This issue of Africa Telecoms is focusing on Connecting Rural Technologies and Telecoms Success Stories. Silulo is a great combination of both of these, having started from humble beginnings out of the boot of Luvuyo Rani's car.
Please tell us how this business started and what inspired you to take the route you did?
I was working as a teacher at Kwamfundo High School in Khayelitsha when the Department of Education introduced the new outcomes-based education curriculum that required teachers to use computers as tools in the classroom. I saw a need to sell refurbished computers to the teachers so that they could use them to do their jobs more easily. What inspired me in the beginning was to see teachers using computers in their classrooms.
Leaving your teaching post in Khayelitsha to start Silulo was a brave decision, because ICT is a capital-intensive area to do business in. How did you overcome the usual problems of access to capital that many small entrepreneurs in Africa face?
I started to organise stokvels, or savings clubs, for teachers where they contribute R400 every month until everyone has a computer. It was very difficult to get the finance through the bank because I was blacklisted, with no track record or profile at the bank. My partners and I began to enter business competitions like the SAB KickStart and we won first prize as the Best Entrepreneur in the Western Cape and also won nationally. The grant that came with the prize allowed us to open more branches and expand quickly.
By all accounts Silulo has been an incredibly successful business thus far. Personally, how has the opening of this business changed your life?
It has made me much more mature and made me realise that we have so much responsibility towards the employees, stakeholders, suppliers and competitors. As the leader of Silulo I have to create a good culture. Sometimes it is difficult to manage my family as well as the business because of the rapid expansion.
What is the current extent of Silulo, including how many branches Silulo now operates, and how many centres Silulo foresees opening in the short term?
We have 17 branches at the moment: 10 internet cafés and seven computer training centres. These are six centres in Khayelitsha; two in Du Noon and one each in The Strand, Blue Downs, Philippi, Westlake, Montana and Paarl. We will open two more centres in the Eastern Cape by the end of this year, in Mthatha and Queenstown. Computer training in townships in South Africa is certainly a new concept.
How has your experience been with training people who have never had the opportunity to work digitally? What feedback have you had from them and what are they using these skills for?
It’s a great experience working with people who have never touched a computer. People come to us for computer training and graduate to find employment. After that they buy computers from us for using at home; and after a while come back for internet connection or to use our internet café. I normally receive compliments from our former students because they are now employed as data capturers, or are working for retail shops, for the City of Cape Town or for government departments.
Silulo also offers SETA (Skills Education Training Authority) accredited courses that at times cost as little as a quarter of those offered by other colleges in South Africa. How many people have you trained since the inception of your business? And have you had any notable success stories from this programme?
We have trained more than 5,000 students so far, and there are many of our students who have opened their own businesses. Some are studying further in tertiary institutions, but most of them are working for different businesses.
In areas like Khayelitsha where the majority of the population is financially constrained, how have you managed to give people access to computers and connectivity?
Through training in computer skills our customers are able to buy the computers. Because of the way we price our computers and training we make it affordable for everyone. Our price is designed for people to come in large numbers.
Silulo recently signed a partnership with Vodacom. How did this partnership come about? And what is Vodacom supplying to Silulo?
We have been approaching Vodacom for some time. We decided to partner with Vodacom because we realised that otherwise it would be our future competitor. We are making it easier for people in townships to access mobile technology and our partnership with Vodacom enables us to add Vodacom products and services. As part of the partnership, Vodacom has refurbished two Silulo stores in Khayelitsha and has provided its own in-store products to supplement Silulo’s current ICT offerings. This will be rolled out to Silulo’s other stores as well. Vodacom will also provide product and mobile technology training support to all of Silulo’s staff. Besides the essential mobile technology training that the staff will receive, they will also have access to Vodacom’s management and customer service training.
How has this partnership with Vodacom affected the operations of Silulo?
There is so much change now in Silulo through our partnership with Vodacom that 90% of our sales involve data, like laptops, 3G modems and smartphones. We have employed 80 Silulo and Vodacom traders to sell airtime, starter packs, M-pesa and electricity. All of them are former students who were looking for employment.
If you had a crystal ball and could see Silulo in five years’ time, how do you think it would differ from now? And do you think the focus of the business would be different?
In five years from now we see Silulo in all South African provinces and beyond. We are going to be bringing information technology close to the townships and rural areas. We can do that through franchising the concept; and through offering computer and mobile training.
What would your advice be to entrepreneurs looking at opening businesses in the type of township setting that Silulo operates in?
If you want to open a business in a township it has to have an element of social investment so that you can address the social skills through business. The four essential requirements are passion, focus, commitment and energy.