27 May Sizwe Cele: The Tech entrepreneur with a soft spot for art and design
Typically found behind his computer screen at his home office in Johannesburg, toggling multiple work stations at once while an inspiring YouTube lecture plays somewhere in the background to another backing track of old-school hip hop, Sizwe Cele does not fit any single stereotype of the “tech entrepreneur”. Getting him to sit down for an interview is hard enough: he wants his businesses to do the talking through the impact they create.
In an industry where talking about entrepreneurship is a category of entrepreneurship itself, he may certainly be onto something. Sizwe describes himself as a creative tech entrepreneur. He is the co-founder and director of two technology businesses: Khomba and Socly. Khomba is a vehicle tracking and diagnostics technology being built first for South Africa’s taxi industry. Designed to be used by owners of taxi fleets, and other organisations in need of public transport hire, Khomba’s ‘telematics’ system will keep vehicle owners aware of the status and activity of vehicles, making for a safer taxi industry.
If you’ve ever wondered who is responsible for WiFi at events or retail spaces, like restaurants, Sizwe’s other business, Socly, is one such digital studio. It provides WiFi for brands through devices called “pebbles” (among other products). In return, Socly provides marketing insights to brands.
We managed to steal an afternoon with Sizwe to learn more about his work and the reality of his entrepreneurial journey.
Q: What led you to create not just one, but two companies, at the same time?
I got into tech by mistake, I think. I was studying mechanical engineering about nine or ten years ago, and I had an idea that leads to me diving into a naïve rabbit-hole where I was learning from friends who were programmers and designers — or studying towards it. The first time I designed anything for myself I was terrible, but I obsessed over it, read and asked questions gained not only the skill but the confidence to get to the point where I could bridge my passion for solving problems with real, testable ideas.
So how do you transition from learning to build stuff now to learning how to build Khomba and Socly?
So everything I’m looking at is centered around African problems. I’m a boy from Durban, I grew up taking taxis as a child. I believe taxis are the most innovative modes of transport on the continent.
As for Socly, we just kept getting opportunities where I was doing WiFi for restaurants and galleries while providing insights and analytics for brands. We’ve worked for Mercedes Benz Fashion Week, Coca-Cola and even Fifa. This business gives us—as engineers—the opportunity to stay close to design, art, and culture.
Let’s talk about Khomba — the app you’re about to launch. How do you finance and build your team?
When my business partner, Meco [Mugnaioni], and I came up with Khomba, we knew we had a viable idea—a great idea. But, at the time, Meco also owned a restaurant that he was deeply committed to, and I owned my agency and was also freelancing. We had to let some things go in order to commit to Khomba. I thought we’re driving these other cars, we need to let go and risk. The first thing was money. I asked family for money and I borrowed more from home; a family loan. I’m not going to act like I grew up poor. That’s a lie. My family took care of us very well. Meco got a loan from home, too.
Then we got to work on our first version of the app. I tried different developers and programmers, but they couldn’t do it. Then I took on a lot responsibility myself to build the MVP which meant up-skilling. It was painful but fine. Now we’re in a position to pick the best talent. I work with the best teams, the best minds. Meco is now our CEO and his background is in hospitality, e-commerce and mining. He understands operations and how to manage stakeholders, including his internal team. Our Chief Technology Officer, Lesang [Dikgole], has three or four degrees, and is a writer, poet and engineer. He even built his own swimming pool. The thinking behind building a team is that it absolutely has to be dynamic. It’s the only way.
Unemployment is at an all-time high, approaching 28%. What’s your long-term entrepreneurial goal?
I believe we need to find ways to bridge the enormous amount of intelligence and creativity in this country and lack of access. There are a lot of smart young people in this country with no resources or support to use their talents. We’re wasting our potential. It’s enough to make I think there’s a lot of potential in the university model where talent, youth, knowledge and other forms of capital coexist in a close community. I’d like to see more incubation programs supported by universities, programmes where entrepreneurs can build, test, produce and commercialize. When I make money that’s what I’ll do.
Lastly, who are some of your favorite South African artists right now?
Ayanda Mbula. We actually have two of his painting in our new Socly office at Victoria Yards. I respect his work so much. His attention to detail is phenomenal.