The highs and lows of ICT entrepreneurship
By Gregory Gondwe, Blantyre, Malawi
A year ago, two graduates from Malawi’s Mzuzu University, Kondwani Chimatiro and Daniel Chiwinga, left their university armed with Bachelor of Science (ICT) degrees. Instead of taking the road which most graduates in Malawi take – which is to seek employment – they ventured into ICT entrepreneurship as a self-employment initiative.
While most of the students they graduated together with are still on the streets looking for jobs, they have turned out to be employers who have even taken on board some of their peers to work for their firm.
The two started their business with the launch of a search engine which they christened C-finder, which they claim has given them a mesmeric experience in more than 12 months since they started it.
“A year after C-finder we have made several milestone achievements in terms of technology and entrepreneurship,” says Chimatiro. “We have managed to build a company that provides different ICT services and we are currently employing eleven people working on different innovative products.”
Not an Easy Road
Chimatiro says it has not been easy road so far.
“But we have managed to breakthrough in terms of entrepreneurship and technology in the way that we have worked so far with several companies locally and abroad,” he says with relief.
Just one year after leaving university and launching C-finder search, he says they have worked on major technologies even though the main challenge was that large organisations and companies at first doubted them because it is hard to trust freshly graduating students from University.
He says when they were tried with tasks like building data centres and web applications for organisations in Malawi, who they also assisted with digital marketing consultancy services, the success they achieved encouraged companies to trust them with more projects.
“It has not been an easy road being an entrepreneur starting from zero to where we are,” says Chimatiro “but it has been fun doing what you really like and what you wished to do.”
He says that at least as of now they can revisit some ideas which they shelved due to lack of funds, and start implementing them.
The company has now different departments, including an accounts section headed by a well qualified accountant. It also has a software department, sales and marketing, hardware and support department.
“We started building Ctech Systems first to raise money to finance C-finder and other ideas that we had on board, not knowing that Ctech Systems will be big business too,” disclosed Chimatiro.
He said all their efforts to get any loan were thwarted as the financial institutions they approached demanded surety.
“We raised money through savings that we made when we were still in school,” he said.
He said the other way they got funds was through an arrangement they made with a company that wanted their services in exchange for free office space.
“We stayed there for three months that made us to raise money to start the company in full operations until leading to getting many clients,” he said.
The University has also been over the moon with how the duo has performed having left its corridors.
Deputy Vice-Chancellor Professor Orton Msiska said they are very proud that two young men took courage to venture into ICT entrepreneurship.
“The boys have demonstrated that the university has always been right with its demand driven course; course that answer to society need,” said Msiska in an interview with Biztechafrica.
He said development is part of the university’s curriculum.
He says what the boys have done is what the institutions aspires to achieve, as what it wants is to produce graduates who are not job seekers.
“This is why we have been compelled to undertake a major curriculum review to ensure that we have a lot of such graduates,” said the deputy vice chancellor.
To show how proud the institution is with the boys, it invited them to take part in exhibition of some technologies during the commemoration of the World Intellectual Property Day that was held at the Mzuzu University campus on April 26, 2013.
“In the way we showcased our products and services we first open markets for ourselves as well as opening eyes to many people who now believe that technology can solve some of the problems that we have in Malawi,” said Chimatiro.
He also said since they were part of Mzuzu University students team last year when they had inverted the search engine C-finder, it gave them an authority to share entrepreneurial experience with the students.
“We also showcased two main technologies. Of course one of them was C-finder, due to public demand as people wanted to see how the technology works and how different is it from other search engines,” he said.
He said they also benefitted a lot as people made suggestions as they were anxious to see that the search engine has achieved a future that will benefit the country as a whole.
Unveiling SMS search
At the exhibition, Chimatiro also said they showcased their new innovation called ‘SMS search’ which “might not be new but it might be new as well because of the innovative part of it."
“It is a simple and affordable tool which has been made to ensure that those people in rural areas can also use that platform to find out different things in different fields in Malawi,” he said.
He said while sometimes it is hard to afford smart phones in villages that can enable people use search engines, everyone has at least a basic phone which has an SMS platform and the search facility will really prove to be a hit.
“With it people will be able to search about tourism, entertainment, business and many others using a keyword from the same database on their basic mobile phone,” Chimatiro said.
People can search about tourism in Malawi’s lakeshore border district of Karonga for example by merely typing “Karonga-hotels” and instantly their phone will give them a response by listing down all the hotels in Karonga and where they are found making it easy for tourists to find out more on tourism without being worried of internet connectivity.
“It is just a mobile search that is different from those that are around as this particular one is of high innovative and unique command,” says Chimatiro.
At the exhibition, a demo saw over 300 people testing it that day. The team got huge feedback.
“Since that day, there has been demand from other companies that we have to develop some mobile platforms which we are working on,” he said. He adds: “We underestimated the SMS search platform, but when we setup a demo that day, it was huge. Currently we are working on building powerful servers, power backup to make sure that once we roll it out we should not have problems or any other issues,” he said.
He said the SMS search project will be launched at the end of June. “The release will be the first phase of the project and we will keep upgrading it,” he said.
He said they have also unveiled software they are calling mycverifier for verifying fake or counterfeit products by using an SMS or mobile application including mobile web and desktop web based.
“The software is ready for usage and we are trying to work with some companies and we are getting positive feedback,” he said.
Chimatiro says their aim is to provide different solutions to the problems that people in Malawi are facing in order to bridge the gaps that exist in telecommunication innovations.
“You might have heard about hotspot internet services that we are providing which are cheaper and covers wider radius of about 10 Kilometres,” he says.
He said currently they are using the WIFI hotspot Internet in Mchinji District at a place called Gilime, which 100 kilometres away from Capital City Lilongwe.
“This is the place that we are testing its capabilities and see how best we can improve the technology. We are still working on making it better so that it can be reliable than ever,” he says.
“Our idea,” says Chimatiro “is to take internet services to rural areas.”
Most companies he says just care about providing internet services but they do not look at how best those services can be provided and this is where they want to explore and invest in.
“Currently we have clients who are in rural areas but enjoying internet services courtesy of Ctech Systems,” says Chimatiro.
A retired civil servant who has since benefited from Ctech services simply showed his appreciation in few words: “Their internet services are reliable, fast, affordable and innovative,” said Pilken Bandazi, who used to work as an internal auditor.
With such appreciation from all directions, Chimatiro says they will keep on re-inventing, innovating as well as looking for better solutions in technology so that they revolutionise technology in Malawi and Africa.
“Our goal is to provide cheap, innovative and affordable ICT services in Malawi that can change the way we do things and technologies that we cannot do without,” challenged Chimatiro.
Indeed, looking at what they have achieved within a year as naive ICT entrepreneurs, nothing should as of yet be taken away from their dreams.