The Fourth Industrial Revolution Incubator (4IRI), a nationwide institution that supports young tech entrepreneurs, has created a hub to support local small, medium and micro enterprises (SMMEs).
Established in partnership with the Department of Small Business Development and public-based development funder Small Enterprise Development Agency (Seda), the hub will focus on developing drone technology, cybersecurity, advanced engineering, artificial intelligence, biotechnology and networking.
CEO of 4IRI, Naomi Musi, said the hub is designed to be an accelerator that serves businesses and communities within Mpumalanga. “The ministry and Seda have played an integral part in establishing the hub so as to bring skills to communities in the province and cultivate strong tech SMMEs that can uplift the region’s economy.”
The Minister of Small Business Development, Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams, said that the hub is a positive step towards creating an inclusive digital economy and curbing joblessness in the province. “We are in the midst of building a new economy based on the ideas from the Presidential Commission on the Fourth Industrial Revolution. 4IRI is leading this charge by helping bright entrepreneurs create innovative technologies and in developing new skills for the country’s workforce.”
Looking for businesses that uplift communities
4IRI established its first incubator in Cape Town in 2018. Since then, it has opened up centres in Johannesburg, Nelspruit and a drone academy in Secunda.
For businesses to be part of the incubator, they would need to meet a number of criteria, the most crucial being the ability to develop technologies that uplift South Africa’s communities.
Sivuyile Zwedala, 4IRI’s funding manager, said that when assessing an applicant, the incubator looks at how innovative a business’ idea is. “Our tech experts draw up a report on the merits of the applicant. They talk about whether or not their idea is ground-breaking and how the product would fit in the market.” Zwedala and his team then assess the financial viability of the business. “I sit down with our team of financial experts and evaluate the business, looking at the industry in which it exists.
Exposure key to SMME success
One of the businesses that have benefitted from this exposure is industrial innovations company Thusong Technologies. Its founder, Makhosonke Kwaza, said that since his company joined the incubator in 2019 he has noticed an increase in the number of engagements with clients and partners. “Their support has helped me develop prototypes a lot faster and register patents.”
One of the latest in a long line of trailblazing innovations from Thusong is the hydro-electric hump system which generates electricity every time a vehicle crosses over a speed bump. “In 2018, when I started developing the idea, it could not get off the ground because of a lack of support. It was only when I became part of the incubator that I was able move the project forward.”
E-llumin8, an e-textbook application that makes learning materials affordable for tertiary students, has also seen value in being part of 4IRI. Its founder, Ditiro Rantloane, said the incubator understands his vision and recognises the importance of building a solid rapport with his company.
Professor Richard Chinomona, the developer of South Africa’ very own web-based video conferencing tool Glue Virtual Platform (Glue VP), said the value of being a part of the incubator is that it also wants to attain his vision of creating a South African solution for a local problem. “They are in the process of financing Glue VP and luring investors to inject income into this project so that it becomes a national product that the country can be proud of.”
4IRI uplifting the digital workforce
4IRI does not only support entrepreneurs but also plays a part in developing the skills of the digital workforce. Musi said the incubator provides upskilling training services in basic, intermediate and advanced artificial intelligence (AI) tools. Twenty-seven trainees graduated in 2021. “Most industries in the future are going to need AI integration and coding. We get SMMEs to bring in their employees who are willing to participate.”
Within three years, 4IRI has gone from an idea to a fully-fledged incubator, which is testament to the hard work Musi’s team has put into building it. “Our trajectory speaks for itself. In a small space of time, we were able to accelerate exponentially. SMMEs that come to us are able to build their solutions at a rapid pace, and that is something we are proud of.”