The right partnerships, skills and funding will get your business off the ground.
Xolisa Vuza, co-founder and CTO at Asante Digital Group, grew up in an era where becoming a doctor, teacher or police officer were sought-after careers. So, when he decided to pursue a career in IT, he took the road less travelled.
After completing matric, Xolisa decided to study medicine, but was advised by his parents to rather start with an entry-level BSc qualification. “I suspect my parents thought studying medicine would’ve taken me longer than they had anticipated, leading to higher costs for them” he jokes.
After some deliberation, he found his way to the faculty of natural sciences at the University of the Western Cape, trying to register for a BSc degree. He knew that he had to have some majors in order to get into the BSc programme and this is where Xolisa came across the fascinating world of computer science.
“It was by chance that I got into IT: I came from a rural school which had no computers whatsoever,” he notes. “Therefore, I knew nothing about computers and how they worked, my teachers included,” he says.
He went on to say that cell phone penetration back then was virtually non-existent: cell phones themselves were a rarity at the time.
Despite this, Xolisa went on to major in computer science, physics and information systems. “I fell in love with it,” he says, and went on to do both his honours and master’s degrees as well.
His first IT gig was with SAP as a software developer, however this was a role he didn’t really enjoy. “I honestly grew tired of developing software and knew that it didn’t really suit my personality,” he says. “I'm quite talkative, and working in development I felt I had little to no engagement with other people: you’re just giving your brief and you work on it, and leave.
“I couldn’t picture myself doing that for the rest of my life,” he notes. Xolisa then was poached by Standard Bank and worked as an application architect and later on as solutions architect. A few years later, he got into the consulting space with PwC. Although this was for a brief time, he enjoyed the work, but struggled to fit into the culture there, and moved on to Nedbank as senior solutions architect, and spent a short stint in the utilities sector, working with a company that produces pre-paid meters in Durban.
“This company mainly worked on the hardware side of things, producing the physical meter boxes. On the other hand, their competitors who were moving into the software, and developing the software that produced tokens a customer would receive after they had bought electricity,” he explains.
Going back to his roots as a software developer, he joined the competition as a product specialist and gave them guidance on how the software should be developed. “I drafted a full product strategy for them that included a developed roadmap on how everything would be done. However, they didn’t have the funds commitment to implement it, so I then returned to Nedbank again as a senior architect,” he says.
Later, Xolisa joined African Bank and was one of the founding team members of the architecture division and second in command. They recruited more people into the architecture team, but it was during that time the bank was experiencing some difficulties. The bank was undergoing curatorship and the Reserve Bank even got involved. “I felt that it was in my best interests to leave, at least until things settled down,” he says. He then joined a niche consulting firm and was stationed at Vodacom, working in their large transformation programme.
It was only when he was headhunted by Accenture that the CTO was introduced to the world of IT strategy, and as a hardcore techie, as he puts it. He struggled having conversations with executives around buy-in and investment into new technology. “I was meant to join Accenture as a senior manager, but it was suggested I cut my teeth in strategy because of a strong technical background,” he explains.
When he left Accenture, Xolisa’s journey into entrepreneurship happened simultaneously with his first official role as a CTO with Zimele Technologies, which was another company that sought his expertise. “I reconnected with a former Standard Bank colleague who shared similar ideas, and in 2018, co-founded Akhani Technologies, an Asante Digital Group subsidiary,” he says.
“Although Akhani Technologies is a consulting company at its core, we are currently rotating to become a purely cloud services provider,” he says. “You can’t talk about the cloud and not have solutions architecture in the same sentence,” he notes. He believes that everyone will at some point end up in the cloud and those that are reluctant, are just delaying the inevitable.
He does, however, point out that Asante, through its subsidiary, Afrinova Digital have owned products across multiple sectors that they have developed in-house. South Africa’s tech skills shortage is forcing companies such as his own to look for skills outside the country. “We formed partnerships with some colleagues based in Portugal. They were also keen on doing some work in Africa, but couldn’t find the right partners,” he explains.
“Together with our Portuguese partners, we founded Innovity Africa: an Asante subsidiary and business consulting firm that promotes digital transformation initiatives with OutSystems low code platform.”
Among the other entities Xolisa co-founded is mojaPay, a fintech company aimed at the unbanked and underbanked citizens, suppliers or merchants that service them. “Partnerships are one and very crucial, but raising capital is another story altogether, “ he says. “Local investors are quite conservative, but in the United States, for example, they have a bigger appetite for funding start-ups, even in ideas that don't have a customer base, ” he notes.
“In our case, we have customers using the product, transacting with real money who are generating revenue. Even so, investors are still reluctant to fund new businesses – they want volume and profitability, and this is a flawed model for businesses that have just started,” he suggests.
On a more positive note, Xolisa does point out that investors who look beyond just making money are starting to emerge. “There are those investors who are not fixated on immediate profits, but buying into the company’s vision and the long term potential instead,” he concludes.