Soweto, South Africa’s biggest township, played a key role in this country’s journey towards freedom.
During times of political strife, it was necessary to find new ways to communicate. Some of the country’s leading intellectuals used township networks to operate under the radar and, by unifying their ideas and sharing information, the apartheid regime was toppled.
It is behind this backdrop that 42-year-old Thami Mtshali, co-founder and chief executive of wireless broadband provider iBurst, grew up. He understands the importance of easily accessible information and his company’s aim is to make technology available to South Africans on a broad scale. The product requires only a modem and laptop or personal computer and gives users high-speed access to the Internet using the airwaves.
Launched in late 2003, iBurst (originally known as Wireless Business Solutions) is one of the fastest growing companies in the country. When it first started out, it employed just three people and now has 150 staff members servicing 30000 customers across the country.
"When we started WBS, we were three men and a fax machine," Thami chuckles. "Today we turnover between R10 million and R12m a month."
Thami puts the secret to the company’s success down to having a good product and offering great customer service.
He believes that if you have these in place, you can begin to rely on word of mouth working for you as well.
"There’s no greater testimonial than a customer telling another customer about your product," he says.
Tapping the township market remains a large part of Thami and his team’s strategy and they would like to secure between 5% and 10% of this market in the next few years. "Everyone thinks there’s no money in these places, but there are many customers that can afford the R200- R300 service we offer. I grew up in Soweto so I know there’s affordability in that area," Thami says.
Vodacom chief executive Alan Knott-Craig saw iBurst’s potential and joined the company as managing director in January this year. He says that being a part of a small company with so much scope to grow is exhilarating.
"We’re growing at about 3000 customers a month," he says, adding that while the company hopes to sustain this growth, its aim is not to become a monolith in the industry just yet.
"The customer is our most important element. We have a better grip on customer service because we’re not handling the whole market, like larger companies, we’re focused on one portion of it," says Alan.
He says that because of its size, iBurst can focus on getting things done a lot quicker than its competitors, and its installation time of less than 24 hours is testament to this.
"We don’t have the bureaucracy that our competitors do (such as MTN, Vodacom and Sentech) so we can make decisions that affect customers a lot faster," he says.
While Thami is modest about iBurst’s success, the company is certainly making waves in the market.
It was recently named top emerging empowered company of the year by Fidentia and has been rumoured to be the takeover target of local and international players.
Vodacom last week confirmed that it plans to buy a 10% stake in the company.