How does a South African startup providing Internet of Things (IoT) solutions for smart homes, factories and cities find funding, scale up its business and establish itself internationally?
How does a team of young tech entrepreneurs make good on their dream of solving issues such as water and energy efficiency, security and connectivity, to improve life not just in South Africa, but in all developing nations?
One major opportunity is the ITU Telecom World Awards, as Sabelo Sibanda, co-founder and CEO of Tuse Applications, discovered last September. Based in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, Tuse makes use of Industry 4.0 technologies, such as IoT, Artificial Intelligence and predictive data analytics to bring the benefits of connectivity to as many people as possible, through a range of solutions and products in industrial, agricultural and domestic settings.
This commitment to delivering social and economic development through connectivity is a key international priority, involving the collaboration of public and private sectors, large corporate entities and smaller tech companies, throughout the world. And these are precisely the players who gather each year at ITU Telecom World, the leading global tech event organized by ITU, the UN agency for ICT issues.
For Tuse, the chance to take part in the 2018 event in Durban, South Africa, was too good to miss.
Applying to the ITU Telecom World Awards meant entering a pool of over a hundred small and medium enterprise (SME) applicants seeking recognition for their innovative solutions with real-life social impact. It provided access to the event’s SME Progamme of pitching sessions, mentorship, capacity-building and skills workshops, and extensive peer networking. And it was a platform for Tuse in front of an audience of influential tech leaders, policy-makers and decision-takers from South Africa, across the continent and beyond.
“The SME programme gave us unparalleled exposure, access to markets, finance and new opportunities. And winning the Award has given us all of that on an exponential scale.” — Sabelo Sibanda, Tuse
“We attended ITU Telecom to launch our products, and to gain access to markets, finance and skilled staff,” explains Sibanda. And the experience was, in his words, “phenomenal”.
Highlights included networking with like-minded entrepreneurs, policy-makers and corporates, “meeting incredible people from whom we have learnt so much,” and participating in an SME Growth Opportunities and Challenges roundtable session with a panel of experts including ministers from most of the African continent and influential business leaders from around the world.
Being handed the ITU Telecom World Global SME Award for Best Business Model by ITU Secretary-General Houlin Zhao in a high-profile ceremony on the final day of the event was the icing on the cake.
In an ever-more interconnected world, public and private sectors are working together to deliver on the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals – and tech SMEs such as Tuse have a very important role to play.
Supporting SME growth through access to markets, capital and skills development is critical, and platforms such as ITU Telecom World offer valuable access to the international exposure, networking and partnership opportunities small tech companies need to take their businesses to the next level.
So, six months on from winning the award, what’s different? After all the fun of the showfloor, the SME programme and social events, the intense and diverse networking, the inspirational, promising conversations and connections with industry and government leaders from around the world – and the excitement of winning the Global SME Award itself, of course – after those heady four days in Durban, what’s changed?
“It’s truly been a game changer for our business,” says Sibanda. “The SME programme gave us unparalleled exposure, access to markets, finance and new opportunities. And winning the Award has given us all of that on an exponential scale.”
In practical terms, this translates to so much new business that Tuse had to move, within weeks of winning, to bigger offices, with enough space for the 67% growth in staff needed to work on the new leads and projects generated.
Coming together at the event with Standard Bank, in particular, has opened up a whole range of opportunities – and the capacity to deliver on ever-larger projects throughout the world.
And Sibanda himself has been accepted into the Harambe Entrepreneurial Alliance, a prestigious network of African entrepreneurs who have pledged to work together to unlock the potential of the continent. “Our goal was always to be the most impactful African unicorn,” Sibanda says,“ and winning the ITU Award has propelled us so much closer to achieving it.”