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Jonathan Naidoo - A Visionary Outlook

Jonathan Naidoo is passionate about the work that the SmartXchange is doing to promote the development of entrepreneurs in the MICTe sector. He says that he is extremely focused on what he wishes the organisation to achieve and has always maintained a visionary outlook. This approach is very necessary in order to remain relevant in the innovation space. Naidoo said, "The ongoing exposure to the vibey and fantastic ideas of these young entrepreneurs is very exciting and provides momentum to the management of the day to day business."

While he enjoys operating a not for profit organisation, he says that sustainability is always top of mind. Careful attention need to be paid to the budget. We don't take equity forward into new projects and always have to put our best foot forward. The introduction of Kings IV has been invaluable as it has helped to develop realistic strategies to counter potential hurdles that could come at the expense of sustainability. Said Naidoo, "You make sure that you have plans of actions in place to address issues that could arise − to guarantee your board that you will be sustainable." He added, "We are also excited that this model for best practice comes from South Africa."

Naidoo says that SmartXchange's success has been made possible through three key elements. Firstly, he has the backing of motivated staff and a highly supportive board and patrons. Secondly, SmartXchange has developed  powerful strategic partnerships with government and the private sector. Thirdly, the commitment and dedication of the SMMEs is essential. "If they don't give us good results then we don't look good", commented Naidoo.

However, Naidoo says that he currently has two serious challenges.

"The one area that I need to have greater impact on is women in ICT. I currently have only a 28 percent representation of women on ICT programmes and it is not good enough. The reasons for this low figure are difficult to discern. When you look at the university classes they are on average 60 percent women students. Part of SmartXchange's strategy is to have road shows for university students and we make a passionate appeal to them that their degree should not only be completed for the labour market. Their degree should offer them opportunities to be an entrepreneur. That is my message to all students but most strongly to the female students because we need them in ICT. They are great thinkers and we need to understand what the impediments are to them becoming entrepreneurs.

My second challenge is to encourage people to come up with great ideas. We need to find solutions jointly. What traditionally was a crazy idea could be a great solution. Many of our current solutions are going to disruptive to the way that we live our lives in the future. An example is driverless cars of the future - how will this affect the insurance industry?"

Naidoo added that the lack of new ideas is a serious challenge because he has plenty of money to put behind great ideas. He said, "I get disappointed when I put out a call every quarter and I get on average on 30 applicants. We have no quota system but are only able to shortlist 30 percent of the applicants and on average only 10 percent of the original applicants are successful. He said further, "Government has incentives in place for startups to grow and for SMMEs to be incubated and we need to encourage participation. We can't complain that there is a lack of resources."

As a consequence SmartXchange has introduced design thinking classes as a forerunner of the creation of a system that will encourage innovative thinking. While SmartXchange's mandate is to assist and grow ICT companies, this should not be perceived as an end itself but as a platform on which entrepreneurs are able to build innovative products. Said Naidoo, "Our job is to help entrepreneurs build confidence, to start up their business and watch them grow." 

Naidoo's personal vision would be to see SMMEs moving from a focus on business support and resellers to innovators of great products, which result in high growth companies. While resellers and service providers are necessary components of the economy they often have low profit margins. SMMEs also need to ensure that they have a broad client base in order to avoid being a high risk company in the event of the loss of key clients. This is especially apparent when companies are over dependent on government contracts, which are at times not renewed at the end of the service delivery agreement.

In the future Naidoo would like to see the SmartXchange model being duplicated. He said, "It is a mature organisation, which is easy to duplicate, has learnt good lessons and has the potential to be adopted as a national model."  SmartXchange has been visited by international visitors, including a delegation from Abu Dhabi as well as the Belfast Council; both of which were impressed by the best practice being implemented.

Another of  Naidoo's  passions is for innovation to contribute to the development of 'Smart African Cities'.  He said that South Africa has the potential to be a leader and to have a global foot print.  However, innovations in
technology are only one aspect of the solution. "We also require people to develop smart attitudes. We need smart minded people who are able to deliver the 'wow' factor. We need those people who are able to give me bad news with a smile and who are able to go the extra mile and make me feel good even if there are challenges," said Naidoo. 

In conclusion, said Naidoo, "SMMEs are a formula for success, but they require hard work, a little bit of luck and faith in God, then the reward will come." When not at work Naidoo enjoys the outdoors, including trail hiking, gardening, golfing and fishing. He says, "Gardening is therapy as with the entrepreneurs, you plant seeds, nurture and watch them grow and then enjoy the fruits of your labour."

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