In Conversation: Tshepo Tsheko (Managing Director, inq. Botswana)

As a seasoned tech professional with 18 years of experience, ranging from roles at a pharmaceutical company in the US, a big tech company in the UK, a pan-African property loan stock company, to the Botswana Digital & Innovation Hub where he was acting CEO, Tshepo Tsheko's career journey has exposed him to a wide array of operating environments in technology.

In April, Tsheko assumed the role of managing director for inq., a company which provides edge computing solutions for businesses. In this interview with BW TechZone, he shares more about the company's rationale for entering the Botswana market, its value proposition, its future ambitions in the market, and much more.

Please share your career journey up to your current role at inq. 

My first job after varsity was with a pharmaceutical company called Bristol Myers Squibb in the US, where i was a systems analyst. I had graduated with a degree in computer science and business administration. So I worked in the technical space there, looking after the systems and data centre, environment. Additionally, in my role as a business analyst, I had the opportunity to move supporting scientists to develop and identify secure technologies, platforms, and environments to help them develop the pharmaceuticals or the drugs that save lives. 

I then moved to another role, still within Bristol Myers Squibb, where I was focusing on developing systems and data centre capabilities. I later moved to Hewlett Packard (HP) in the UK when Bristol Myers Squibb outsourced its technical division. At the end of 2010, I resigned, having held different technical roles within HP, to come back to Botswana where i assumed the role of IT manager at Turnstar Holdings. I then joined the Botswana Digital & Innovation Hub, which was then Botswana Innovation Hub, as a programme manager, eventually setting up the technology incubator accelerator programme called First Steps Venture centre. Thereafter, I moved to another role of director of ICT marketing and partnerships. Eventually, I became the acting CEO  of BD&IH and in April, I then joined inq. as managing director for Botswana.

What was inq.'s rationale for entering the Botswana market?

Andile Ngcaba, the chairperson of Convergence Partners which owns inq. is passionate about the development of Africa and technology. So when he started, the vision has always been to enable Africans to be part of the technological space and with inq., which was founded in 2013, it assumed a model of going into different markets and acquiring preexisting telecommunications or ISP businesses which aligned with its values.

So in Botswana, a company called Virtual Business Networks Botswana was acquired and rebranded into what today is inq. Botswana. In South Africa, as an example, a company called Syrex was also acquired and rebranded as inq. South Africa. So with every market that it takes into consideration,  the company looks at which entity it can work with, whether it's through an acquisition or a partnership, because it is all about, being a leading edge and multi-cloud technology company. With Edge technology, the company needs to have a physical presence and data centres in a market in order to facilitate the experience of edge cloud and hence why the presence in Botswana. 

Edge computing is not a very common concept in Botswana. What challenges have you faced in your mission to deploy this technology to clients in the country?

Its true that it is not a very common technology in the country. People were used to having server rooms and then later, better server rooms, which were what one would say were hybrid data centres. And then people were talking about data centres, and then cloud through hyper scalers like AWS and Microsoft Azure. But the issue with hyperscalers is, ironically, scaling because you have to operate within the confines of different jurisdictions which have their own laws on data use and processing.

With edge technology, we're bringing the compute capacity and storage closer to you, but also giving you a seamless connection to the multi-clouds that you can have your workloads sitting on. And this is really the difference because now with a data centre, a client is able to improve the experience between the different clouds, as well as the connection between their business and clients. So the challenge, i would say, has been around trying to communicate the value proposition of edge computing to the market and i think so far, we have made significant progress in that regard.

What opportunities would you say are available in the Botswana market for a company like inq.?

We started off as connectivity business after the acquisition of VBN but the vision has always been to ultimately become a fully fledged technology company. You see in that in our market, a lot of entities are sitting in the connectivity space either as an internet service provider (ISP) or mobile network operator (MNO). With the way the world is going and much focus on digital transformation, we have seen that although you do need connectivity, you need intelligent connectivity. So for us, everyone was talking a lot about broadband as an avenue to cheaper internet, but the contention is not talked about. This means that although people get cheaper internet via broadband products, the experience has not been so great because of how it has been rolled out in the market.

So for us, our interest is to not just promote broadband within our client base, but rather to promote dedicated internet access, because it allows us to offer more value to clients. So there's that dedicated experience we offer, but it's only an entry point into what we can do for our clients who want to walk the digital transformation path. What we also offer moving from the connectivity side, are software-defined networks (SD-WANS). In Botswana, most businesses are accustomed to using Multiprotocol Label Switching (MPLS) technology which is not very efficient.

Our value proposition via SD-WAN technology is much more efficient and secure and provides clients with much-needed convenience and the ability to leverage resources across their entire network. To give you an example of the efficiency of an SD-WAN, let's say a company has a head office as well as multiple branches. Those branches have to send back data packets to the head office but with SD-WAN, only certain traffic needs to go back to head office. This is contrary to MPLS where all the traffic would be sent back to head office which is a very costly undertaking. SD-WAN enables a client to derive more efficiencies on traffic routing, as well as apply policies should the network connectivity be degraded.

The efficiency of SD-WAN is something that is not well known in this market or well rolled out because you will see that businesses buy SD-WAN-enabled hardware but still run legacy protocols like MPLS.  Because we have a proprietary control plane where all these SD-WAN-enabled devices are able to connect and provide visualisation dashboards to clients, we offer much-needed efficiency and cost-cutting to them. Also, we are able to overlay our artificial intelligence on your hardware to enable you to leverage data better. We also provide software development capacity and have developers here as well as throughout the group, who develop bespoke software solutions for our clients. We also have two data centres in Gaborone.

So in summary, the opportunities we see in the Botswana market are the ability to support our clients with their digital transformation journeys through the usage of efficient and effective technologies.

How much traction would you say you have garnered since your entrance into the Botswana market?

We largely do business with the private sector and i would say in that time period, we have managed to establish ourselves to a point that we even offer our services to other players in the industry who might be considered our competition.  Our focus is really not on what our perceived competition is but rather, on providing as much value as possible to our clients, a focus which i would say we have executed quite well so far.

Additionally, i have tasked my team to go on a drive to share with the ecosystem our offerings and capabilities. We want SMEs and startups to innovate or think about how to leverage our capabilities to build digital transformation products and services. They can come and pitch a proposal that leverages our capability, but obviously having been onboarded as a partner, which means we would enable them to build, but they would be delivering that solution. So for me, that's a great value we can offer to tech innovators in the country. For example, if they want to develop a solution, and they need it hosted, for they can come and talk to us about hosting it in our data centre and we can work out a partnership.

inq. Botswana is part of a global technology group and i would encourage innovators in Botswana, be it SMEs or startups, to leverage this opportunity to reach a global market by building on top of our infrastructure. Our doors are pretty much always open.

In terms of the roadmap for inq. Botswana in the next 2-3 years, how is that looking like?

In the next two to three years, one of the most critical areas that we're driving is increasing the uptake of SD-WAN in our market because as I said, beyond connectivity, you're talking about efficiency, reliability, and security. My passion and one of the areas that inq. has really made it a core focus is on developing skills to build software that can scale. With that in mind, in the future, you will see us do hackathons but not for the sake of hackathons, but rather, hackathons that we will be using to provide innovators with our platforms so they can create solutions that we can commercialise together. Because we have a strong partner programme, where if we are to develop a solution for an entity and we work with developers, we partner with the developer to roll out the solution commercially. Additionally, because we are part of a pan-African group, that solution can be adopted by other parts of the business, which of course adds even more value for the developer.

So through the hackathons, we will be able to take solutions that are developed with the brains of our innovators here and scale them out to beyond our borders. So that is a trajectory that we will be moving in. In short, I am very excited about the prospects of the business in Botswana because i believe we have a very solid value proposition as well as a wonderful team to execute it. 

Interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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