REALITY: Ezra Ndwandwe devised The Big Break Legacy, which is a TV show like Survivor for entrepreneurs. Picture: MARTIN RHODES

WHEN I hear the word "entrepreneur", I picture a hard worker exhausting himself and all his cash in stubborn pursuit of an idea only he believes in. So it just seems wrong for someone to generously pop R5m in his pocket and hand him masses of publicity. What about blood, sweat and tears, or the notion that anything worth having is worth working for?

Ah well, it doesn’t always have to be that way, says Ezra Ndwandwe, the creator and producer of The Big Break Legacy, a TV show (SABC2) like Survivor for entrepreneurs, where 12 contestants are given business challenges and are eliminated until the winner walks away rich and potentially famous.

"I wish someone had done that for me but, sadly, I had to go through the process of struggling as an entrepreneur," Ndwandwe says. Then he corrects himself, saying it wasn’t sad because he appreciates the lessons learned.

Now Ndwandwe is preparing for a second series of the show and expects at least 50,000 entries. The spin-offs are equally enormous. CNBC Africa will broadcast the series to 48 African countries and local versions may be produced in Nigeria, Malawi and Tanzania.

Two related training programmes will be launched next year by The Gordon Institute of Business Science, which sponsors the show and where Ndwandwe is a guest lecturer. The programmes will have a part-time option for people already running a business and a full-time version for those whose idea hasn’t hatched yet. Students will apply the strategies they learn in the classroom in the running of their company, so their business becomes their homework.

For Ndwandwe, creating The Big Break Legacy was an act of entrepreneurship, and he burned a lot of money to bring it to fruition. Each series costs R30m to produce, which he is now recouping from sponsorships and by selling the TV rights.

The concept evolved from his consulting company, Dual Point, because small-business owners routinely asked for help in growing their venture or getting their ideas to market.

"One Saturday afternoon, I was lazing around watching Idols SA, and it dawned on me that you have a programme that’s made it easy for artists to be seen by producers and showcase their talents. I thought it may be a fascinating way for entrepreneurs who are looking to grow their business to vie for the attention of investors."

The format tries to blend entertainment with education, so viewers can learn from the mistakes or triumphs of the contestants and hear comments from the judges on how to handle a particular problem.

The initial call for entries drew 25,000 applicants, of which 12,800 were legitimate. An "illegitimate" entry meant no-hopers or people submitting multiple entries to boost their chance of being picked.

Applicants need an innovative idea that is commercially viable, scalable and has the potential to have a positive social effect. I assume Ndwandwe had no preconceived idea of what the winning entries would look like: "Absolutely I had! I knew exactly what we were looking for. We’re not looking for rocket science. We are looking for an unemployed lady in Soweto who makes the best marmalade and we want to put her into Pick n Pay and create export opportunities. We want people who think differently about the different solutions to social needs."

The marmalade lady wasn’t a precise picture of the final winner, but that vision helped a panel of business consultants weed out all but 25 contestants.

Ndwandwe was funding this process himself and feared several times it was getting too expensive. "There were a couple of times when I … thought it was not going to happen." A big break came from his friendship with businesswoman Wendy Luhabe, who acted as his sounding board. "Every time I said, ‘I don’t think it’s going to work’, she gave me guidance and encouragement."

Short-listed entrants were given three minutes to pitch their idea to the judges, who selected the final 12. In each episode, the entrepreneurs were given a typical real-life challenge. Their responses let the judges identify "the weakest link" and bounce them off the show. Then the judges discussed how to handle each challenge to emphasise that lesson.

The winner was Graham Rowe, an expert in genetics and CEO of Sancreed, a healthcare technology company. Rowe is investing his R5m prize in Sancreed, which advocates that drugs and other treatments should be tailored to each patient’s unique genes and physical attributes. Every three months, Rowe will summarise the operating costs and cash will be released in tranches after Ndwandwe’s approval.

"We want to manage the risk of them taking the money and buying a Ferrari or a holiday home in Umhlanga. While the money is the big thing, there are other services such as advice and coaching in how to develop a business model. We incubate character skills and teach them what it takes to be an entrepreneur, so they make sure the business model is sound."

In time, the winner will be expected to pay back about 10% of the prize so The Big Break Legacy gets a return on investment: "It’s minimal, but when people get stuff free, they don’t value it," Ndwandwe says. Which is why I ask again about giving R5m to the winner. "I don’t think all entrepreneurs need to go through the same struggle," he says, insisting that if someone had given him lots of cash, it would not have made him lazy or any less tenacious: "I was an executive at SAB (South African Breweries) at a very early age and had it all going for me. But corporate life proved not to be my boulevard."

Ndwandwe’s parents had encouraged him to excel at school so he could go to university. His initial plan to become a doctor evaporated when he realised he hated blood, so he studied chemistry and biology instead. At SAB, he recognised a desire to achieve something more. That was in 2002, when white companies were under serious pressure to go black, and he set up Dual Point, specialising in corporate strategy and transformation. Now he is conducting PhD research on how entrepreneurship can strengthen and grow the economy.

"People don’t appreciate what entrepreneurs can do to change the state of affairs. The Big Break Legacy offers the opportunity to reshape the landscape in this country and, in fact, globally. Unemployment isn’t a South African issue, it’s a global issue, and the only way we can respond is by building more businesses."

The government’s goal of creating five million jobs is laudable but misdirected, he believes: "The vision shouldn’t be to create jobs but to create businesses. The interest is there but the know-how isn’t, so we almost need a minister for entrepreneurship."

When he’s not working, he enjoys tennis and reading, and he’s married with a baby on the way. That terrifies him, he admits, but it’s the resulting loss of time to devote to his career that seems to terrify him most.