SweepSouth, one of South Africa’s best-known home cleaning companies, is not quite Uber for home cleaning. The service is not available on demand; you submit a request online and hear back on WhatsApp two hours after you pay, with details of your assigned cleaner.
After years of operations in South Africa, and having set up in Kenya and Egypt in 2021, SweepSouth is now taking on its largest challenge yet. In July, the company will launch in Nigeria, Africa’s largest economy and a hub of the technology-enabled service industry.
SweepSouth’s big move will determine not only the company’s future but also the viability of investor-backed home cleaning businesses in Africa—a difficult business, given that similar companies, like online laundry providers, have failed to succeed in the past.
SweepSouth will compete with at least two incumbents in Nigeria’s online cleaning sector: Fichaya and Eden, both backed by venture capitalists. All three claim to be tech companies—but investors aren’t always so sure.
Last year, on one episode of Lions’ Den, a Nigerian imitation of the British show Dragons’ Den, in which entrepreneurs pitch for funding, Fichaya’s founders were asked to justify how their platform was similar to Airbnb or Uber. “The tech is purely just a booking and collections system,” Bolaji Balogun, who runs Chapel Hill Denham, Nigeria’s largest investment bank, observed.
But many Silicon Valley companies that do mostly these two things, including Airbnb and Uber, pass for tech companies. In the same vein, SweepSouth and its peers pitch their software as platforms that cut down the stress of service discovery for its target users: young, single professionals, new mothers who don’t want helpers from their villages, or Africans in the diaspora who need to arrange care for their parents back home.
Founded in 2014 in Cape Town, and backed by over $5 million from venture capitalists and the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, SweepSouth takes 40,000 bookings per month across its three markets, said Awazi Angbagala, the company’s Nigeria country manager. The rollout in Nigeria started in March this year as a pilot with 500 bookings so far in Lagos. Four in five customers booked more than once, according to Angbagala. “We are now in the process of testing our app,” she said.
The tech–oriented pitch notwithstanding, online home cleaning is powered by not-so-glamorous offline work. The companies must vet cleaners for experience and character. The risk of welcoming a stranger into a home exceeds that of getting into a stranger’s cab. “We’ve done the work of thoroughly vetting them, so we are sure that you are going to be safe,” Angbagala said.
SweepSouth’s cleaners are not employees, which leaves the company liable to be questioned about the welfare of their workers. For years, the gig economy has been accused of mistreating the workers central to tech companies and their billion-dollar successes. In Europe, it is now popular to demand that companies classify gig workers as employees.
A SweepSouth cleaner may wear a shirt showing the logo of another cleaning company where she also works, ostensibly showing that she is free to control her hours and work elsewhere. SweepSouth’s most visible commitment to her is the promise of an average income of 30,000 naira ($70h) a month, a figure above Nigerian minimum wage. The company takes 20% of each customer’s payment, with the cheapest services starting at 4,000 naira ($10) for a bedroom.
In a country like Nigeria, where the average annual individual income is around 518,400 naira ($864), it isn’t immediately clear if there is a large enough market for this service. In their Lions’ Den pitch, Fichaya’s founders asked for 30 million naira ($70,000) in exchange for 5% equity, assuming they could service more than 1,000 homes in the upscale Lekki area of Lagos. (At the time of their pitch, they were serving 60 homes.) They got the money, but they also left with some validation that their business had legs. SweepSouth will hope that their Nigerian business offers the same kind of validation.