Nal’ibali’s Saleem Mukuddem on replacing product for purpose

Nal’ibali CFO Saleem Mukuddem talks about his illustrious career and why his work is so rewarding.

“I am not your typical CFO. I talk a lot and we can be here for hours!” says Capetonian Saleem Mukuddem.

He is passionate about a number of things: His family. His role as CFO of Nal’ibali. Cricket. Books and stories. And that is why he is so well-suited for his role at Nal’ibali, because the organisation is all about stories and books and inspiring children to read.

Saleem has been with the organisation for more than three years. “Nal’ibali (isiXhosa for ‘here’s the story’) is a national reading-for-enjoyment campaign. It is a campaign for sparking the joy of literacy. We feel that kids who fall in love with words and books at an early age in their mother tongue have a better chance of success.

“I firmly believe that reading awakens the Imagination. Imagination leads to dreams, not limited to one’s current experiences. Dreams create a belief of a better or different life. Belief in my view is the key ingredient for action. Where there is action you will see results. Results lead to more results,” he says.

“I have worked for many companies before, and the normal corporate route is to push sales, push volumes, etc. I can’t see myself doing that again, so I just replaced the product for a purpose,” says Saleem.

He now finds himself sitting on the other side of the table when he is applying for funding. “I had to figure out how to use my years of experience to communicate, convey a message, inspire and connect and to convince somebody to donate. A lot of organisations throw money at the top end of the education spectrum with university bursaries, etc. But when students reach the university stage, there are years of shortcomings – it’s like trying to build a skyscraper on a dodgy foundation.

“A lot of our activities are based on funds and projects. As an organisation, we had to restructure during Covid-19 and like so many other NGOs, we had to try and weather the storm. We have a responsibility to make sure that we use funds to the best of our ability.”

Saleem oversaw a massive restructure (50% of staff) in 2020 without a single forced retrenchment. “What I love about Nal’ibali is that the board challenges you to go outside your lane. We do a lot of research and need to think strategically about the future. I enjoy being involved in proposal writing and I have to bring my finance expertise and apply it to other aspects of our operations.

“How do we get the best efficiencies? How do we measure success? We are in the business of behavioural change, because we try to get children, but most importantly, the adults that oversee children, to change their behaviours. I am fascinated by behavioural change campaigns and to be involved in analysing. And as a finance guy: How can we do things in a cheaper way? How do we convince funders, organisations, and high-net-worth individuals to support us?”

Saleem is excited about the many ways that technology is driving business innovation and is proud of Nal’ibali’s app that manages all their internal administrative processes. “The app has streamlined this and improved operations and efficiencies and we did not use a single piece of paper for admin purposes since lockdown started.”

As an individual with a growth mindset, Saleem prospers in an environment where he can do something new, learn something different and enhance his own toolbox of skills and he has found it at Nal’ibali. “The main question currently for me, is how do we make Nal’ibali sustainable? The challenge is how do we broaden our funder base so that we become less reliant on one or two funders? In a way, one could say that I got the opportunity to be a little more entrepreneurial in the organisation.”

Diverse experiences
Over the years, Saleem gained experience in the NGO, philanthropy, customer experience, international brands, property, retail, reinsurance, and sports management industries. There were jobs at Ernst and Young in Bermuda (where he even represented Bermuda at the 2007 Cricket World Cup), Harley-Davidson Africa, Woolworths, and Eastern Province Cricket.

Saleem enjoys the diversity that a career in finance offers. “We have quite a few doctors in our family, and I always joke with them and say that you can only be a doctor in a clinic or hospital or private practice. But with finance you can work in any industry in any country,” he says. “The CA(SA) qualification is an important and powerful one.”

His interesting career offered him the opportunity to meet many different people. “I have learned so many valuable lessons from all my colleagues at the different places where I worked. There was not only one mentor, but several.”

Where it all started
His family, a TV advert and a careers evening back in the 1980s inspired him to become an chartered accountant. He still remembers the event at the University of Cape Town which he attended with a few friends.

They made a presentation on the accounting profession; it sparked his interest and then there was a TV advert. “The advert showed a bunch of accountants as little men all wearing grey suits. And then there was this one debonair guy that walked into the boardroom who was not wearing a grey suit. He was breaking the mould and I wanted to do the same,” he recalls.

“My family is very entrepreneurial. I knew that I wanted to own a business one day and thought that a commerce degree could help me.”

His time at university was not easy and he says that he was not a “straight-A student”. It was also the time of segregation, and UCT was Saleem’s first foray into a diverse environment. “My journey had a few detours and pit stops and potholes but eventually I became a CA and I have never regretted it. It seems as if numbers run in the family, as my younger brother and baby sister are CAs as well.”

His 15-year-old son in grade 10 shares his dad’s love for cricket, but not for numbers, says Saleem. He is very proud of his creative son, and he encourages the artist in him.

At home
Saleem is an avid reader and calls reading “my alone time. When I read it’s just me and my imagination. It quiets the mind, which is so necessary in today’s world, and I learn and experience new things through reading, without having to leave my couch.

“James Clear’s best-seller Atomic Habits is a fantastic book on habits. He says a problem is not the problem, it is how we perceive the problem which is the problem. One should reflect on how you view a problem.

“I have read a lot of books during the Covid lockdown period. The pandemic has been devastating to so many people, but it has changed my view on life. It has certainly improved my relationships; my general state of awareness and I appreciate more the art of practising gratitude. We take so many things for granted.”

Saleem enjoys nonfiction and fiction. He is a huge fan of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher books and often reads books on time-management, wellbeing, and biographies. Marie Kondo’s book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, changed not only his life and his sock drawer, but also the state of his mind, as he too believes that a decluttered living space leads to a decluttered mind.

When he is not reading, he enjoys spending time with his family, exercising, and playing cricket. He plays for Rylands CC in the Western Province league as well as for Primrose CC in the WPCA veterans league.

Saleem comes from a family who loves cricket and cricket has always been part of his life. “I remember how my grandfather used to play cricket with us in the driveway and my dad used to play with his brothers. At school, I was a keen sportsman and participated in athletics, soccer, cricket, volleyball amongst others.

“How many people on the planet can say that they participated in a World Cup sporting event? I went to Bermuda for work and ended up representing Bermuda at the 2007 Cricket World Cup that was held in the West Indies. Meeting my heroes Sachin Tendulkar, Muttiah Muralitharan, Glenn McGrath and others was a dream come true.”

Saleem feels strongly about giving back to the community and that is why he coaches an under-17 cricket team and serves as national treasurer on the board of the South African National Zakah Fund (SANZAF), a national South African Islamic welfare organisation.

“The soundest advice my mom gave me was that what will happen will happen, so need to stress about it, which allows me to put my focus and time and energy on developing myself and giving back.

“My motto in life is simple: ‘Amplify the magic of life one moment at a time.’”