Automatic for the people
Xoliswa Kakana’s mum lent her R40K to turn her tech start-up into a Pan-African business that wins lucrative contracts to automate systems and improve lives
It all started with a dream to develop and run a company in which everyone, regardless of their gender and race, would be allowed to be the best they could be. So when Xoliswa Kakana fell pregnant with her last-born child in 1999, she decided that instead of going on maternity leave, she would turn her dream into a reality.
She quit her job as a commercialisation manager at research group the CSIR. With just a laptop, an idea of what she wanted to do and R40 000 of her mother’s pension payout as start-up capital, she founded ICT-Works, a company that provides innovative technology solutions.
Today, ICT-Works is headed by three black women – Kakana, Sindile Ncala and Margaret Sibiya. The company employs 120 people at its offices in Joburg and Cape Town.
It also competes with leading international IT companies for business in the rest of Africa and has bagged lucrative contracts in Nigeria and Kenya.
ICT-Works recently won a tender in Nigeria for an advanced public transport management system, which automates planning, scheduling and fleet management for the Lagos Metropolitan Area Transport Authority.
This is the company’s second-largest contract outside South Africa after its successful implementation of a procurement management solution for Kenya’s National Treasury.
In South Africa, ICT-Works has scored several lucrative contracts over the years, including one for MyCiti, the City of Cape Town’s integrated rapid bus transport system, in 2012. The tender to develop, implement, maintain and operate a cashless system ran into hundreds of millions of rands.
It sounds like an inspiring journey, but it was not all smooth sailing, Kakana told City Press this week.
“There were times when I wished I had not ventured into business because of the myriad challenges we faced in the beginning – in particular, cash flow. I had not anticipated that there would be cash flow problems caused by delayed payments or delays in the completion of the project,” she says.
“Knowing what I know now, I would perhaps have waited and made sure I had enough working capital to keep going.
“If it were not for my mother, who came to my rescue with a chunk of her pension, we would be telling a different story today.”
Through the ups and downs, Kakana, an electronics engineer, persevered and ensured that every contract the company signed was delivered. She doubled up as a financial manager, bid writer and even a floor sweeper.
She soon realised she needed help from people experienced in the ICT sector and partnered with Ncala, who is the company’s managing executive for the public sector, and Sibiya, now ICT-Works’ chief operations officer.
Ncala brought with her a wealth of experience from the ICT sector, having previously worked at local and international companies such as the Edcon Group, Accenture and Standard Bank. Sibiya had extensive experience in the IT industry, having specialised in business operations and strategy development.
One would have thought that would have been the end of their woes, but they soon realised it was not to be. Kakana says that even when the three women were holding things together, they made mistakes.
“We underestimated the amount of selling we’d have to do because we assumed that, being a BEE company, 100% black-female-owned and managed, that would give us an advantage in the industry.
“But after some time, we realised we had to work 10 times harder and stand above the rest,” she says.
Their determination paid off in 2008 when the company landed a contract worth more than R700 million to implement procurement as part of Treasury’s integrated financial management system. This was the largest and most complex contract the company had won, says Kakana.
“Due to the magnitude and complexity of this project, we had to ramp up capacity. This meant we needed a lot of capital before the project even began.
“At that time, we were still building the company and didn’t have such reserves. We approached the Industrial Development Corporation (IDC) for finance in 2008 and the loan was approved in 2011. This is how our relationship with them began.”
Kakana cannot provide the exact figure of the first loan ICT-Works received from the corporation. But she does say that the IDC has been supportive of her company over the past seven years.
Bolstered by the track record of several successes such as MyCity and Treasury’s projects, Kakana says: “We are not afraid to go after large, complex projects, both in the public and private sectors.”
In the past seven years, ICT-Works has delivered three contracts worth more than R700 million.
“It’s unfortunate that we are one of a few black, female-led, leading ICT companies in South Africa. Of course, we aspire to be a successful Pan-African organisation. It’s about time we developed many more black companies to play in the big league,” says Kakana.
This series is reported by City Press and sponsored by the IDC
EASY DOES IT
Pritchard Venganai, supervisor of the automated fare collection team at ICT-Works. He works on the MyCiTi project