The SqwidNet network offers low-cost access to IoT solutions and operators in South Africa, creating opportunities for businesses, small and large to create innovative solutions. SqwidNet is a wholly owned subsidiary of DFA, the premier open-access fibre connectivity provider.
The SqwidNet network aims to give nationwide coverage for the Internet of Things allowing millions of sensors and devices to send small packets of data, for analysis, immediate action, and record keeping.
Phathizwe Malinga is the Managing Director of SqwidNet. He is responsible for building an Internet of Things (IoT) connectivity business in South Africa in partnership with international IoT giant Sigfox and is driving innovation through IoT by working closely with SqwidNet’s ecosystem of partners.
Malinga is passionate about the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) and the impact it will have on Africa’s life expectancy. With IoT being the cornerstone of data-driven decision-making, he is exposed to amazing Africans, in business and society, using IoT and other 4IR technologies, such as artificial intelligence (AI), machine-learning, and robotics to continuously improve their products and services, and our quality of life.
He has been involved in the information technology and the telecommunications industry for over two decades. Before joining SqwidNet, Malinga was the Head of Software Development and IT Application Strategy at Life Healthcare Group.
He completed his Executive MBA from the Graduate School of Business, Cape Town and continues to guest lecture with the university. He is also a faculty member of Singularity University, and finally, is privileged to sit on the board of Bizmod Consulting (Pty) Ltd as a non-executive director. Malinga is also one of the founding members of the IoT Industry Council of South Africa, the country’s first IoT industry representative body.
SAprofessionals.com spoke to MD at SqwidNet Phathizwe Malinga about his personal and professional journey at SqwidNet thus far.
Tell us about your role Today!
I’ve been in Software Development, mainly as a project manager and head, for almost 20 years. I spent time in the telecoms industry working on billing systems, then have spent the last 10 years in healthcare creating and growing their hospital management system. Today, I find myself heading up SqwidNet, a fairly new start-up focussed on providing South Africa’s first nationwide IoT network.
What does it mean to you that your colleagues have entrusted you with your position?
It is always an honour to be trusted, and the validation that comes with it. To me, it means to remain humble enough to be able to serve my colleagues in the way that they hope I will, rather than to become drunk with power and no results. We are a start-up, and only results will get us out of the gates, so it also means that I am accountable for results.
What would you like to have achieved by the end of your term as MD?
I would like for SqwidNet, in the long-term, to be known as the company that makes IoT simple. As such, I would like to produce simple solutions that enable our customers and end users to benefit fully from being IoT users, in a way that gives South Africa a better quality of life.
How would you describe your management and leadership styles?
I am a servant, first and foremost. My upbringing, my background and even my name allow for me to claim this as my raison d’être. And then, I am forceful, opinionated, demanding and fair. Leadership in my opinion, is a response to a need for someone to step up. Standing up doesn’t make you a leader. Remember what you stood up for, and doing that work unapologetically, is how I’d like to be seen.
What makes you tick or keeps you awake at night with respect to your position as MD?
Simplicity. How do we keep our solutions simple? For our customers, for our users, and most importantly for the people that will have to scale and maintain IoT in South Africa, our staff. And once we get it right, how do we repeat success in an ever changing world?
How do you take part in mentoring others?
Mentoring can be both an explicit activity and an inherent part of how one works. I subscribe to the latter. I believe in mentoring in the work, elbow deep, immersed in complexity. When I answer “how” questions, I like to be standing in the mess. There is a book called Superbosses by Sidney Finkelstein that contains the ideals I aspire towards. In terms of explicit mentoring, I work with MBA students at the GSB, and I now intend to get back to my mentoring high school scholars work through the Alexander Education Committee.
What have you been up to as far as your career is concerned since we last interviewed you in 2016?
Has it been that long? The team and I at SqwidNet have had our heads buried in the work of trying to increase Africa’s life expectancy through technology, and in particular, by building a network dedicated to ensure that we get the most value from our assets.
It has been a multi-pronged approach, and every week, we are amazed by yet another thing our ecosystem partners bring to the market, using our network.
Personally, I remain resolute that the fastest way to achieve this ambitious goal is through entrepreneurs and SMEs, so we have been working closely with a small cohort to help them build sustainable businesses. Some have been entrepreneurs, but some have been university students on the cusp of entering the workplace.
What about Sqwidnet, what changes and achievements stand out for you over the past three years?
I’m extremely proud of what the team has managed to achieve. We now have over 90% nationwide coverage, and have achieved over 85% indoor coverage for assets communicating through our network.
We also have seen significant capital investments by our ecosystem partners amounting to over a billion rand in the last three years. On top of our investment, that is testament to the quality that is being into the SqwidNet IoT ecosystem.
Finally, we have seen 45 entrepreneurs, 20 small business with a turnover of over R3 million, and about 50 students built innovative solutions that speak directly to helping the country towards the goal of the United Nations’ 17 SDGs (sustainable development goals).
What advice would you give a young I.T. professional who is about to join the profession?
There is so much good advice out there, following any of it can only lead to great things. To add to it, my advice would be the fundamentals of business have not changed, nothing beats hard work (10000 hours – Malcolm Gladwell), remaining curious and optimistic, thinking a lot and reading a lot, and of course watching TED talks, just constantly learning. And of course, only make data-driven decisions.
What are your views of the current business landscape of South Africa and the contribution professionals can make to it?
It is extremely difficult to do business in South Africa, unfortunately. In the last 10 years we have fallen from number 29 to number 81 of 189 countries, measured for the ease of doing business. We continue to work with government to try and reverse this trend. Add to that, the high levels of unemployment mean that skills in the workplace are not being developed for a significant percentage of our population (29% in July 2019).
That is not the best playing field to try and ply a business in. However, in this difficult time, there is opportunity. A lot of our population remains unserviced, simply because they are not the target market of incumbent businesses trying to innovate to just survive. Not only is there a captive unserviced market, but the technologies that a start-up can use to produce products and services for this market have become cheaper, more prevalent and is much easier to use. This means a start-up can offer a pretty great service to this unserviced market with little to no competition. This is what professionals should focus on. Our country needs you.
What do you view as the overarching goal that a professional services firm should endeavour to achieve?
It’s worth repeating here. Be Data-Driven when it comes to understand your customer and their needs. If you only do one thing in this 4th Industrial Revolution era, it’s that. Ensure that every decision you make is informed by data from your customer’s natural environment. If you do this, you will innovate your products to meet your observations in time to remain valuable to your customer. Nothing is more important in these complex, fast-pace times we live in.
What do you view as the most important value that a professional should exhibit and why?
There are so many, that it’s hard to settle on just one. One thing I love about South Africans, that the world also finds endearing is our humility. So, perhaps I would pick that one. Our Ubuntu.
We have in our DNA, the ability to collaborate versus just being competitive. I also think this is the other side of our global differentiator.
You started your career years ago, what part of it could you not have imagined at the time that has now come to pass?
I was one of the first people to get a palm pilot. Very few of us had the ability to store digital notes on these handheld devices. I thought at the time, “there will be a day when everyone has one of these…”
Never did I imagine people in the most rural parts of South Africa having only a smartphone as a telephone option. This digital notes ability has exceeded what I could imagine through these smartphones. Even some of my nephews who cannot even write are able to use their parent’s devices to send me voice notes via whatsapp. It continues to blow my mind how far we’ve come, and I can’t wait for what’s next.
What is it about Sqwidnet that you think sets it apart from other digital industry organisations?
We have “Open Access” and collaboration at the very centre of our company. I think this is what sets, not just us apart, but what sets our sister companies: Dark Fibre Africa, Vumatel and SA Digital Villages apart as well.
In choosing the technology that would become the common language in our open access ecosystem, Sigfox stood out to us as a signal of quality we’d like to give to the market. Sigfox Ready™ assures the market that their IoT solutions will be simple, affordable, and business-grade. This is also a huge differentiator that we are proud of.
Who can you point out as some of the most important influences in your career?
Recently, I was privileged to do work with the Thabo Mbeki Foundation by lending my voice to how to prepare our education system for the 21st century. Behind this work, sits a man I greatly admire, Former President Thabo Mbeki. He made Africans proud again. He continues to be an example of continuously giving back, even beyond his tenure as the country’s second democratic president.
Time is a scarce resource for all professionals, what lessons have you learnt about how to spend it?
There is a book I was once given that I cherish called “Scarcity” by Sendhil Mullainathan. What it unfortunately points out, is that any resource that is deemed as scarce will not just remain scarce, but will occupy an inordinate proportion of our thoughts.
With this insight, I have tried to change how I see time. It is not just scarce, but it is abundant. I am guaranteed quite a large amount of it daily, without a reserve.
I try to wake up early everyday, around 4 am, and I then I try to be present in every moment that I’m in. I avoid worrying about the next thing. I fully immerse myself in the now thing that I’m doing or experiencing.
Routine is also very important, as it creates an abundance of time. If you do the same thing at the same time everyday, you don’t feel like you run out of time. Tomorrow, God willing, you will have the opportunity to enjoy whatever it was you ran out of time enjoying today… Don’t let time rob you from enjoying your now.
What do you view as some of the traits that distinguish leaders from managers?
I think there two that I hold dear. On the technical side of leadership: It is the ability to use our intuitive insight to create the most desirable future. Being able to use various tools to understand and articulate the vision of the most valuable products and services that a company can produce, now and 5 years from now, and then steer the company towards being able to produce it in time.
Above the technical aspect, is the people aspect. Understanding that you are a servant of the people, a person who they have entrusted their livelihoods and their family’s livelihoods to. It is imperative that, in all decisions you make as a leader, you put these people, who had faith in you first, first.