SIlulo Ulutho Technologies: The power of a passionate team to build a South African brand
“People see me all over without realising that my strength and success depend on my team; I have so much respect for them and for the open conversations we have. As founders, we recognise that Silulo Ulutho Technologies is bigger than ourselves. I can only do 30% and the team does the rest; it is about bringing in more people who are aligned to the values and the vision of where we want to be as an organisation. It’s about having more Luvuyo’s at Silulo”.
As part of My Business, My People, we sat with Luvuyo Rani, co-founder and CEO of Silulo Ulutho Technologies at their Belville offices to chat about their entrepreneurial journey and the team behind Silulo that propels it from strength to strength without losing its core.
Started in 2004 from the boot of Luvuyo’s car in Khayelitsha, Silulo is now an exceptionally well recognised South African brand with a national footprint of 46 stores and 25 franchise spread across three provinces (Western Cape, Eastern Cape and Kwazulu Natal); far from sitting back, Silulo is pursuing its vision to bring its centres to other provinces and in the SADC countries. Co-founded by Luvuyo Rani, his brother Lonwabo and his sister-in-law Nandipha Matshoba, and powered by a formidable team, Silulo has the skills and ambition to be the African solution to embrace the Fourth Industrial Revolution in the continent. As social entrepreneurs, Luvuyo and his team show upcoming business leaders how profit can make an impactful difference. And how passion, coupled with business acumen and a committed team are the perfect mix to pursue a clear, bigger picture.
Simply: What value does Silulo add to the market?
Luvuyo: Silulo operates as a business centre with a Training Academy and a Career Centre. The career centre has the aim to support unemployed youth and small businesses with connectivity and career advice, from creating a CV to registering a business or designing a website. The underlying problems that we as social entrepreneurs tackle are lack of connectivity, access and skills in communities. These elements help addressing three main issues, poverty and unemployment.
Our aspiration for Silulo is to be the leading company in the townships and rural areas where we will connect people who previously were not able to be connected and upskill young people to favour employment.
Simply: Did you ever see yourself as an entrepreneur?
Luvuyo: My story is very interesting. I was born in Queenstown, in the Eastern Cape; my mom was a domestic worker and she was unemployed and I got my entrepreneurial spirit from her. She started running a shebeen from home, changing our lounge and dining room to sell liquor; I would often help me with assisting customers. After Grade 12 though, I was confused about what to study and I became a teacher. Even though I enjoyed my profession, I could feel that the passion was missing. When I saw that teachers couldn’t use computers I resigned from my job and started selling refurbished computers.
I never knew where I would be today, but I followed my heart and passion for what I do and coupled it with the opportunity I saw in the huge Information and Communications Technology (ICT) gap in our community. As Silulo, we grew from selling computers to an Internet cafe’, a training school, a centre in Khayelitsha and then from stores to franchise and now scaling to different townships.
Simply: What are some of the future plans for Silulo?
Luvuyo: We have noticed that what we see in South African townships is similar to other countries in SADC. Because of these parallels and our relevant experience that we can aspire to evolve from a business in Khayelitsha to an African solution that brings connectivity, skills and empowerment to rural areas and townships. These are essential elements to ensure that Africa can embrace the Fourth Industrial Revolution and that nobody is left behind.
In the face of technical skills, I think social skills need to be brought into the picture. Soft skills like resilience, team working, confidence are very important for young people to see themselves to come up with solutions that can be global; they are essential for young people to become the next innovator or programmer.
Simply: What drives you as an entrepreneur?
Luvuyo: It’s tough to be an entrepreneur. Passion, resilience and patience can keep you through the journey. Once you have these skills, you can deal with any challenges that come your way.
In terms of drives, I believe in the saying Once a teacher, always a teacher; I still am one, but in a different way, in an enterprising and impactful way. The current education system is not equipped to prepare students to be ready for the job market. With its Career Centres, Silulo now fills that gap to help students taking their next steps.
Simply: What is your team like?
Luvuyo: We have a truly amazing team; some members have been with us from day one, for 14 years, and they have grown along with Silulo. Aphiwe Mazamisa, the current Regional Manager for the Western Cape, was our 8th hire when we first opened; everytime I ask what is next for him, he answers that he wants to be the CEO of this organisation. So you can see already the interest in succession. Aphiwe understands the culture and he is part of the DNA of Silulo. I am amazed by the commitment of this young man, the ownership and drive to grow this business. There are many other stories like Aphiwe’s at Silulo. Ukwezi used to be one my students when I was a teacher, and he became our third staff member when we opened in Khayelitsha. At first, his salary wasn’t high and I would encourage him to stick it through as there was a bigger picture for Silulo. He soldiered on for some time; he grew from being an employee, to store manager and area manager. In 2014 he was the first franchise owner of a Silulo store in Strand, owning it 100% since 2017. Ukwezi now employs his brother ad his sister and he now wants to open a second store. For us as the founders of Silulo it’s all about the legacy, succession and what will happen beyond us, how can we take Silulo to the next level, multiplying this business so that it’s bigger than yourself.
Simply: What is the value your employees bring?
Luvuyo: Having the right people is essential for us to thrive. It’s very difficult to go from running a business from the boot of your car to running your own store, then stores, moving franchise and then corporate ties. Our team is flourishing from a personal perspective, and within the organisation; we went from a startup to a structured space with systems and our team understands what it takes us to evolve further. They bring so much value to the table to recognise and embrace openness, analyse shortcomings and are clear about the expertise and diversity that is needed to grow. In a way, our team reminds me how important it is for us not to lose the entrepreneurial flare within the structured processes. This team knows to embrace ongoing learning and how to maneuver change. I am accountable to my team. People see me all over not realising that my strength and success depend on my team; I have so much respect for them and for the open conversations we have. As founders, we recognise that Silulo is bigger than ourselves. Personally, I can only do 30% and the team does the rest; it is about bringing in more people, who are aligned to the vision and values and where we want to be as an organisation.
Silulo’s leadership involves the commitment of investing in our people. People make it possible for you. I wish people would recognise that in order to be a great leader, you need the right team and you need to invest in that team. By doing so, that team would represent you and become you, even in your absence. For us, it’s also time to have more Luvuyo’s at Silulo that occupy my space.
Simply: Could you tell us about a time when you celebrated an achievement together?
Luvuyo: As a team, winning the Outstanding Young Persons of the World Award in 2014 was very meaningful. We campaigned together to get votes, and when it happened we were all celebrating; there was a strong sense of pride in what we do. In general, what brings us together is witnessing the overarching vision of Silulo of being a changemaker being fulfilled through its people; winning an award or realising that our students are positively impacted is reason for celebration.
Simply: What are some of the challenges that you faced, as a team?
Luvuyo: From being held at gunpoint, office robberies and fires to being the victim of bank fraud, Silulo and team members have endured and endure many challenges. Store robberies create deep trauma and unfortunately, crime is one of the biggest problems in townships. However these challenges reaffirmed our commitment to work in our communities; we are here to stay and nothing will destroy us as there is a bigger picture of what we want to achieve.
At every challenge, the Silulo team has always showed great resilience. These setbacks make us stronger, keep us together and motivated to work harder as we realise that we are doing something right. We believe that the more entrepreneurs, the more we will change these issues in the townships. We can’t face these challenges and think we will give up, as Silulo has grown beyond us. Silulo has grown beyond the Western Cape, into a being an established South African brand; in the Eastern Cape, Silulo is the fastest growing brand. Greatness is coming and challenges are part of the game.
Simply: Why is it important to protect your people?
Luvuyo: To lead an organisation is to lead people who give their very best to the organisation; from time to time, employees face personal challenges like dealing with stress to miscarriages or losing family members. We are serious about staff wellness and have ongoing support, including counselling and offering time away. When you become a leader you become a father; you work with these individuals on a daily basis, they trust you and they look up to you for support when they go through tough times. At Silulo, we have started financial literacy, moral support and insurance for when things happen to our team. We have grown over time and continuously strive to have programmes ensure that employees feel supported.
Simply: What is the difference you and your team make in South Africa?
Luvuyo: We make a huge difference by showing that it’s possible to bdo anything you want to do, as long as you are on the same page, understand each other and have a common goal. As a team, we have achieved many things. People are asking how is it possible than whether they go to Mthatha or KZN they get the exact same service? The answer lies in our values. We are a service and we need steward leaders to offer a service to people. It starts with our people, the way they conduct themselves, and loyalty and ownership. These are the things that are part of Silulo. We always say Once a Silulean, always a Silulean and you can see this beyond your life at Silulo. We encourage our staff to grab opportunities to grow at Silulo or outside; they won’t struggle but as long as they have those values. These values also provides as a base to 70% of our staff for which Silulo is the first work experience, enabling them to work anywhere.
Simply: What advice would you offer to upcoming leaders?
Luvuyo: A personal lesson I have learnt and continue to learn is to master the skill of listening; this has helped me grow by teaching me to put my ego aside and really listen to others and the value of input.
I also noticed that Silulo can operate in different scenes, from working with the communities locally to liaising with governments at global level; you don’t find this happening often, companies seamlessly bridging different scenes and interests. The leader of today must be able to maneuver in different arenas; we live in a world of contrasts and leaders need holistic views of problems that are not local anymore but global. This is the space where opportunities are coming in.
Simply: What more could be done to support small businesses?
Luvuyo: Both at government and private level, there is a realisation that stimulating entrepreneurship is what our country needs to move forward. However, I see important gaps, especially from the township point of view, which is my passion. Firstly, there is a problem around access, infrastructure, finance and market. Questions on ways to bring the formal and informal space together need to be answered to create a space where entrepreneurs can thrive. In this sense, a lot more can be done to create collaborations between the private and private sector and opportunities for high impact.
From a South African point of view, there is also a problem with scaling small businesses. This is another gap and I don’t see any door where you can bring your model to get assistance on amplifying your model so that you can create more work and employment. Hence, there is a need for coaching, mentoring, role modelling and financial assistance, programmes to grow ideas. Not everybody has to scale, but to address unemployment we need high-impact entrepreneurs. We need our own South African unicorn to evolve our economy.