A conversation with Mteto Nyati Part 2


Second Series

LM:     We hear about the digital divide and its impact on the economy and society, what is your view of the digital divide?

MN:     The digital divide is the gulf dividing the technology world into people who have access to computers and the internet, and those who do not. This divide is hampering the democratisation of knowledge in the information age. Change across the world is taking place at breakneck speed and technology is accelerating this pace of change wherever we look. This changing technology is pioneering new ways of doing business across many business sectors, be it mining, retail, education, or healthcare.

So, it’s important that technology does not continue to contribute to this increasing digital divide but that it is understood as an enabler to entrench an information and knowledge democracy. Technology is increasing access to information by more people than ever before in history. Every year brings new discoveries, inventions, and products that make our personal and working lives easier, increasing our productivity and saving money.  

The extent of resources available to anyone with internet access is truly amazing. Technology brings in a “democratizing” outcome whereby we have equal access to the same information whether we are in Asia, America or Africa. We need to eliminate the digital divide and any form of barrier and grant access so that new ideas can spread.

We see this with operators like MTN, Cell C, Rain and Vodacom that are bridging the digital divide in South Africa by increasing access to the internet through smart mobile devices. I think we need to also give recognition to OEMs that have manufactured a range of mobile phones and devices that are affordable to lower socio-economic groups. Not all these devices are smart technology, but they do the job, giving people access to the internet.

The interesting thing about the range of affordable mobile phones and devices available today is that they enable people to have access to applications like WhatsApp, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram which owe their existence to cloud computing. These applications are as popular in my rural village (Tabase) as they are in Sandton. Google Maps is used by residents of Gugulethu, Mdantsane, Soweto and Thembisa for directions just as it is for those living in suburbs like Constantia, Sandhurst and Dainfern.

LM:     How will the new technologies bridge the digital divide?

MN:     New technologies like cloud computing, data analytics and artificial intelligence are making technology affordable, accessible and easy to use. Going back to the Google Maps example, it is a leap from where we used to be when you needed to purchase a map if you were going on a road trip for example. Today, you literally have the world in the palm of your hand. You can navigate directions using Google Maps, which, for many, forms part of their car navigation system. Another example is Uber. You can organise a ride for someone in New York from Johannesburg. This is how new technologies are promoting an inclusive and democratic era of information and knowledge. Anyone, anywhere in the world, can access the same information at the same time. There is no longer elitism and exclusiveness when it comes to information and knowledge. More and more companies, organisations and academic institutions are making information accessible and technology is at the heart of this new social order. Prestigious academic institutions now offer online courses for free in some instances.

The other great thing about new technologies is that they come with improved user experiences through intuitive user interfaces which empower those who have not received a formal education to access and easily use these technological products and services.

These new technologies are levelling the playing field. For example, in the past when you wanted to develop an application (App), you needed your own server and software to enable you to write a code for the App. Now, due to cloud computing, this barrier to entry has been removed. You can easily sign up with Google or Amazon, gain access to their servers and the relevant software and write the code. New technologies have made accessing computing power very affordable and are breaking down one technological barrier after the other – helping to make the world work faster and more efficiently. As business, it’s our responsibility to keep our customers ahead in their digital transformation journey as they integrate technologies into their businesses to solve their challenges.

Closing the digital divide needs to be an urgent collaboration effort between business, unions, civil society and government. We, as Altron, are in partnership with provincial governments and are building fixed broadband infrastructure networks that connect government buildings, libraries, schools, clinics and hospitals to enable e-citizenship. The Gauteng Provincial Government is leading in this area through its Gauteng Broadband Network. These broadband investments are changing the lives of children in the townships, and patients in clinics. It is critical that we continue to promote these investments. Having access to the internet is not a choice but an imperative that governments must invest in.

LM:     What should be the role of Business in the fight against corruption?

MN:     The easiest thing to do in life is to complain or blame somebody else. What is difficult though, when faced with a problem, is to ask ourselves the question:  “Have we contributed to this problem?” Answering these questions honestly will help us to grow. It also focuses us on areas where we have and can control our actions. I believe that when you look at yourself in the mirror, there lies the problem or the solution. We need to take a critical and honest look at ourselves and decide how we can be part of the solution.

Business in South Africa must be self-critical and look at how it is contributing to corruption. Business must be honest and open and be synonymous with integrity. When you think about doing business in South Africa, you should not even think about corruption or favours. It is business that is driving technologies into other businesses and governments, so we need to conduct ourselves ethically so that those we do business with, recognise that corrupt activities and behaviours are off limits.

At Altron we have come up with a set of values that seek to guide the behaviours of “Altronians”. One of these values is openness, honesty and integrity. We expect “Altronians” to live these values and we encourage our people to be honest about their competencies and limitations. Asking for help is not something that we shy away from. We also use these values to decide who should join us or who should leave the company. It is as simple as that.

We also have clear anti-corruption policies. Last year we took our entire staff complement through ethics training. We expect our leaders to lead by example and we actively monitor compliance with gift, travel and entertainment policies. Non-compliance results in disciplinary action. Lately we have introduced a vetting system of subcontractors, an area of weakness for most organisations.

Furthermore, our employees are playing an important role in reporting unethical behaviour through a dedicated and anonymous tip-off line. The key, however, is to investigate all allegations and take appropriate action and not tolerate any retribution or retaliation from line managers or anyone reported. Employees who report unethical conduct are protected and care about things being done and processes followed. Most importantly, as leaders we are responsible for creating a culture that does not tolerate corruption, poor business controls or non-compliance. We must walk the talk and lead by example.

LM:     Can technology play a role in addressing the key challenges of poverty, inequality and underdevelopment?

MN:     Technology absolutely has a role to play in addressing poverty, inequality and underdevelopment. I would venture to say that without technology, society can forget about the possibility of successfully addressing these challenges. As society we need to see technology as the enabler that it is. I strongly believe that education is anyone’s ticket out of poverty and technology plays an important role in the education process. At a basic level, all schools must have access to high speed internet. When provincial governments make these necessary broadband network investments children at these schools immediately have access to life changing content. It does not matter whether they are in Bizana or KwaNongoma, they have the same access to education content as those in New Jersey or Berlin. 

Most teachers in black schools are not digitally competent. As such, these teachers fear technology. ICT laboratories that have been donated by companies into disadvantaged schools remain unused. Artificial intelligence and virtual reality can assist in teaching these teachers about technology in the privacy of their homes. This approach can help our teachers acquire skills in a safe environment so that they become competent and confident to use the technologies in their schools.

Education is society’s great leveller. Our focus as a country should be on using technology to address the challenges that are facing our education system. I see three key challenges facing our schools – the quality of leadership, unskilled teachers, and disengaged learners. All these challenges can be addressed through the effective use of technology. We need to make education more fun for a generation of learners that have a short attention span. These digital natives want nothing more than access to technology.

LM:     How have you managed to remain grounded whilst having major achievements in your career?

MN:     I grew up in Tabase, Eastern Cape. It is here where my parents owned a trading store that served the community. We were relatively well off compared to others. Our parents drummed into us that we owed our privilege to the community. It was here that the seeds of humility were sown. This value served me throughout my schooling years. I excelled academically, and I was encouraged to tutor other students. My school holidays were never normal as the time was spent helping children of family and friends with mathematics and physical science.

Over the years I have realised that there is no such a thing as a self-made leader. In business, we owe our success to employees and customers. We are nothing without their support. This deep insight can be humbling. It is this insight coupled with humility that keeps me grounded.

LM:     What role does your family play in your life?

MN:     My immediate family plays a big role in my life. It is said that it is lonely at the top, and it is. In life there are ups and downs, and more so in the corporate world. We all encounter disappointments, betrayals and prejudice. We also make mistakes, both large and small. It is during these tough times that family plays an important role in my life. They are a source of strength. They provide the necessary perspective and they help me see the bigger picture. They also provide unconditional love. Maintaining a good relationship with my wife is a top priority. She is also someone who tells me what I need to hear not what I want to hear. It is said that the world does not have enough people who love us enough to tell us the truth. I am blessed to have married Zoleka. I am also blessed to have brothers and sisters who never get tired of listening to my challenges. I am glad we chose the same parents in this life.

LM:     What are the key challenges that you see for Altron in the next 5 years?

MN:     Our strategy as Altron is centred on growth. This growth is both organic and acquisitive. We have chosen cloud computing, data analytics (artificial intelligence), security and internet of things as our growth areas. One of our challenges is to help employees acquire skills in these new areas. It is said that you can take a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink, which raises the question about what happens to those employees who can’t keep up with change? We will be expanding our business geographically and we expect to soon have more operations in Europe and Asia. We also need leaders that can scale-up to manage a multinational business. There is short supply of these leaders in our country, so we have to build them and this is a process that have already begun. Furthermore, our customers are embarking on their digital transformation journey and as Altron, we must be their trusted advisors in this transformation journey. That means we must be ahead of our customers – that is another big challenge.

LM:     Do you see room for more acquisitions and maybe consolidation in your sector?

MN:     We are seeing the emergence of large global companies like Microsoft, Amazon Web Services, Google, Facebook and Huawei. Scale matters. We must build similar organisations if we want to survive. At Altron we are clear that acquisitions must be part of our growth strategy. In the main, we will be acquiring companies for capabilities and the stretch those capabilities across geographies organically. In the ICT space I don’t see too much consolidation. Small players that have relevant fourth industrial revolution capabilities will be absorbed by large companies like Altron.

LM:     What message of advice would you give to young women who are either entering or find themselves at the bottom rank of your industry?

MN:     The world is not fair. The world has racists and male chauvinists. That is the reality. Young women and black professionals need to acknowledge this reality and they must then plan their career development strategies on the premise that they are starting from a negative. What this means is that one has to work that much harder compared to their male or white counterparts. We can complain about the unfairness of this situation, but that won’t change anything. What is important is to beat people at their game. It is said that it is never crowded along the extra mile. Young women and black professionals must be always found along that extra mile. All it takes it’s a little extra effort to truly stand out. As leaders we also have a responsibility of driving diversity and inclusion in the workplace. At Altron we take diversity and inclusion very seriously. It is in fact one of our values and leaders are assessed on how well they live these values. Young women and black professionals must seek mentors and sponsors. They must also make it a habit to take the initiative at work, lead projects and have meaningful discussions about their career and professional development.

LM:     Is there scope for small business to be part of the Altron value chain, if so how can these small businesses access such opportunities?

MN:     There is a scope for small business to be part of the Altron value chain. We look for mutually beneficial relationships. As Altron we cannot address all the problems that are faced by our customers, so we are always looking to partner with other companies that complement our value proposition. We prefer to partner with small companies as they typically have low cost structures and are agile. The secret though is that the small business must have a solution that addresses a customers’ problem. The business value must go beyond being black or women owned.  Small businesses can reach us through our website www.altron.com.