“The ICT industry is not realising its full potential as an engine of economic growth, job creation and black empowerment,” says Sindile Ncala, Managing Executive: Public Sector at ICT-Works.
She believes this is because the local industry is not placing enough emphasis on innovation, and particularly in developing its own intellectual property.
“The ICT industry has rightly been identified as a job creator and engine of empowerment in the South African economy, as witnessed by the industry’s compact with government in 2011 to create 1m jobs and achieve 100 percent broadband penetration by 2020,” says Ncala.
“While there has been progress and numbers of new, black-owned ICT companies have been launched, many have not lasted for very long. Overall, I think the industry hasn’t created the number of jobs it could have,” she adds.
Ncala argues that much of the local industry is uncompetitive because too many companies take the easy option of simply reselling technology and solutions that are essentially developed overseas. When times are good, this strategy can pay off but it always means that the company is “just another reseller,” making it vulnerable to competitors with better ideas.
“For as long as the majority of our ICT industry is involved purely in reselling, it will not make the contribution to the country’s economic development it could,” she warns.
The majority of the black-owned ICT companies that have sprung up over the years have tended to follow the same reseller model. Many of them have failed because they have become over-reliant on government business, and thus vulnerable to late payment or non-award of a tender. Ncala believes it is very important for black start-ups to diversify their businesses from the beginning.
“It’s a question of not having all your eggs in one basket,” says Ncala, adding that this is easier said than done.
“Breaking into the private sector as a black-owned company is particularly difficult, and you have to keep proving yourself,” she says.
Ncala’s observations are based on her experience as one of the shareholders in ICT-Works, which was founded in 1999 by CEO Xoliswa Kakana—the other shareholder is Maggy Sibiya, the COO. The fact that the company is owned by black women is often noted but, says Ncala, it would rather be known for the lasting contribution it has made to building up a truly innovative South African ICT industry.
Recipe for success
With a track record spanning some 16 years, the company can truly be said to be making headway in achieving its goals. It has managed to survive, and even to prosper, because of a sustained focus on governance and management, on building up the right calibre of human resources, and through a sustained focus on innovation.
Governance and management are necessarily the bedrock of any successful company—without them, companies will never be able to survive hard times, and will not make decisions with the long term in mind. This can mean taking what can seem to be the harder route, in order to build a pipeline of future business. Following this thinking, ICT-Works has been able to strike a balance between the public and private sectors; and between reselling and implementing leading technologies and developing its own solutions.
The second success driver is ICT-Works’ fundamental belief that its success is built on the quality of its people. Consequently, Ncala says the company has developed an integrated, proactive talent management strategy.
“People ultimately buy from, and trust, other people. For us, then, it’s critical not only that we attract and retain people with the right skills and attitude, but that we also provide our existing staff with clear opportunities to grow within the company—we want our people to see us as the employer of choice,” says Ncala.
Creating the right corporate culture is part of this mix, with entrepreneurial flair a key component. Another important element is providing opportunities for further learning, both in the technical and management areas. The company has even launched its own training academy, Akuwa Akili (kiSwahili for ‘Be intelligent, be prosperous.’)
Then there’s the question of innovation, which Ncala sees as the basis of true competitive differentiation and sustained success.
“Early on, we took a decision as management that we were going to pursue a course of building up our own intellectual property because that’s what will set us apart,” says Ncala.
“We’ve actively gone out and looked for projects that would allow us to do so, even though that made things harder for us in the short term. We have also been willing to work alongside bigger, more established companies as a junior partner in order to build our credentials,” she adds.
Tasting the fruits
Hard work and a commitment to results over the years have enabled ICT-Works to participate in many of the country’s flagship ICT projects. One such project is the Integrated Financial Management System (IFMS,) which falls under National Treasury.
Ncala explains that ICT-Works was responsible for the supply chain management portion of the IFMS, which aims to curb unauthorised expenditure, eliminate waste, reduce corruption and enhance efficiency across the public sector.
The company designed and implemented an innovative, user-friendly and Web-based solution built on Oracle, covering the entire supply chain lifecycle, from supplier management to payment and invoice management; and from contract, bid and quotation management to asset and inventory management.
The success of ICT-Works’ IFMS solution led to a request from the Kenyan Finance Ministry to customise the solution for its specific needs.
“This clearly shows how investing in your own intellectual property positions you for repeat business,” says Ncala.
Another important project has been ICT-Works’ involvement in the City of Cape Town’s MyCiti transport initiative. For this project, ICT-Works developed an integrated fare collection system, which it will manage for seven years. Remarkably, the system was the first fare-management system in the world to be accredited by EMV (Europay, Mastercard and Visa), the leading global payment standard. The project received an award from MasterCard for Best Bank Card Ticketing Scheme.
“Although the private sector doesn’t have the focus on encouraging empowerment that government has, we believe that by putting our heads down and delivering innovative solutions that do the job, such as we did with MyCiti, we will build up a good client base, to do that, it’s critical that you are able to work well with partners, such as we did with Absa and Vix on the MyCiti project—but then we have always believed that success is not a zero-sum game: you will be successful if your employees and business partners benefit, and your clients are happy,” says Ncala.
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