Covid accelerates drive to digitise African business
The growing importance of technology in Africa is evident from the first FT-Statista ranking of the continent’s fastest growing companies: the sector is second only to financial services for the number of businesses listed.
Of the 75 companies ranked, 12 per cent are in the technology sector, just behind financial services, on 13 per cent, and ahead of traditionally strong business areas such as precious metals, on 9 per cent, and agricultural commodities, on 8 per cent.
Africa’s digital drive was already under way before coronavirus emerged in late 2019 and the ranking captures this, as it lists companies by compound annual growth rate (CAGR) between 2017 and 2020. But it also captures the start of the pandemic, and the accelerated digitisation that it brought about.
In the south of the continent, the shift to digital is epitomised by the success of companies such as Entelect, an enterprise software and app provider that offers “end-to-end technology services” to businesses.
It was founded in 2001 out of the Electrical Engineering School at Wits University in Johannesburg by Charles Pritchard, a lecturer there. From its headquarters in the city, the company has grown to serve clients around the world, with offices in the Netherlands, the UK, New Zealand and Australia.
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Entelect is 31st in the ranking with a CAGR of 35.5 per cent and revenues of $52mn in 2020.
In the past five to 10 years, its staff have seen a shift in the way businesses, and particularly large organisations, view technology delivery. For many companies, technology is now not only an enabler of business processes but is also the product itself.
According to Shashi Hansjee, Entelect’s chief executive, digital technology can create both problems and opportunities. “This means the way we structure teams, projects and budgets needs to change to be competitive in this way of thinking, as the market, and so requirements, continue to change,” he says.
“A high-functioning tech capability [requires] motivated and capable problem solvers and specialists in technology disciplines, along with engaged stakeholders from business and product areas. Great products and systems come from great teams, not only from great ideas.”
Hansjee adds that the move towards digital servicing and operations accelerated during the pandemic, which has resulted in a significant increase in demand for technology services.
“Nearly all organisations now require a digital way of interacting with customers, which they may not have needed two years ago,” he says. “Competition in spaces such as ecommerce has ballooned, along with the interest in leveraging enterprise data for analytics, reporting and product development.”
Like other businesses, Entelect also had to adjust to the rapid transition
to a work-from-home environment during the pandemic, while both maintaining its support culture for staff — especially new recruits — and remaining engaged with customers.
Nigeria’s Kawai Technologies is another company that has benefited from the drive to digital in Africa. The support services business, which was founded in 2007, is eighth in the FT-Statista ranking, with a CAGR of 85.2 per cent.
Kawai started out providing bespoke software solutions, says co-founder Akinbo Akin-Olugbade, but found that it had more to offer.
“Very quickly, we realised that it made sense to focus on the core skill sets available . . . internally, which revolved around planning, flexibility, and understanding the local nuances of doing business in Nigeria,” says Akin-Olugbade, who trained as an engineer and previously worked in venture capital and as director of operations for a fertiliser company.
In recent years, Kawai’s projects have included providing an all-Nigerian engineering team for a Turkish company that set up in the country’s south-west, and developing an international order management system for a Nigerian oil and gas business.
Technology has remained central to Kawai’s approach throughout its growth and the company prides itself on its capacity for innovation.
Today, it focuses strongly on supply chain management, covering everything from materials to production oversight, shipping, and the logistics of delivery.
“We built upon the experience we had and pretty quickly started deploying some novel solutions, which of course led to more orders, and then we had a fully fledged business,” Akin-Olugbade says.
This year’s Africa’s Fastest-Growing Companies is the first Africa companies ranking report. The rankings are compiled with data produced by the FT’s research partner Statista. A total of 75 companies were ranked in the inaugural edition.