partner a community with a community, we can change the world in such a positive way. An Africa that thrives requires community to community partnership, requires society to believe in the power of one life saved, impacted, changed, empowered and for politicians to put aside political agendas, self-interest and corruption and focus on their role as servants to the community — they signed up for civil service after all. In order for change to be effective, we need a supportive social, political and legal environment which will form the foundation of effective impact development.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Transformational — If our leadership isn’t having a transformational impact then we should question how we are leading.

Hands On — I believe that to be an effective leader you have to spend time at the coal face, getting dirt under your nails and engaging with both your team and your customer/benefactor.

Humble — Humility keeps you questioning yourself more than others, ensures you are secure enough to hire people way smarter than you and allows you to lead in a way that admits mistakes and creates space for improvement.

Godly — As a believer in Christ, I follow His example of leadership, which was driven by empathy, fueled by passion, and filled with love.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Culture eats strategy for breakfast — As shared earlier, people are more important than the plan and until I realized this, the strategy wasn’t working.
  2. Do only what only you can do — This was a breakthrough for me that I wish I understood earlier. What I mean here is that particularly as leaders, we need to ensure that we are only doing the things that only we can do in the organization. Otherwise we are doing someone else’s job and allowing them not to, which hugely impacts culture, performance and ultimately means that you and your management team are not focusing on the things that are most critical to the organization’s success.
  3. There is no replacement for time — I wish I had been warned that it doesn’t matter how smart you are, how good your team is, how advanced your technology is, building strong, sustainable and impactful business takes time, and there is no replacement for it!
  4. Listen more, speak less — When I was younger, I put my foot in my mouth many times and missed out on great learning opportunities and the ability to be informed because I thought to justify your place as a leader you had to speak, say profound things and be the loudest voice. I wish I had learned early on to listen more and speak less. Listening is an art and a gift, to be able to truly hear people, to be informed and to speak when its relevant and timely. I’m still working on this one. I won’t lie, it’s a struggle!
  5. Failure is not fatal — I come from a competitive family. My dad was a former Formula One race car driver, amongst other things. He had the ability to make eating an ice cream a competition! My competitive nature has served me well at times; it also resulted in an intolerance for failure, particularly for myself but even for others. This blocked me from being able to find security as a young leader because I felt I had to be perfect, and if I couldn’t be, then I had to project perfection. The biggest problem with this is that it blocks you from learning the incredibly valuable lessons that often only failure can teach you. It also creates a culture where people hide their mistakes from you because they believe they will be fatal. This quickly results in holding out false hope that will ultimately be dashed by reality. Allowing yourself to fail is allowing yourself to grow! This is true for everyone.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

A movement focused on the power of one, because I believe if each of us will commit to impacting one person’s life, to changing one person’s world, we will truly change the world for good. I would encourage people to use our organization as a channel for this good. JAM International has the heart, commitment, and efficiency to make Africa thrive. At JAM International, we look beyond ourselves, realizing that we can enable an Africa that thrives through our partnerships, empathy and means — never through pity or guilt.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Perception is reality. Understanding this has helped me to see things from the other person’s view, to take more than just my own view or perception into account. Our perception is our reality, and so if we are not careful, we can often jump to incorrect conclusions based on our reality (perception) not on the objective reality. I remain mindful of this so that I am constantly checking my own perception because it can quickly become my reality and the lens from which I see, judge and make decisions through. If I have the wrong perception, I am going to make the wrong decisions and judge incorrectly.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

My dad, because he was truly my greatest mentor, taught me much of what I know and was my best friend, but he is in heaven now and I would give anything for one more lunch with him. Given that that’s not possible, I would say Bill Gates. He is a man who has impacted the world, both in the business and the humanitarian space. I perceive him to be someone who also has his head in the business world and heart in impacting society. He is knowledgeable and would give honest and impactful advice.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

JAM International

@jamintl / @isak.pretorius

@jamintl

JAM-Joint Aid Management / Isak Pretorius

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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