Investor, businessman, ex-policymaker, teacher, ANC freedom fighter, telecommunications expert, tech trend forecaster - they’re all applicable labels which can be used to describe Andile Ngcaba.
With a vibrant and varied background working to accelerate the socio-economic growth and development not only in his home country of South Africa, but the continent at large, Andile brings 35 years of experience in the tech and telecommunications sectors, in order to continue to build what he terms “digital Africa”.
We sat down with Andile following his Investor Insight address at East Africa Com to talk about his background, his life's passions and Convergence Partners' plans for the future - "watch this space!"
1. You have devoted a great deal of your life and career to the growth and development of ICT in Africa, from where did this interest and passion first stem?
This passion I was taught by my father, my father worked for the [South African] post office for over 40 years and he taught me. At that time, the post office was involved in telex and telecoms and that’s how I learnt, I learnt from him. Apart from learning from colleges and universities, he taught me how it’s important to facilitate communications between people, using technology and any other form of communications.
"I have spent all my life in the technology of communications, specifically on the African continent - I am very proud of that"
So for the rest of my life I have dedicated myself to this, to say: “How do I operate and participate in the communications environment, in the information environment?” For the last 35 years or more, I have spent all my life in the technology of communications, specifically on the African continent. I am very proud of that and I will continue to do this because this is where I derive personal joy and fulfillment.
When I go to a village and people have never heard [about] communications and we put in a mast and connect and provide the microwave link and put Wi-Fi at the edge of that microwave link and people start to use Wi-Fi. We put in solar power to connect their batteries and you see the change - you don’t have to teach people, they go onto the internet, they know what they want, they know how to use the internet and they connect into the world of information. I see these things all the time.
"When we provide this kind of connectivity to villages who are in very mountainous areas, you see how important communications are to connect rural people"
Originally we come from a very small part of South Africa called Pondoland, this is a very remote part of the Eastern part [of the country] and when we provide this kind of connectivity to villages who are in very mountainous areas, you see how important communications are to connect rural people. But of course, we provide as Convergence Communications, even to the most modern and sophisticated Africa – we provide communications in Johannesburg, in Lagos, in Nairobi and in many other countries.
2. During Apartheid you were heavily involved in the struggle for a democratic South Africa, playing a key role in ANC [African National Congress] insurgency operations and communications. How do you think your background informs what you do today?
"Like any young person in the 70s in South Africa, because of the nature of our society, we all had to participate to ensure that South Africa was free"
I was at Philips before doing that – my background started at Philips, in the electronics division. I worked in all different electronics sections, departments and divisions of Philips. So like any young person in the 70s in South Africa, because of the nature of our society, we all had to participate to ensure that South Africa was free - that there was freedom in our country and people were able to vote, young people were able to access education and people could access opportunities equally.
"My role in that was in communications, in the ANC and in the military I was responsible for military communications"
We are now all happy with the fact that we now have a constitution that we are very proud of, that constitution belongs to all of us and that constitution defends us. Having been a part of the people who fought to make sure that Apartheid must not exist in our country - I am very proud of that. My role in that was in communications, in the ANC and in the military I was responsible for military communications, and that really was what my role had been.
Post that I got involved in policy development, I worked for government for almost 10 years, writing new policies in the post-Apartheid South Africa. After those 10 years, I went into business and this is what I do and will continue to do. But alongside all that I have been involved in research and innovation working with universities, assisting here and there, teaching part-time. Those are the things I live for, that’s what gives me fun and joy.
3. Convergence Partners is celebrating 10 years this year, what would you say is its overriding ethos?
The ethos of Convergence is that of ensuring that we invest for the purposes of connecting people and connecting the people of Africa to the internet, and being able to provide them with basic infrastructure from fibre, right up to the most sophisticated technology that sits way on top of Cloud. So we are getting involved in all the value stack of ICT, internet or digital - whatever language you want to use. So that is what Convergence is all about.
We have companies that we have invested in and my philosophy is very simple: When you are on the African continent, as long as you are going to use any digital platform, you must use any of our technologies 6 times from morning until the time you go to bed. Whether it’s a sim card in your phone, whether it’s an SMS we have sent you with a notification, whether it’s an Internet of Thing in your house connecting your electricity or water, whether it’s the fibre that we build, whether it’s the fibre in the ocean or the land.
"I envision Africa 30 years from now...[becoming] the digital continent"
For any of our infrastructure, our view is we need to be involved and invest in West Africa, East Africa, Southern Africa, in Sub-Saharan African - to make sure that we can continue to contribute building, what we call, 'digital Africa'. We are there and we will continue to do this for the rest of our lifetime, and those that continue with Convergence will continue on the same journey. We focus on tech, that is what we believe and when I share with you how Africa was 30 years ago, and how Africa is today, and how I envision Africa 30 years from now, this is going to become the digital continent. Why? Because we have a young population, because we have young people – young people enjoy technology. So the market is there and the opportunity is there. So in a billion people, whom over 60 % of them are young, you can’t go wrong.
4. Convergence Partners has been involved in a number incredibly significant infrastructure projects across the continent, among them Seacom and Intelsat New Dawn, what’s next for the company?
"We see East Africa as a very critical part in our investment journey as a private equity firm"
Watch this space, we are now at East Africa Com and by the time we reach Cape Town [at Africa Com in November] a lot will have happened, but I’m not going to reveal anything yet. But we do see East Africa as a very critical part in our investment journey as a private equity firm because East Africa is now moving towards that part of the curve, whereby people realise that they need equity investment, they need mezzanine, they need debt funding, they need other instruments – in all the tech companies that are here.
Similarly, as Convergence we are involved in a VC firm in South Africa as an LLP called 4Di. We hope to create those linkages between East Africa and Southern Africa basically, whereby we can bring knowledge around issues that are related to VC funding and issues related to start-ups, around incubation, acceleration, entrepreneurialship, and that culture which is emerging in this part of the world - these are some of the things we are looking at. At one level we are looking at a PE investment space but also East Africa is becoming a centre whereby this VC environment is becoming very interesting for a number of people.
5. With regards to interactions between the private and public sector, which you have a great deal of experience in, are collaborations proving effective at these kinds of forums like East Africa Com? Do these interactions facilitate enough productive discussion to make a difference?
I think this is where as Convergence and Informa we need to work together to see how we can bring more regulators and more policy-makers onto this platform. The platform is wonderful – Cape Town, Nairobi – it is great. OEMs are here, MNOs are here, entrepreneurs are here, investors are here - we need to bring more policy-makers and regulators onto the platform.
"The people are great, the exhibition is great, and generally this is a great place to do business"
We are getting onto one billion mobile devices - this is not a small industry. So for us, under this platform of Informa, which is great and we appreciate and we will always be here, we need to engage with government and senior government people. So we would really like to have that dialogue with them, using this platform.
You have a cross section of various players, you have MNOs, OEMs and you have users and you also have system integrators and people who are really coming up with that application layer, or what I call the 'digital layer', so I think this combination of all different players in the ecosystem is very critical and we would like to invite more government people.
The people are great, the exhibition is great, and generally this is a great place to do business. People are making deals, we are talking to lots of people, we are investors, we have meeting rooms, we are scheduling meetings, we are speaking at the conference, we have an exhibition stand. So we are moving around, our day is full - it is packed and this is going to grow, I have no doubt about it. In no time there is going to be over a thousand people and good luck – East Africa is a good place to be.
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