Consistency, the only relevant currency

Africa is at the heart of the tech evolution

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Some are born great, some have greatness forced upon them and some earn greatness through resilience, hard work and sheer boldness. At a time when South Africa is highly conscious of female empowerment and the strength of women, I had the privilege and honour of sitting with one of South Africa’s female shining lights and a trailblazer in the IT and education sector.

CEO and founder of FACT SA, Nargis Gani has a passion for business transformation and has actively participated in numerous projects to improve and maximise deliverables from process re-engineering to skills development in both the public and private sector. With a Higher Diploma in Education behind her name she has mastered the art of blending her Industrial Psychology and Training knowledge into practical courses for people and management development with 10+ years in training and course development, delivering training, designing and writing courses and directing enterprise initiatives.

Her areas of expertise include but are not limited to:

  • Business transformation
  • Restructuring and turnaround
  • Coaching & Mentoring
  • Growth strategy
  • Business development
  • Education

Gani holds various notable qualifications which include:

  • Honours in Psychology — University of the Western Cape
  • Bachelor of Arts — University of the Western Cape
  • Programme In Business Leadership —University of South Africa
  • Higher Diploma in Education — University of the Western Cape
  • Diploma Human Resources — Damelin

Gani’s career spans over 22 years, 15 of which she has been at the helm of FACT. As an employee she enjoyed successful careers at The South African Post Office; Siemens LTD; Momentum and The National Treasury.

As a business owner she has a proven track record of significant improvements to processes, productivity, quality, and customer satisfaction while reducing costs, increasing turnover, and maintaining a positive work environment. She is heralded by her multinational clients as a dynamic leader, strategic thinker and decision-maker.

Her passion for success has resulted in her growing a business from green field inception into a brand that is recognised by the telecommunications and engineering sectors as a supplier of choice.

Through her leadership, Nargis has implemented socio and economic development programmes which focus on gender equality, female empowerment, youth development, disability awareness and transformation.

FACT is a South African headquartered professional services company established in 2002 with specialist focuses on Business Process Outsourcing in the Engineering, Telecommunications and IT industries. With more than a decade of experience behind them, and a collective management experience of more than 50 years, the company has consistently delivered in the areas of Managed Services and Maintenance, Project Management, Managed Resources, Organisational and Resource Development.

The company carries a staff component in access of 260 members of which the majority service the ICT industry and delivers projects within Africa and Middle East. FACT also utilises the services of a range of competent consultants to meet the needs of their clients. The company is 100% female black owned and has a BBBEE scorecard rating of AAA+ 135% as a level 1 contributor and value adding enterprise. Gani sat with Leadership to explain more about the state of the industry, her companies ethos and values and the future.

You founded Future Africa Consulting and Training (FACT SA) initially because you wanted to spend more time with the family. Can you tell us more about your background prior to this?

After completing a B.A Honours degree in Psychology from the University of the Western Cape, I immediately joined the corporate workforce and enjoyed successful careers at, The South African Post Office; Siemens LTD; Momentum and The National Treasury. During this time, I also completed a PBL from UNISA SBL. In 2002, I was pregnant with my third child, working 12 to 14 hours days for a corporate company and already riddled by guilt because of not being able to give my husband and two children enough attention and time. With a third child on the horizon I could not see myself leaving him in someone else’s care. The challenge was as a family we needed the second income. So when I finally took the decision to venture on my own, I knew failure was not an option, the pressure was on from day 1 to make the business a success.

What leadership philosophy do you live by?

The three key words are: Knowledgeable, empowering and accountable. I regularly coach my staff to be sensitive to the changing marketplace, competitor strategies, and customer preferences and adapt our services accordingly. To be able to consistently deliver high service, I constantly reinforce the fact that communication is vital throughout the business and with our clients. Everyone within the business knows what their responsibilities are, what they are accountable for and what their client’s expectations are. It is imperative to keep an open communicate channel with clients and continuously provide feedback and follow-ups.

How do you balance work and play?

It’s not an easy task, the demand of overlooking all the facets within the business is a lot more challenging than just focusing on a specific job function, then there is the constant demand from clients and internal stakeholders for input and advice but balance is important to prevent burnout.

I make it a mission to book out certain times of my diary for personal time and prayers. I ensure that on most days I am home in time to prepare and have dinner with my family, this is very important to me. I like to end each day with a book at bedtime to clear my mind from work and to create thought processes that are of a spiritual nature, this helps to recharge for the next day.

Travel and spending time in Nature is another passion of mine, and I make the time to enjoy these activities.

And finally engaging in community activities, mentoring and giving advice to women from all walks of life on a wide range of subjects adds to a sense of purpose other than just work.

What are some of your daily responsibilities as CEO of FACT?

I am person with a keen eye on detail but at the same time empower my team by ensuring that I am not micromanaging their tasks. In a day’s work I plan, direct and manage the performance of the company’s operations to ensure alignment to the overall and long-term strategic objectives of the business.

I also actively oversee client relationships and management to ensure client satisfaction, with the objective to maintain and develop future growth within those clients. To ensure excellence I direct and manage business operation activities to ensure services are delivered in accordance with client requirements. Managing new business development activities, RFP and RFQ’s to ensure continue growth of the business is also something that I consider a key task. In order to ensure effective performance of the management team I set clear goals and review these actively to maximise individual, divisional and departmental performance.

Can you briefly take us through your company’s journey?

A lot of things happen and change in 15 Years or so in business i.e. client requirements; technology advancements, relevance to market, mergers and acquisitions; staff turnover etc... It’s a continuous evolution.

At FACT we are no stranger to this evolutionary demand, continuously revisiting our service offering to ensure we remain relevant to our clients’ needs. From humble beginnings, working out of home-based offices in 2002, we have grown from strength to strength; FACT has been providing a range of outsourced and managed services. Some of the projects include NOC support; Spare parts Warehousing and Management; Field Support services; Network commissioning and integration, as well as Network planning and Optimisation. Over the years we have accumulated several industry awards and now employ in excess of 260 people. FACT currently owns the resource infrastructure that enables the smooth functioning and service delivery within these disciplines. Now with offices in South Africa; Mauritius; UAE and Turkey we deliver services to various countries in the MEA Region.

You grew a business from inception, today your company has exceeded beyond expectation, successfully running for an impressive 15 years. What does it take to achieve this kind of success?

Personalised service is a fundamental differentiator and understanding that your business is all about your clients. Everything you do in business must be client-orientated. Follow-up, and follow-through with your clients. It is imperative to be client-focused. Without clients, you can’t build a business. The successful entrepreneur spends time understanding the interests, needs and special requirements of their clients and views their company’s products or services through the clients’ eyes.

Be accessible, you must be able to provide customers with what they want, when they want it. It takes hard work to retain clients, provide personal attention and win over repeat business by doing so. A good reputation is unquestionably a major factor in achieving success. Become known for your expertise in your business, clients depend on your expert capabilities as that is what brings them to you in the first place. Consistency is another key factor of business success. If you cannot deliver the same level of service time after time, it diminishes the trust clients have in you and ultimately tarnishes your reputation.

What characteristics distinguish you from your competition?

I think it important to be knowledgeable about our competitor strategies as mentioned previously, but this does not define how we conduct business.

I try not to be outwardly focused, trying to be better or compete with others in the industry, but rather inwardly focused, rather we strive to be better than our own last performance, a process of continuous improvement. It’s easy to be better than someone performing at 50%, but it becomes a challenge to improve when you are already giving it your all.

This is why I implemented the ISO9001:2015 quality management system in the organisation. The objective was to increase customer satisfaction through the measurement, review and continuous improvement of our services.

We are early adopters of the latest technologies within the market to improve our delivery capabilities, be it through cloud based computing, applications, digitalisation and data analytics. You can’t deliver technology services without trying and testing this within your own organisation first.

FACT is in itself a mechanism for empowerment and transformation. Our numbers speak for themselves, of our 260 plus people;

  • 33% are under the age of 30 (shows commitment to youth development);
  • 10% of our staff compliment is participating in internships, learnerships and apprenticeship programs (skills development);
  • The percentage of black employees within FACT is 84% of our total staff count;
  • More than 25% of these are black females;
  • For the past 3 years running we have been awarded the prestigious prize of, “Transformation leaders in Africa” within our sector.

With a specialised Resource Management division promoting professionals of diversity to clients, while successfully integrating people with disabilities into the workplace through the Ability beyond Disability initiative, we have also been responsible for placing more than 1500 people into the job market in both permanent and temporary employment since inception.

FACT identified the need in the market for specialist telecommunications engineers and through our training academy we have managed to create a local talent pool in SA through programmes such as internships, mentoring, skills transfer, and job shadowing and training initiatives like the Telco Techie program.

FACT is also one of the founding Members of the Oceans of Mercy Network a non-profit company focused on developing community centres in previously disadvantaged townships especially in the informal housing areas which have no access to welfare services, here we offer feeding schemes, child care services, counselling and advisory services, grants and bursaries, skills development and entrepreneurial mentorship.

What approach did you use to successfully integrate in the male dominated world of business?

I don’t believe in assimilating or integrating into an environment that is not inclusive, so rather than join the ranks, I chose to carve my own path, have faith in my own abilities and those whom I choose to surround myself with, my staff. The majority are female leaders in their own right.

We have proven that you don’t need to be part of the old boy’s club to be successful. You just need to have the desire and will power to stay the course no matter what challenges or obstacles are placed in your path.

FACT helps companies navigate change. What do you think needs to be done to encourage women to take on more senior roles in corporate?

Our goal is to facilitate business, to put economic development at the forefront of getting gender equality in Africa. There is a need for black females to build an economic network and allow that to be a catalyst for change and social improvement. We are actively addressing this through education, up-skilling and training initiatives as well as directly empowering women-owned businesses via the provision of financial and business development support services.

From your perspective, how can the government create more investment opportunities?

As mobile operators’ edge towards full coverage of the more densely populated conurbations within the region, the remaining unconnected populations are primarily located in rural areas where the economics of network rollout are more challenging. To extend connectivity to underserved areas and ensure long-term industry sustainability requires the establishment of relevant regulatory frameworks and investment friendly policies to facilitate multi-year programs.

Two key policy enablers that can help support the continued growth of the mobile ecosystem are the implementation of the appropriate spectrum management framework, and tax reform to improve the affordability of mobile technology for consumers, especially those in low-income segments.

Spectrum below 1 GHz has strong propagation characteristics and can be key to delivering universal broadband access, bringing socioeconomic benefits to people in cities and remote areas. Similarly, tax reform can enhance digital inclusion in the region, with positive knock-on effects for productivity and the wider economy.

Can you tell us more about Telco Techie?

The Telco Techie Program facilitates the training and development (empowerment) of the Learners skills, particularly in high-growth areas of the ICT Industry. The programme encourages females to pursue careers in engineering, science and technology by facilitating access to educational information, career opportunities, academic and extra-mural learning programs.

As an extension of this long-term view, we are currently busy with our fourth intake of young graduates into a one year, Telecoms Network Operations Learnership where training opportunities are created for young Electrical Engineers with priority being given to Females and people with disability. The program begins with 3 to 4 Months classroom training, followed by 8 Months on the job training. This increases their work experience which opens them up to real career opportunities. The majority of our graduates are absorbed within our organisation or offered employment by our clients.

With the modern era keeping us on our feet through constant evolution of technology and innovation. What strategy do you have to make sure your services remain relevant to your clients’ needs?

Let me first take you through to a few ground realities before answering your question. There is a rapid migration to broadband connections in sub-Saharan Africa and within the next couple of years 2G connections will become near obsolete. There are now a total of 120 active 4G connections across the region and investments in this area would take the proportion from 4% at the end of 2017 to above 25% by 2025, this clearly shows the rapid adaptability of technology by the population and the requirement of faster and stable internet. The void will be filled by 3G as it would still be a dominant technology for the next few years with 60% of the regional connections. The reason for these major investments in 3G is that there still is a considerable population using feature phones both for voice and data. New feature phones come equipped now with chat and basic internet functionality at an affordable price. The operators in Africa are taking a more cautious approach in investing in 4G as compared to India where Reliance has invested heavily in the LTE infrastructure.

In addition to this we should also consider the scarcity of the mobile broadband spectrum in our region, operators have to re-farm the 900 MHz spectrum until now to offer broadband services over 3G rather than waiting for the new auctions to build the LTE networks. As far as the 5G Networks are concerned this would be a far cry at this stage as according to GSMA forecasts the first commercial services would be launched no sooner than the end of 2021 and would have a penetration of 2.6% of total subscriber base by 2025. The focus of 5G would stay in the wealthy Southern African hemisphere where the operators have the investments and there is a substantial penetration of high-end smart phones.

Keeping the above points in view, we are going to keep our focus on the work that we are doing while developing resources and getting them trained for future technologies. At this stage it is important to develop the territories rather than getting swayed by the global pressures of deploying latest technologies. For the Southern African hemisphere we are already working with operators on the test deployments of 5G and future technologies. The prosperity and development of Sub-Saharan Africa is dependent on its embracing digital economy.

What should we expect to see from FACT in the near future?

With the advent of the 4th Industrial revolution and as a leader in technical professional services, as an organisation we are on the move to introduce new verticals to complement its current services. We have partnered with International experts to bring forth SDN WAN, EDGE Computing as well as Technology for Industrial automation and critical infrastructure management based on IoT. To ensure that the ecosystem is ready for the adoption of these services, we need to ensure that we have the technical resources and knowledge, here FACT will in addition to the services also offer training in digitalisation and IT specialisation.

In addition to this FACT is also eyeing projects in the Middle East where 5G and future technology deployments are already in process and we can mutually benefit from each other’s experience and expertise. This in turn will help us to be up to date to introduce similar services in Africa when the time comes.

Working in an operator environment in your target markets, what has been your experience in terms of their move and readiness towards digitalisation?

We are now living and breathing in a digital world and it’s not a buzz word anymore. Everywhere we go we see the impact of connectivity from homes to automobiles, industry, entertainment etc.

Sub Saharan Africa’s future is also intertwined with technology and this in turn offers great prospects for the growth and development across the various economic sectors. Please note that around 239 million people across the region were connected to the internet by the end of 2018, according to a recent report by GSMA. By 2025 the Internet penetration in Sub Saharan Africa is expected to reach about 40% of the population, which is quite substantial in my opinion. Digitalisation has already made transportation safe for quite some time and now we have the technology making motorcycle taxis safer and convenient as well.

The riders in certain markets have to maintain a score of 90 out of 100 to continue their business and with real time data there are no loopholes.

Technology also impacts verticals such as Agri-tech for farmers to monitor crop diseases and utilise AI and image recognition to help them achieve higher yields. According to GSMA Sub Saharan mobile eco system supports 3.5 million jobs directly and indirectly and contributes around $16 billion to the funding of public infrastructure projects through consumer and operator taxes.

There is a visible move by African governments to achieve complete digital transformation with an affordable and reliable connectivity for its citizens, this is in addition to the availability and access of smart devices. Mobiles for many consumers across Africa and primarily in rural areas are not just a communication device but a primary tool for getting online and access life-enhancing services.

Around 50% of the population resides in these rural localities but it is still marred by the constraints of acute funding, skills and infrastructure investments that should be addressed for us to get at par with the rest of the world. However, services such as mobile money make Africa one of the leading markets globally and the rapid deployment of IoT is enabling businesses for key services across the region.

Another interesting point to note is that the number of mobile internet subscribers in the region has quadrupled since the start of this decade, the technology is the only available platform for most of the population to get online and the operators are working towards deploying best in class infrastructure.

More notable points are:

  • Sub-Saharan Africa’s future is intertwined with technology, which offers great promise for the region’s growth and development across all economic sectors;
  • At least 239 million people across the region were connected to the internet by the end of 2018, according to a recent report by the Global System for Mobile Communications Association (GSMA), a trade body that represents the interests of mobile network operators worldwide;
  • Up to 483 million people in sub-Saharan Africa, representing nearly 40% of the population, will have mobile internet subscriptions by 2025, according to a report by the GSMA titled “Mobile Economy Sub-Saharan Africa 2019”;
  • One such facet of life in Africa that digitalisation has impacted is transportation, where mobile phone apps now make using motorcycle taxis safer and more convenient. To maintain a good record, motorcycle riders must achieve a rating of at least 90 out of 100;
  • Technological solutions have also been devised to solve agricultural challenges, Plantheus, an agriculture app which uses artificial intelligence and image recognition to help farmers diagnose crop diseases and recommends best practices for almost all kinds of crop diseases on their farms;
  • Sub-Saharan Africa’s mobile ecosystem supports around 3.5 million jobs directly and indirectly, and in 2018, it contributed nearly $15.6 billion to the funding of public sector infrastructure projects through consumer and operator taxes, according to the GSMA report.
  • Africa is prioritising ICT to achieve a full digital transformation, including affordable and reliable connectivity for all, as well as smart device penetration. Kenya recently unveiled a digital economy blueprint for Africa which if adopted would help African countries realise the full potential of the digital transformation;
  • The blueprint highlights five pillars for the development of a digital economy, including digital infrastructure and the availability of affordable, accessible, resilient and reliable infrastructure and inexpensive internet connectivity for African businesses and households;
  • For many consumers across the region, mobiles are not just a communication device but also the primary channel for getting online and a vital tool to access life-enhancing services. This is particularly true in rural areas, where around half the population live and where the provision of these services by conventional means is constrained by acute funding, skills and infrastructure gaps;
  • Mobile network assets and services, such as APIs, cellular IoT, mobile money and billing platforms, are enabling sustainable business models for key services across verticals in the region;
  • The number of mobile internet subscribers in the region has quadrupled since the start of this decade, the technology is the only available platform for the majority of the population to get online;
  • Over the period to 2025, nearly 300 million people will come online, the majority of them connecting via high-speed mobile broadband networks. Across the region, mobile money plays a key role in extending financial services to people with limited access to traditional financial institutions, particularly women and rural populations. There were 135 live mobile money services across the region at the end of 2017, with 122 million active accounts.

What in your opinion are the major challenges facing operators in Africa?

We are not in a race for the best in tech with the world in the region and the focus of the African operators has been to grow organically focusing on technologies that the population requires. Unnecessary investments in tech would only drive the prices upwards and that is not the intention of the regional carriers. Yet, there are natural issues that come with growing pains and I would like to share a few statistics. Subscriber growth in Sub-Saharan Africa has slowed in recent years as the industry faces challenges of affordability and a young population.

Growth rates in the region have reduced below the double-digit annual rates seen in the first half of the decade, and the growth rate for the next five years is half the level recorded over the preceding five years. Another point to note is that future growth opportunities will be condensed in rural and low-ARPU markets where we have most youths as mentioned earlier. Around 40% of the population in these regions are under 16 and this segment has low levels of mobile ownership that needs to be addressed for their inclusion in the digital economy.

The Sub Saharan mobile penetration as compared to its global reference stands at just 9% with 444 million subscribers, an opportunity waiting to be tapped. The regional subscriber base will grow at a CAGR of 4.8% for the period 2017–2022, more than double the global growth rate over the same period.The penetration rate is forecast to reach the 50% level by the end of 2023, and 52% by 2025. Sub-Saharan Africa is seeing an accelerating migration to mobile broadband capable connections.

The next couple of years are a key tipping point as 2G connections become a minority of the region’s total connections base. 3G will emerge as the dominant technology in the region over the next few years, accounting for 60% of Sub Saharan Africa’s connections by the end of 2025. GSMA Intelligence forecasts the first commercial 5G services to be launched in the region by 2021, with 5G connections accounting for 2.6% of the total connections base by 2025.

Meanwhile, smartphone adoption continues to see rapid growth in the region, albeit from a relatively low base and despite affordability challenges. Smartphone adoption is helping to drive strong growth in data traffic across the region, although mobile operators will face challenges in monetizing the ongoing data traffic growth amid regulatory moves to reduce out-of-bundle charges.

Addressing the youthful population in rural areas is the challenge in terms of infrastructure but at the same time a must in order to achieve the parity of digital transformation and adaptation with the rest of the world.

Any additional thoughts?

I am confident that Africa is now the new frontier in terms of technology and business opportunities. While the global economies are slowing down, Africa is growing year on year with GDP expected to grow in 2019 at 3.8%, a significant growth as compared to the previous years. Add to this a young and vibrant population ready to embrace new technologies as well as introducing new ideas to take Africa at the next level.

About half the of world’s fastest growing economies are in Africa, with 20 economies expected to grow at five percent or more over the next five years with exception of a few but that is natural for any region. The leadership of the African Union (AU) is working to create the world’s largest free trade zone since the formation of the World Trade Organization with 55 African countries signing the AfCFTA. The future belongs to Africa and with the young and dynamic population, is taking the new economy in strides, it’s our responsibility to ensure that we enable them to take on future challenges by investing in the right technologies in a timely manner.

In addition to this we shouldn’t just be a consumer of new tech but an active contributor keeping in view a global accessibility through cloud computing to take lead in participating for a happy world. 

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