This IT maverick has never waivered from his vision to bring economic equality to all South Africans
It was at high school that Thabo Malebadi received his calling. He had the idea of using technology to create a platform that would help bridge the growing gap between the haves and the have-nots. It was consequently in 2002 during the height of technology developments and innovation around cheaper calls and access to the internet – and while studying for his IT degree – that he launched e-Mbizo.
The word means a “calling for a gathering” and it began as a technology company providing voice-over IP, a system that enables users to make calls over the internet. e-Mbizo has subsequently evolved into a fully fledged licensed telecoms firm, providing infrastructure for internet, as well as voice call services over the internet, to the under-serviced townships and rural areas. The business employs 18 permanent staff members and periodically empowers hundreds of community members via e-Mbizo’s economic development programmes.
In recent years, e-Mbizo played a key role in providing WiFi connectivity to the residents of Tembisa, a move that, given e-Mbizo’s mission of connecting the unconnected communities, was a key moment in Malebadi’s vision for e-Mbizo.
“The moment when e-Mbizo deployed the network in Tembisa connecting schools and communities in the township during 2011, was indeed a defining moment. It has been a driving force behind our resilience and dedication towards making a difference in ordinary people’s lives. Our community WiFi network was actually the first of its kind to be deployed in South Africa; this was long before any municipality provided free WiFi.”
IT HASN’T BEEN AN EASY ROAD, THOUGH
Like many entrepreneurs, Malebadi encountered challenges through his journey in business, especially in the highly competitive telecoms sector. When he started the business, he only had R5 000 start-up capital that he got partly from his mother and supplemented with R1 500 borrowed from his uncle.
“Truth be told, being a young black entrepreneur from a destitute background has been a challenge. At every meeting I went to I was asked ‘how much is your turnover?’ and I was immediately shunned away thereafter. I was only 20 years old when I started the company, as a result no one ever took me seriously. I eventually had to rope my father into the business as a partner.
“Much has evolved since then, but we are not immune to business challenges. Our country’s economic growth is stifled due to numerous reasons, but corruption is ranking highest. We are constantly faced with funding and cash flow dilemmas, that ordinarily shouldn’t even be a problem, if we had banking and funding instruments that genuinely support SMEs. We only got support much later in our business from the Innovation Hub, while the banks would not look at us.”
Malebadi has beaten all the odds and is surviving the turbulence that comes with being a start-up, however the journey is still a long one. His optimism and commitment will ensure that e-Mbizo continues to be in the forefront of technology developments and trends in its target markets.
“We understand the development impact potential that digital technologies possess. e-Mbizo’s skills competencies also span into mobile and web applications development, digital transformation and cloud technologies.”
The company has been developing various software applications that will see e-Mbizo taking advantage of the cloud technologies and ultimately ensuring access to advanced systems for the SME market, explains Malebadi.
“We are also exploring various models to monetise the network deployments through advertising and content streaming. Our eyes are set on the offshore markets beyond the borders of South Africa too.”
Key to bridging the digital divide is to see the cost of internet data coming down substantially. SA high internet data costs has been an impediment for internet growth in the country.
“We are keen to see the costs of data dropping in South Africa. We have been trailblazing in that regard, with e-Mbizo offering some of the lowest rates for internet access.”
HANGING OUT WITH THABO
The metropolitan municipality of Ekurhuleni. Bedfordview is my favourite suburb.
Favourite place for dinner
Moyo’s in Melrose Arch
Favourite place for lunch
Tasha’s in Bedfordview
Favourite place for breakfast
Any Mugg & Bean!
Favourite place for business meetings
My office is in…
Boksburg because we are in close proximity to the airport and there is less traffic
My favourite club
Anywhere where they play chilling jazzy music
Place to hang out
Imbizo Shisanyama in Midrand. Also known as Busy Corner, it’s authentic SA braai food!