What is the essence of innovative technology? Is it about creating the next desirable tech accessory or finding the simplest, fastest way to get something done – usually involving fewer if any people? Or perhaps it’s just about making a name for yourself in Silicon Valley. For Naeem Ganey, the heart of tech, in fact, the heart of business, is and will always be people.
As Founder and Co-founder of two tech startups, Naeem certainly knows what he’s talking about. In 2015 Naeem started EduTree with a friend while finishing his Honours degree in Computer Science. EduTree is a mobile-friendly platform that focuses on revision aid in high school. Students can login to EduTree and practice Mathematics and Science. The system then analyses the student’s answering patterns, identifying strengths and providing teachers with deep analytics about a student’s learning. It being an educational business, the company’s business model and choice of tech is completely guided by the principle of providing access as widely as possible – no sign-up fee is required, basic smart phones can navigate the platform easily and, best of all, it’s data-efficient.
This kind of thinking – about what people need and what they have to work with – lies at the heart of Naeem’s business initiatives. In fact, he has a vision of “a digital Africa that is inclusive and revolutionary.”
A year after co-founding EduTree, he founded Media Measure, a media monitoring business that checks broadcasters’ compliance in the interest of clients who buy airtime for their ads. This was a pioneering venture in more than one way. It operates in Rwanda, Mozambique, Botswana, Namibia, Swaziland, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Angola and Malawi, empowering advertisers with alerts and evidence that can hold broadcasters to account for the first time ever. Being based in Johannesburg meant that Naeem had to provide these services remotely, which in turn meant setting up data centres in each of these countries – one more thing that hadn’t been done before, except by banks or other huge companies. “We’re the first small startup to actually do what we’ve been doing in some of these countries.”
When Naeem talks about tech, he can’t help talking about Africa and vice versa. Explaining that in Zambia, for example, there are two cell phones per person or that it’s a common occurrence in most of these countries to find someone selling their shoes in order to pay for a smart phone, immediately puts to rest any fears that Africa is a dark continent. It is in fact brimming with opportunities for technological innovation, but, warns Naeem, it comes with its challenges. For one, the way most Africans still do business is face to face. If telephone calls, emails or messages are what you rely on, clinching a deal might take months, if it is ever clinched. Innovators are also limited to providing services that solve an immediate need, and tech that works on not-so-smart devices. Yet, in spite of these challenges, Naeem believes that “we – the African people are the most equipped to solve these challenges … we have the ability to connect with people, different types of people, the ability of understanding people.”
His understanding of the importance of the human element stems from both his upbringing and his participation in the Allan Gray Orbis Foundation’s Fellowship Programme. Thanks to his parents, he has received business training all throughout his youth. From counting stock and tending to customers at Bingo Cash and Carry in the small town of Vryburg to managing the start of a new fish and chips take away restaurant in Mahikeng, and coming up with ways to attract more customers – Naeem has seen it all. He attributes the meticulousness with which he approaches writing code to having had to carefully count viennas and pieces of fish as a youngster. He also noticed that customers kept coming back to his family’s business because his parents knew their customers, their families, who was sick and who baked the best cookies. So, in effect, customers returned not just to make a purchase but to visit their friends.
At the Foundation this sense of connecting with people was echoed. Referring to the blend of unique characters in the Fellowship programme, he used to call it a “fruit salad”, especially when comparing it to other scholarships where everyone either looks the same or operates in the same way. “The Foundation appreciates the unique abilities in each person … and they taught us how to appreciate the unique abilities in each person.”
Naeem’s view of both technology and our potential as Africans in Africa is a breath of fresh air in an industry enamoured by Silicon Valley and the drive to automate.