Information and communications may be lucrative but it is a difficult sector to break into. That didn’t stop entrepreneur Thabo Malebadi from starting his own business in this highly contested area, at the age of 20.
Malebadi created e-Mbizo in 2002. It initially provided voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) services — an alternative to high fixed-line calling costs at the time.
“When I first thought of starting e-Mbizo I was 19 years old and knew very little about the ins and outs of commerce. But it had always been my dream to bridge the digital divide, most particularly to address access in underserviced and rural communities,” he says.
By 2003, Malebadi had attracted enough attention to work his way into the Innovation Hub in Pretoria. In 2005, his company was awarded its first licence when the telecoms market was deregulated to allow for more competition with government-backed Telkom.
The Innovation Hub helped Malebadi refine his ideas for the business and also equipped him with basic business skills, in preparation for e-Mbizo’s commercial launch.
As with many entrepreneurs, Malebadi’s hurdles included funding, and then convincing clients and investors that his service was a good one. “This was never an easy task, as investors didn’t have confidence in my business. But that never deterred my vision ,” he says.
Things got more difficult. Take-up of its primary VoIP product slowed as competition increased. Malebadi used the slowdown to take a break and joined the corporate world, while still working to develop new products for his company.
“I’ve thought of giving up time and again, but that has never superseded the desire to go on and never look back. The passion that I have for this business has been my pillar of strength through the ups and downs of this journey,” says Malebadi.
After more than 10 years in the business, eMbizo has evolved into a full telecommunications operator — providing wireless voice, data and cloud-related services, all using a WiFi network. The company has a network presence in select areas in Mpumalanga, Limpopo and Gauteng where it has connected 200 schools to the Internet and at times provides them with devices and content.
Its biggest presence is in Tembisa in Johannesburg, where it has also connected some recreational centres.
“We have connected people to the Internet who would otherwise have to take transport to the nearest town, just so that they could send a CV to apply for a job,” he says.
e-Mbizo plans to expand into four more provinces this year. The business still offers VoIP.
“With big data as the next wave, we have set ourselves up to take advantage of the opportunities that will be presented by it,” says Malebadi.
The telecoms sector is moving quickly and small and big entities in the sector are constantly looking at ways to grow and attract customers. Malebadi says e-Mbizo wants to venture into financial services by providing mobile banking and payment solutions.
“Running a business has never been an easy feat, but I can attest to the fact that it gets more interesting as we progress,” says Malebadi.