Here on Whoot Africa, we not only showcase brands, but we also talk to the people behind those brands and have them share with us their back stories as well as give tips on how to successfully start and run a business.
Welcome to Whoot Africa’s – 15 Questions with the CEO.
1. Can you tell us a little bit about Project Isizwe as a brand you represent, and the inspiration behind the concept?
The digital divide accentuates the income gap & inequality. If we want to have a country in which our children can live, then we must deal with inequality. So we started Project Isizwe with the express goal of accelerating the roll-out of Free WiFi in poor communities, and helping bridge the digital divide.
2. Before Project Isizwe, you worked as the CEO of Mxit; a mobile social network. Why did you leave the comfort of Mxit for a more humanitarian venture such as project Isizwe?
I was kicked out of Mxit after having a disagreement with my fellow shareholders. My subsequent unexpected “sabbatical” led me to get Isizwe off the ground as a side project. It has subsequently gained so much traction that it has become a full-time commitment. I’ve had to postpone my dreams of buying a jet, but the work is very rewarding and it’s allowing me to learn new things whilst I rebuild my confidence.
3. Did you know you were going to be an entrepreneur all along, or did it happen by chance?
Pure Chance! I qualified as a CA and thought I’d end up working in a bank. In 2003, it was difficult to get a job and I ended up starting a business in the telecoms space (Cellfind). Since then I haven’t looked back….
4. How did you get started in business and what did it take for you to get to where you are today?
I was called out of the blue by an angel investor looking for a youngster to kick off a company, Cellfind. Since then I’ve learnt the key to success is 10% hard work, 10% brains and 80% luck. You need a lot of luck. I was lucky that my first business started at the beginning of one of the biggest economic booms the world has ever seen (2003 – 2008). It’s easy making money when the tide is coming in. It is almost impossible making money when the tide is going out (since 2008 the tide has been going out). Success taught me valuable tips, but my deepest lessons came from setbacks and failures, particularly my World of Avatar/Mxit experience. The most important piece of the puzzle is your life partner. Luckily I married the right girl.
5. We all know the African continent still has a long way to go in terms of infrastructures and basic necessities, how do you go about convincing the various municipal councils on the need for free wifi, when the average local communities think about putting food on their tables than browsing the internet?
It’s an easy sell. The Internet promotes economic development, education and access to information. What government doesn’t want more jobs, and a skilled and informed populace? Of course there are pressing issues such as sanitation and housing, but if African governments want to move forward they have to think of new ways of doing things. Free WiFi for all will allow Africa to leapfrog the rest of the world.
6. How far have you gone in terms of milestones (figures) in providing free wifi to these communities across South Africa, and what are some of the feedbacks you have received on this unique project?
Today, we have capacity for over 100,000 people in Tshwane, with capacity for a further 900,000 coming online during July. By August we’ll have capacity for 20,000 in Western Cape. Our bakkies are being mobbed in the townships by well-wishers begging to know when the WiFi will go live. Small business owners in the vicinity of our Free WiFi zones are particularly pleased due to increased revenues thanks to youngsters being attracted by the Internet.
7. What are some of the challenges you faced with project Isizwe and how did you overcome them?
Money is always a challenge. Security can be a challenge in some areas, especially after dark. But the biggest challenge is finding frugal solutions to telco problems. It’s easy to throw money at the problem, which is what most Western telcos/companies/governments do. That won’t work in our context. So we’ve had to get creative to keep costs down. We’ve overcome our challenges mostly through hard work and a tolerance of mistakes. You can’t innovate in an environment of fear, so we don’t mind the odd setback as long as we learn from the experience and course-correct. The only unforgivable sin is to stop moving. Keep moving.
8. With your current success with project Isizwe in South Africa, are there plans to expand project Isizwe to other parts of Africa?
Yes. We’re engaging with the Botswana government, but I’d be particularly keen to see some traction in Zimbabwe and somewhere in East/Central Africa, like DRC or Uganda.
9. Alan Knott-Craig Jr has been mentioned by Forbes Africa and the Mail & Guardian’s 200 Young South African’s, do you ever feel pressured to achieve more; especially with your family’s business legacy?
Yes, there’s pressure. Mostly a fear of failure! But that’s ok. I’ve been blessed with a head-start in life, and whilst that comes with negatives, it also opens many doors. I’m grateful for the platform my parents have given me and I’m doing my best to add to it.
10. The impact of internet connectivity cannot be underestimated, especially with access to educational materials, employments and e-commerce, when you reflect on project Isizwe today, what are your thoughts? Would you do this again if you had to? Any regrets?
I’m quite proud of what our team has achieved. We’ve upended traditional telco economics. We’ve shown governments how to roll out a frugal WiFi network. We were part of the fire that ignited a national zeitgeist for Free WiFi. Whether we can go to the next level, time will tell. Regardless, I would do it again without hesitation. The only regret I could ever have is that we didn’t move fast enough. To date I think we’ve moved faster than people expected.
11. People tend to look at already accomplished CEO’s who venture into the “Not-for-Profit” world with a bit of cynicism, are there any products lined up to be birth via the Project Isizwe platform or is this all about giving back and helping the communities?
Originally it was a side project. It has become a full-time job thanks to the unexpected support we’ve received from Tshwane. I have some side ventures in the mobile app space (EverAfrica.com) but they’re run by partners. I’m sure there will be commercial opportunities that pop up out of Isizwe, and when they do, I very much intend to take advantage. But for now it’s all about rolling out Free WiFi as cheaply as possible to show the government what is possible.(Don’t get me wrong, the long term goal is still the afore-mentioned jet!)
12. Project Isizwe provides free wifi, are there any support plans or system that encourages young South African’s to venture into professions such as coders and application development? Because the reality is, the internet is what it is, without proper incentives for young people to do more; it remains what it is, just free wifi.
We are curating educational content and making it easy for youngsters to find it on our landing page. But generally we stay out the way. It always amazes me how much more people know than we give credit for.
13. South Africa is at the forefront of African development, if you had to sell doing business in South Africa to an investor in a few words, what would they be?
Third world problems & opportunities! First world infrastructure & skills.
14. What keeps you and the Project Isizwe team motivated and where do you see this project in 5-10years from now? What would be the most important piece of advice you could give to young entrepreneurs and why?
It feels like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, so it’s not hard to remain motivated. Working with the government is the only way to effect truly grand-scale change. I think Isizwe will be finished in SA in 2/3 years because by then the government will be treating telecoms as a basic service and contracting directly to the private sector (rather than use a non-profit middle-man). Perhaps we’ll be more focused on countries in the rest of Africa. Everyone needs Free WiFi.
15. What do you think about college education? Should kids go to college now or get into business if they feel it’s a better choice? Considering some of the world’s greatest never had college education, your thoughts?
Yes. Always get a university education if you can, at the very least for the life experience and confidence it will give you later in life. Maybe the knowledge is less relevant in the real world, but learning to study subjects like statistics and economics will (a) give you discipline, and (b) give you insight into areas that can seem indecipherable later in life.
If you missed the previous parts of the 15 Questions with the CEO series, please click here