Women leading ICT in Africa


Started 18 years ago by founding member and CEO Xoliswa Kakana, a telecommunications engineer at the time, ICT-Works was born from a desire to take advantage of and contribute to what South Africa was becoming.

Identifying a number of opportunities for herself in the Information and Communications Technologies (ICT) sector, Kakana used her mother’s pension pay out to start what is today one of the country’s leading 100% black, female-owned IT companies. “It was at a time of real convergence in the industry, and as things progressed over time it so happened that the opportunities became more abundant in the traditional IT sector, where telecoms became a very difficult, highly-regulated and contested area. We identified integrating and implementing business solutions systems as well as general IT consulting as key areas of growth,” says Sindi Ncala, Enterprise Services and Solutions Director for ICT-Works. “As women, the reality is that there simply aren’t very many of us leading in this industry, and we have to pay special attention to the language we use to ensure that we are understood and actually seen as technology specialists rather than just women working in the industry.” For Kakana, the business has changed significantly from those early days in her own home office, with the company’s focus now shifting to innovation as a major key area of growth going forward.

“When we started we were an organisation focused mainly on building a reputation, so we just put all of our effort into delivering to our clients.“We have since seen the importance of innovating, and have started our innovation division to help propel our growth even more. Starting from an office in my home, we now have offices across the country, and it requires a very different way of managing resources, and sometimes even just the way we think,” Kakana says. “What is absolutely still at the very core of our business is delivery to our clients.” Looking ahead, Kakana, Ncala and COO Maggy Sibiya hope to grow ICT-Works into the rest of the continent, ensuring that they remain successful in the public sector, while also growing vigorously in the private sector, using innovation and delivery as their key.

Working for ICT-Works

ICT-Works consists of two primary business units, each offering a wide variety of services and products. The Transport Unit delivers the integration of transport management systems, automated fare collection and fleet management. The Enterprise Systems unit is responsible for the development and integration of a wide variety of business solutions, consulting services, enterprise resource planning (ERP) and other niche products.To date, ICT-Works has participated in many of the country’s flagship ICT projects. One of these key projects is the Integrated Financial Management System (IFMS) which is now used by the National Treasury.

ICT-Works was responsible for the supply chain management portion of the IFMS, working towards curbing unauthorised expenditure while eliminating waste, reducing corruption and enhancing efficiency within the public sector.“We wanted to create something for our clients so that they could handle their supply chain in a way that subscribed to current legislation. With our system, procurement is now automated, tenders and proposals are handled seamlessly, with the unique South African circumstances still applied,” Ncala explains. The success of ICT-Works’ IFMS solution has also led the Kenyan government to customise the solution for its specific needs.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 Europay, MasterCard and Visa, and the project received an award from MasterCard for the Best Bank Card Ticketing Scheme.

“We have also recently developed a cloud offering which is aimed primarily at smaller clients, more specifically municipalities, who simply don’t have capex to procure the necessary hardware. AfriCloud is basically a municipal solution in a box, in the cloud. No ERP solution is needed and we have packaged a large number of useful modules into this one-stop solution. Municipalities simply plug into the cloud and can perform a wide number of transactions locally. It’s important for service delivery to bring systems into local government, ensuring efficiency, speed and the latest technology in a much more affordable way,” Ncala says.ICT-Works is also an Oracle platinum partner, further speaking to its ability to implement incredibly complex systems. ICT-Works has won various industry awards in recognition of the contribution it has made to the ICT industry and skills development. These include the Top Women Top Gender Empowered ICT Award, the Top Women Skills Development Award and the DTi (Dept of Trade and Industry) Technology Award

The future of Information Communication Technology?

Kakana attributes the slow growth of the ICT industry to a number of challenges. Firstly, there is a lack of innovation in our country and on the continent as a whole. Also of note is the lack of adequate infrastructure investment; and there is a lack of investment in skills development. We are also faced with prohibitively high costs of data. The inclusion of ICT in more industrialisation programmes could also significantly contribute to the country’s economic growth, and Ncala says that the sooner we embrace this idea, the better.“I am of the conviction that the fast tracking of growth requires political and government buy-in. It has been proven that a good, vibrant ICT industry makes a marked and positive contribution to GDP growth,” she says.

“I am fascinated by how Kenya, as soon as there was political impetus, has been able to fast-track its growth to an extent that it has almost overtaken South Africa, which had an earlier start. Data rates in Kenya are less than the South African benchmarked rates.”All three women believe that while the African continent may be the fastest growing in terms of Information Communication Technology, this achievement may become negligible as a result of these challenges. “I also believe that the innovation happening in the middle sector must be nurtured more. People often pay a lot of attention to small businesses, but medium-sized businesses are often ignored. There is a lot of innovation happening there, but very little support,” says Kakana. “We find ourselves at a growth stage where we are too large to be considered a small business since we are beyond the R50 million per annum revenue threshold. This poses a challenge as it precludes us from small business targeted initiatives. At the same time though we are perceived as not big enough for larger, more complex projects. Our government should focus on businesses of this size which have overcome the founding challenges.By assisting these businesses to grow further it allows the multiplier effect to increase in the form of growth overall and all the areas that effects, e.g. skills and further enterprise development etc.”

Sibiya, on the other hand, believes that a lack of support for locally made products may equally hamper the industry’s growth in future. She believes this is because the local industry does not place enough emphasis on innovation, particularly when it comes to developing its own intellectual property. “We can all agree that the ICT industry is not realising its full potential as an engine of economic growth. But, I believe that a reliance on foreign technology is a real issue, one we need to tackle head on. We need to, in future, be more deliberate with quota systems on businesses using our own technology to combat the lack support for local products,” says Sibiya. ICT-Works has also placed a strong focus on growth in the private sector, which is also very key on their radar. A lot is, and has been invested in this effort to unlock the potential this opportunity presents.

The heart of ICT-Works

Kakana puts the company’s success down to both its agility and resilience as an organisation. “We are quick-footed when we need to be, and our size allows us to fit ourselves to whatever is needed at any given time,” she says. For Sibiya, investing in its own people is what makes her feel so passionate about her job. And it’s not just ICT-Works employees who fall under this category, but people from local communities who really make up the heart of their organisation. “When it comes to corporate social investment (CSI) we never really had any sort of official programme until recently. This is not because we don’t care, but rather because our CSI has always been something that was just ingrained in who we are. There have been a number of programmes we have supported for years, some involving Saturday classes for children from disadvantaged communities who would otherwise have no chance to learn maths, science and English. So, we have always supported these kinds of initiatives, we have just never made a big fuss about what we do. It’s just a part of our very core,” Sibiya says.

“We come from these communities and we understand what they need, so we will continue to work in them. It’s more than just a marketing strategy. We often discuss how we can be a more meaningful and active part of the lives of the people around us. Our employees seem to just come alive when it’s time to implement these projects, we see ourselves at our best and the diversity and excitement is really so beautiful to see,” Ncala adds. Kakana, Ncala and Sibiya, all ready to enter a new era for the company, have spent some time reflecting on their values and mission for the future of ICT-Works. “We are in the process of rearticulating our values, really looking at what language to use to describe who we are and what we have become. Our vision has always been for a women-anchored, strongly guided and principled organisation. And we believe that it is necessary and critical that there is an organisation like this one operating in the South African market, and on the continent too,” Sibiya says. Innovation will continue to be a strong focal point for the group as it looks to address very important niche areas. Believing that change is the only constant, Ncala says that they will need to keep their finger on the pulse, which is why they now have a division dedicated to innovation initiatives.

“We don’t want these innovations to live only in South Africa. They must be exportable. This is a big part of our vision going forward,” she says. Through their own journey, these three women have come from a place where ideas like customer service, delivery on promises and CSI are an intrinsic part of who they are, and not just a tick the box exercise. “Persistent is another really good word to describe ICT-Works as an organisation, this sector certainly is not for sissies. Some of our people have been here for over 10 years, and with turnover in the market that really says something. We are also very resilient, we’re still here and we’re still passionate. There’s definitely still room for us, and if anything there’s maybe not enough of the likes of us out there,” Kakana says. “Looking to our future I would like to offer more support to other women-owned tech companies, provide them with learning and also a shoulder to cry on, because you will cry. “But I would also like to be there to say to them that it is possible. That does mean going the extra mile, and really making an impact. I think that’s why we value entrepreneurs at ICT-Works. We love the freedom of the entrepreneurial environment, and we appreciate and look for that quality in our people.

About Xoliswa Kakana, CEO:

Kakana grew up in the Eastern Cape, fiercely passionate about maths and science. She holds a BSc Mathematics and Applied Mathematics from the University of Transkei; a Master’s Degree in Electronics Engineering from F.H. Giessen-Friedberg University, Germany; a Master’s in Business Administration (MBA) from Henley Management College, London; a Master’s in Business Administration (MBA), Technology Management and Innovation from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; and a Master’s Degree in Public Administration (MPA) from Harvard University.“My career started at Hewlett Packard as a systems engineer. I went on to join Iridium, a low orbiting satellite company developing wireless networks. My commercial enterprise spirit really grew in my time there and I eventually left to start my own business, ICT-Works,” she says.

“There was lots of excitement at that time. ICT promised to change how we did business, the industry was experiencing a transition and upon entering the sector, it was very apparent that there were few black people, let alone black women. That really inspired me to establish my own company, one that would allow us all the space to express ourselves.”Kakana’s primary responsibilities include driving the strategic focus of the company, and reporting its performance to the board. “I’m also responsible for making sure that we have all the resources we need to keep growing".

I need to look after our people, create a positive environment and skill them to deliver on our promises. I try to allow them to be as creative as they need to be, but from the start my focus is to always be alert to trends in the market place, and I’m always looking into the future,” she says.She is an active contributor to the evolution of the industry and participated in the development of the Green and White Paper processes that led to the Telecommunications Act. Thereafter, she continued to drive the process of transformation in the sector through her involvement in the Women in ICT forum of which she is founder and former chairperson. Kakana has held several board seats including Conscillium Technologies and ZA Central Registry (ZACR), and was non-executive director at Broadband Infraco. In 2009 Kakana was honoured with the Women in Technology award; was a finalist in the Telecommunications Business Woman awards in 2011; and a finalist in the Business Woman of the Year award in 2012.

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