Entrepreneurship fuels every economy, serving as a source of fresh ideas, products and services that propel growth and foster job creation. Whether it’s a small spaza shop or the next technological giant, entrepreneurs play an indispensable role in shaping the economic landscape and driving advancement in society.
Realising this and driven by the prospect of cultivating expertise and capacity in the digital learning sector, Naomi Musi, Fourth Industrial Revolution Incubation (4IRI) CEO, started the incubator in 2018. The entity currently has offices in Johannesburg, Cape Town, as well as a digital hub in Nelspruit.
4IRI’s core mandate is to empower small businesses in the tech space by offering comprehensive support programmes, mentorship networks and access to funding opportunities. It also provides small businesses with state-of-the-art facilities.
The reason Musi chose to embark on this journey is that when she was young, she realised it was not only difficult for entrepreneurs and small businesses to find mentors, but it was also particularly challenging to access funding. “As an incubator, our imperative is to ensure that we provide the necessary business support that tech SMEs require.”
She says, this goes beyond incubation or enterprise development support. “They need advanced equipment, market access and international networks; in short, a conducive environment, which is what the digital hub provides.”
The funding side of the business was something Naomi particularly wanted to grow because she understood the many challenges that Africa’s entrepreneurs face.
“My observation is that most entrepreneurs go into business, particularly if they are from the tech industry, because they are creative and innovative, not because they are business savvy. Often, when they are trying to source funding and are asked for financial reports, they are surprised, as they do not have a deep understanding of how business works.”
For her, there was a clear opportunity here to help small entities and entrepreneurs. “I realised we could add real value by giving them guidance in terms of what the expectations are pertaining to funding, and also give them insight into the importance of keeping a good financial track record and reporting because we ask for management accounts on a quarterly basis.”
She says this is done to see how a company is progressing, to ensure it has the proper governance structures in place, and that it is compliant. “In this way, when funding opportunities present themselves, 4IRi is able to refer them.”
“We understand the life cycle of an SME, so it eventually became easier for us fund them directly instead of sending them to institutions who would inevitably decline their applications, not only because they were high-risk, but because they were start-ups with no business history.
“In addition, in the technology space, there’s the added complexity of introducing solutions that haven’t been seen or introduced to market yet.”
With this in mind, they began to search for partners. Since then, the Small Enterprise Development Agency has given 4IRI a facility geared towards funding tech SMEs specifically. In addition, the incubator works in partnership with several other bodies, including the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, and other private entities in the tech space.
“Outside of the fund itself, we have a range of other funding channels. The others include a crowdfunding platform through our partners, which offers SMEs the opportunity to access funding from venture capitalists.”
So far, the incubator has funded SMEs in the tech space, all of which have been able to sustain themselves and create employment opportunities.
The other driver that fuelled Musi’s curiosity about incubation was the new phenomenon of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. “I knew 4IR could be a game changer for South Africa because there is the perception that Africans are consumers when in truth, we are innovators, too. I wanted to reconfigure that notion.”
This, she says, is where the power of technology steps in. “Technology could give the youth the potential to have an equal seat at the table and also develop innovations that have the ability to internationalise their products and allow them to be benchmarked on a global scale.”
Integral to empowering Africa’s workforces for future employment opportunities is stressing the importance of relevant skills, talent acquisition and thorough learning initiatives. Through 4IRi’s programmes, small businesses and individuals can be armed with the cutting-edge and indispensable skills they need to adapt a thrive in the work environment of the fourth industrial revolution.
In the drone and AI space, we are giving them training for free, to empower them and harness their skills
Next, her organisation opened the 4IRI Drone Academy, which is the first drone school in South Africa that offers custom-made mission rehearsals for businesses in terms of risk assessments and effective flight preparations.
“We realised that there was a gap in the industry as most of the drone companies are not of colour. We approached the department of agriculture and an institution that funds youths in the rural areas to see how we could empower youth in that area, expose them to new opportunities and technologies, and upskill them with the intention of their going to market and servicing farms.”
She says part of its growth plan is to have a fully-fledged plant to manufacture drones in South Africa, because most drones being used in South Africa are imported.
Moreover, her aim is to help break the gender disparity. “There are many women that are highly skilled but are not afforded the opportunities that they deserve. In the drone and AI space, we are giving them training for free, to empower them and harness their skills. Hopefully, this will enable them to run companies with confidence and become more knowledgeable.”
When asked about her ultimate goal, Musi said: “I would like to leave a legacy of tech giants, by helping entrepreneurs evolve their companies evolving from small businesses to global giants.
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