Suveer Ramdhani — From building Seacom to creating a new AI engine

Former Seacom executive Suveer Ramdhani is one of South Africa’s unsung heroes who played a pivotal role in making uncapped broadband possible.

Ramdhani’s professional journey started at Eskom as a project manager after completing his engineering degree at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

He then moved to the telecommunications field, serving as a systems engineer at Nortel and general manager at Plessey.

Ramdhani’s involvement with Seacom started as a senior manager at FeverTreeConsulting.

Here he was directly involved in developing the business strategy and planning for Seacom, the submarine fibre optic cable between Europe, East Africa, and South Africa.

His team raised 50% of the equity needed to build Seacom and completed significant off-take sales agreements to secure project debt.

After Seacom launched, Ramdhani was appointed as head of product strategy and later chief strategy officer.

Ramdhani told MyBroadband that supporting Brian Herlihy in starting Seacom is one of his proudest achievements.

“Seacom will always stand out for me due to the sheer scale of the infrastructure and its reach across the continent,” he said.

“The Seacom cable transformed the African Internet by making it affordable, at greater speeds, and by providing more pervasive access.”

Seacom also enabled the cloud as we know it today by spurring investments into the various terrestrial fibre networks and data centres.

He said the project also gave him the opportunity to hone his skills while driving the business’s strategy to maturity.

Seacom launch with Suveer Ramdhani (second from left), Cyril Ramaphosa, and former Neotel CEO Ajay Pandey.

Making free and open peering possible in South Africa

Unbeknownst to many people, Ramdhani partnered with Mweb’s former CEO, Rudi Jansen, to pioneer free and open peering in South Africa to support uncapped broadband.

Jansen stunned the market at the 2010 MyBroadband Conference when he announced they would no longer pay anybody for transit traffic.

“If you don’t want to peer with us, that is it. We will not pay you one single cent anymore,” said Jansen.

At the time, the big South African operators refused to peer with anyone outside their exclusive club.

“They controlled the cost of South African IP Transit, which was overinflated. It made Mweb’s efforts to deliver uncapped ADSL to the home user commercially unviable,” Ramdhani said.

At the same time, Seacom was looking at a product extension into the IP Transit layer and ran up against the same prohibitive cost of SA IP Transit.

Mweb and Seacom partnered and used the large subsea capacity to force all South African operators to peer in London to pick up Mweb’s traffic.

It significantly increased the operating costs of the big peers, and it only took a week before their networks could no longer handle the traffic.

The escalating costs forced the previously resistant operators to peer with Mweb and Seacom in South Africa.

“With the cost of SA IP Transit no longer a hurdle, Mweb’s uncapped ADSL products were more sustainable, and Seacom was able to launch its African IP network.

It was a big win for the South African telecoms industry and consumers.

Suveer Ramdhani
Suveer Ramdhani speaking at a MyBroadband Conference

Growing telecoms services in South Africa

At Seacom, Ramdhani was involved in many deals, including the acquisition of FibreCo, which was a big financial success.

He was also involved in a few smaller initiatives on the continent, illustrating his belief in Africa’s potential.

These projects include Seacom’s backhaul and point of presence (PoP) expansions across South Africa and East Africa.

He also negotiated partnerships with over-the-top (OTT) providers and supported the creation of many data centres along the eastern seaboard.

From telecoms to big data and AI

After two decades in the telecommunications market, Ramdhani took on a new challenge as the CEO of BluNOVA, which is part of Blue Label Telecoms.

Mark and Brett Levy had the idea of aggregating Blue Label’s data into a platform that would enable deeper and richer insights across the South African population.

“34 million South Africans trade with Blue Label’s subsidiaries which collectively maintain a significant market share of all digital product distribution in South Africa,” he explained.

BluNOVA uses this alternate data as its key differentiator in developing predictive algorithms about consumer behaviour for alternative credit, digital marketing, and customer value management.

Through BluNOVA’s work, Blue Label Group can “see” the marginalised and unbanked population and offer them gateway services that bring them into the formal economy.

“This is the positive side of data algorithms timeously introduced into a world wary of the excessively intrusive behaviour of social media platforms,” Ramdhani said.

“The Blue Label Group is uniquely positioned to this as we were the original digital operating model when Mark and Brett digitised pre-paid vouchers.”

What lies ahead

Ramdhani is betting the next ten years of his career on “data” and the emerging API economy at Blue Label. It does not mean he has left telecoms behind.

He continues to support the infrastructure layer of the Internet in his personal capacity.

“My family has recently invested in Dolphin Telecoms South Africa, which is an extension of the Dolphin Telecoms Group, a co-owner in the ACE Cable system,” he said.

He said South Africa has turned into an “in-bound” destination (or B-End).

In the past, countries in Africa would need to head to the UK or France to enable their Internet services.

Today, with four of the five major global cloud providers having a presence in South Africa, the country is becoming the desired destination for the African continent.

“The pace of development will increase as cloud providers place South Africa at the core of global infrastructure, rather than the “access” that we are now,” he said.

“Dolphin Telecoms is positioned as a business that will support this trend and facilitate the evolution of the Internet in West Africa.”

Suveer Ramdhani’s tech and business choices

Which smartphone do you use?

iPhone 13 Pro Max.

Which laptop do you use?

I am a Macbook Pro user. However, my corporate life demands that I am on a Lenovo Thinkpad most of the day (cringe).

What Internet connection do you have at home?

Seacom 100Mbps, of course.

What were your best deals?

Seacom and FibreCo. And my wife, family, and good friends.

What is the worst investment you have ever made?

Luckily, I have not lost significant amounts of money for myself or the businesses I represented. While it’s difficult to speak about some of these transactions publicly — I’ll share that I now rely heavily in reading softer cues when identifying good, honest people. I’m no longer over-eager to finalise a deal. If my gut tells me that the people around a great deal are not trustworthy, I will RUN. I measure my success equally by the deals I don’t do.

My proudest failure is an IPTV start-up that we invested in to develop the Internet ecosystem. The tech was built and operational. However, we were hesitant to risk free cheques to the content providers despite being well funded. When our project leaked, it triggered the IPTV wars across Africa, and again the consumer won.

My greatest career regret is losing the bid to acquire Neotel.

Neotel office building

What are you currently doing in your spare time?

Building Arduino robots with my 11 year old old son.

What are you currently reading?

Malcolm Gladwell’s “Talking to Strangers”. When I need to switch off and be entertained, I read the Jack Reacher series.

Now read: Angus MacRobert — From top telecoms CEO to successful tech investor

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Suveer Ramdhani — From building Seacom to creating a new AI engine