My Journey Becoming a CA(SA) And Choosing to do my Articles at Unilever (TOPP and not TIPP)

The Finance Story

  • In today’s article, we have Nobuhle Mbonambi sharing with us how pursuing CA(SA) changed her life for the better. 
  • Having done her articles with Unilever South Africa (and not in an Auditing Firm) she also shares career guidance on whether students pursuing CA from SAICA should do their articles from TIPP or TOPP? 
  • Today Nobuhle is a Head of Finance for Tsebo Group Solutions divisions in South Africa. She is responsible for 3 companies within the group and presently managing a team of 40 people.

Growing Up With Challenges 

I am Nobuhle Mbonambi a qualified Chartered Accountant from SAICA (The South African Institute of Chartered Accountants).

I was born and raised in Durban and had been privileged to come from a 'disadvantaged background' in South Africa. However coming from a disadvantaged background with both my parents being fairly old and with minimum wages, life was not easy.

Staying in the townships in the northern rural of KwaZulu Natal, there was no structured system for Grade 1 intake. Luckily my kindergarten teachers knew I was smart and ready to start Grade 1, they enrolled me at the age of 4 years old.

Financial Challenges and Deciding to CA(SA)

During my high school years, I was generally good at all my subjects (Commerce, Science, History, Geography). In Grade 9, during a career expo at school, individuals working in the different fields had visited and I had learnt what an Accountant does and where that could take me in life.

Our curriculum was structured in such a way that when we get to Grade 10, we had to choose a stream. So, I opted to do Commerce with the intention of becoming a Chartered Accountant. Also, Commerce was an easy safe option for me because I generally understood numbers more than anything and it made sense.

My older siblings were very supportive of me in my journey and guided me in every way they could. I researched about CA and read up as much as I could. I also asked my Accounting teacher all that I could possibly ask her to prepare myself for the CA journey ahead.

And that's how I decided to become a Chartered Accountant.

"How To Apply for the National Funding Scheme To Support My Studies?"

My mother was a tea lady an at organization and my father was a merchandiser and I knew they could not on their own afford for me to attend college.

So I applied for the National Funding Scheme in South Africa. I obtained an NFSAS loan which supported me through the five years I spent at the University of KwaZulu Natal in Pietermaritzburg.

Luckily, the organization that my mother worked for also financially assisted in my studies as I had qualified for part-funding so each year they sponsored me a bursary for 25% of my annual studies.

I went on to finish paying off my NFSAS student funding loan when I began my articles.

My advice to you - Do not let lack of finances STOP you from studying further and educating yourself. There is always a way in life if you - Stay Focussed on your goal.

Overcoming Challenges and Qualifying as a Chartered Accountant

To become a Chartered Accountant from SAICA one needs:

  • To have a Bachelors degree in Accounting or equivalent
  • Honours Post Graduation qualification (CTA 1, CTA2)
  • 3 years articleship (this depends whether it is a part-time study or full time so it can vary from 3-5 years
  • Give two written board exams (ITC and APC)

I graduated with rank 7 in my year for Honours in 2008 at the University of KwaZulu Natal, Pietermaritzburg Campus. So my Honours was pretty comfortable. I started Varsity in 2004 and enrolled for my Accounting Degree.

First-year was a breeze, I passed without putting an effort into my studies, I did not do my homework and tutorials and I simply enjoyed myself at Varsity being away from home for the first time (my college was 200kms away from home).

I honestly neglected my school work and was enjoying the little independence I had - I was partying for the first time, started dating and was on a spree (I laugh at my stupidity now).

In the second year, not focusing on my studies caught up with me and I failed my Accounting 2 module in 2005. This failure set me back big time, as I could not graduate with my Accounting Degree (and to pursue CA I had to graduate in Accounting) anymore at the end of 2006.

I had to repeat my Accounting 2 module (which was a full year course in 2006). That’s when I realized I need to change my habits, I had come here to study and that should take priority.

I started studying hard again, doing all my homework, working through every single question my hands could grab. I went for all my tutorials.

Luckily, I put in extra effort and graduated with my peers with whom I had started off in 2004 but in Supply Chain (not Accounting). However to become a CA I had to have an Accounting Degree, so I studied one extra year to graduate with an Accounting Degree.

I was also asked by the University to become their first-year lecturer to lecture students who were disadvantaged and couldn’t understand English.

I began to lecture in IsiZulu (which is one of our indigenous languages in South Africa). I was also a tutor for homework classes for the first year. I was also a Resident Tutor for anyone at the doms who needed any commerce assistance.

I graduated for my Accounting Degree in 2007 and stood No 3 at the University. This built my foundation for my Honours year and is one of the key reasons why I was able to rank no: 7 in my Honours year.

I don’t think my Honours would have been that easy for me, should I not have encountered a breaking point during my second year at University.

So always BELIEVE - Everything happens for a reason. Learn from your mistakes.

"Learnings From My Journey?"

  • Taking a look back at the years and how it had played out for me, I think it is very important to emphasize that hard work produces the right results.
  • Focus in class, attend all your classes, work through all the past papers, do all the given homework and tutorials.
  • If you don’t understand something, engage with your peers who seem to have a better understanding, engage with your tutors, engage with your lecturers to get the knowledge you need.
  • Don’t give up until something makes sense to you, if it doesn’t make sense, go back to it until you figure it out, or someone helps you to figure it out.
  • Forget peer pressure, everything you are doing while at College is investing in YOUR future, not your friends' future or anyone else's but yours. So people might laugh at you at that time when you seem stupid for asking the same question over and over again, don’t let that stop you, tomorrow you will be happy and jolly when you have gained your success.
  • While I was in high school my accounting teacher would frequently say to me “Nobuhle, educating yourself is the ONE selfish act that you should never shy away from”, today sitting where I am sitting right now, I fully understand that statement.

Starting my Articles - TIPP or TOPP?

During my first year at University, a number of Audit Firms would visit us and talk to us about their articles.

I applied for Deloitte and Touche SA at their Durban branch and I was accepted. So from my first year, I was meant to complete my Honours and go and work as an articled clerk at Deloitte. However, during my third year accounting, Unilever South Africa came to visit the University and informed us about their TOPP training programme. I did not know TOPP until the year Unilever SA came to visit us.

In South Africa, you can either do TIPP (Training in Public Practise) or do TOPP (Training outside Public Practise).

TIPP training focuses more on being an audit expert as you work with audit firms and audit their external customers through the three years you spend. You get an advantaged of becoming a registered auditor post your articles.

If you do TOPP articles, you work with large organizations and the one I then signed with was in the FMCG (fast-moving consumer goods) industry.

The difference is that with TOPP you get exposed to the real work environment, you are part of the finance team doing the accounting work vs auditing them.

"How was my Journey as a TOPP Article Assistant?"

The main reason I chose to take the TOPP route and say goodbye to my Deloitte contract was that I did not see myself staying as an auditor post my articles.

I was going to move into the finance space anyway so to be given a chance to train in the same environment I wanted to end up in was a blessing for me.

Also, the remuneration package for TOPP was four times that of TIPP articles (I am not joking) so that was a cherry on the top for me.

During my articles, I was a Category Accountant (management accounting). I was looking after a brand, responsible for their profitability, business partnering the factory with innovations, costing different innovation models, business partnering the marketing team and assisting in managing their budget (and so much more).

After Category Accountant, I moved to be a Financial Accountant (reporting and ledger management, I dealt with mergers and acquisitions, I prepared the annual financial statements and so much more) post that I went into the Tax department.

Lastly finished my training at the Internal Audit function where I was an Assurance Controller (internal audit).

Articles Advice

  1. TIPP or TOPP? Know where you see your self in 10 years' time. If it is in an audit firm as a Partner, then you must do TIPP. If it is in a non-audit organization heading a finance department or heading a company as an MD or CEO – then you must do TOPP.
  2. Research well. Once you have made a decision from the above, research information about the potential company you have decided on. Speak to people who have worked in there to find out what the culture is like, will it fit in with you. Read articles about that company to see what is the latest news the company is going through – you don’t want a company that’s associated with fraud, you don’t want a company that is unable to remain stable during tough economic conditions.
  3. Promotions. Find out what it takes when you are in that company to get a promotion – speak to people that have been promoted. See if you have those qualities and will you be able to get promoted. You don’t want to get your dream job but end up being redundant in the same position become you do not meet the qualities for a promotion.
  4. Vac Work. See if you can get vac work into a different company’s so that you can get a feel of different working environment so it helps with making your decision.

Also Read

Overcoming Challenges and Qualifying as a CA from South Africa While Working Full Time

In Conclusion…

My biggest learning was realizing that in the working environment = You have to be committed + you have to be trustworthy + you have to be reliable. These are the key most important factors.

You have to be clear in communicating simply things as not being able to meet a deadline and state your reasoning.

KEEP EVERYTHING DOCUMENTED, especially email trail. People forget about the decisions they made and when things don’t go in their favour, they will rebuke what they had said. So Document everything, get all approvals on email.

Now It's Your Turn

Have you been in a similar situation?

Or are you still deciding on doing your articles from TIPP or TOPP?

For any help, I could be reached on LinkedIn or on any social network platform at - Nobuhle Mbonambi or telephonically on +27 796 694 4239

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