Many companies achieve substantial growth and success but the real test is in their resilience during turbulence and how efficiently they face and adapt to it. For Ramesh Awtaney, Founder and Chairman of iSON Group, one of the largest IT and ITeS company’s in Africa, discovering the joy of resilient and proactive employees weathering through disruptive markets proved to be a cornerstone moment last year.
“It may not sound profound, but as the founder of the company, when you find your company can withstand these storms and has the resilience built into the system, it is extremely satisfying,” he says.
So, Ramesh mush be contented surely? “As satisfying as it was,” he adds, “there is so much more to do,”
iSON Group’s African headquarters is located in Lagos, Nigeria. For Awtaney; the market volatility of Nigeria presented the company with the biggest test of its fortitude. A large part of iSON Group’s business and profit is generated from Nigeria and over the last 12 months the company suffered headwinds with major currency devaluation across the country and wider Africa. “This also meant that our customers cut down on their budgets” points Awtaney. He adds devaluation and reduced customer budgets meant substantial operating profit challenge, nevertheless the company weathered the storm and continued to grow.
iSON Group’s ability to adapt, change and continuously innovate in these trying times with ears close to what customers want has enabled stronger relationships with key customers. iSON has also acquired a new base of operations in Durban, South Africa. This really broad bases the risk while representing a major step in expanding the company’s footprint throughout Africa.
As Awtaney oversees a major expansion of the company’s national footprint, iSON Group continues to be a fast-growing company. iSON has four verticals, iSON BPO, iSON Technologies, iSON Innovation & Investments (i3) and now iSON Foundation.
“Through our growth and resilience in that difficult period, we’ve really been able to diversify and expand our portfolio offerings for new IT solutions and customer services in different verticals,” says Awtaney.
iSON Group has also embarked aggressively on iSON Innovations and Investments.
i3 is a vertical through which the company seeks out and invests in small start-up companies, enabling them to grow and scale throughout Africa by providing infrastructure support, capital, mentorship and management support. Last year i3 invested in a taxi hailing app business: Mondo Ride, 2016 also saw investment in a hyperlocal search and discovery platform -Oliza, and a platform aggregator for golfers – Golflan. Recently, i3 has been evaluating investments in speech recognition technology enabling companies to support in growing BPO business followed by collaboration in the field of chat bots; thus, leveraging the power of natural language processing and Artificial Intelligence.
The process of selecting these companies is no different to any large company investing in a start-up. For Awtaney, the differentiator is in one simple question.
“How can we add value to this company, which in turn will add value to Africa?” he says. “We have a very significant presence in 25 African countries, so we look at how these companies can benefit from that significant platform.”
One particular start-up that the company has invested in is a ride hailing service called Mondo Ride, in Kenya. With Uber already operating in Nairobi, Mondo will utilise the infrastructure and support of iSON Group as a platform on which it can build through its unique business model that aims at the corporate world of Kenya.
Mondo has signed around 40 transport rights contracts with several organisations, including The Kenya commercial bank. These corporate employees will also use Mondo for personal requirements.
This is the added value that iSON Group seeks out in start-ups. Through investment and infrastructure support, iSON can enable Mondo to scale and expand beyond Kenya.
“We feel that once Mondo is successful and gets its big business break in Kenya, then you can lift that up and move into different countries where we [iSON Group] are already operating – because our core system and infrastructures are already place,” Awtaney says.
Having that national footprint spread across 25 countries allows iSON Group to play the role of a “trusted advisor” with the knowhow to tap into the African market and help emerging companies with innovative technologies succeed.
“We have supported global majors such as Huawei, Oracle, IBM, AVAYA as knowledge partners for doing business in Africa which is set to grow further with new partnerships to be announced with global technology majors and leading enterprise software vendors.”
“Not many companies can add the momentum that we do from our footprint from Nigeria to Ethiopia,” Awtaney continues. “If a start-up wants to think about solving a Pan-African problem, it’s going to need a trusted confidant who can take it to 25 countries. Also, if you’re a large company in America but do not have the know-how to tap into Africa, then you need a trusted advisor who is also your friend and is present in 25 countries.”
Platform of growth
This presence is what provides iSON Group with a crucial advantage. A pan continent footprint becomes the unique selling point above all else as the company has the understanding of local regulation, local challenges and the ability to successfully operate in 25 different countries with 13 new clients last fiscal year.
“The real unique thing that iSON offers is the platform across those countries and the ability to combine that presence with these start-ups and build and scale from that,” Awtaney says.
Throughout its four verticals iSON Group has made significant investments in order to grow as a smart technology company, but for Awtaney, one particular area of growth is something that is very close to his heart – iSON Foundation.
Through iSON Foundation, which hasn’t been officially formalised just yet, iSON Group has partnered with a number of non-for-profit charities to work with and support local communities; Spearheading this mission jointly with the foundation is an organisation called Girl Effect. Enriching lives of girls in Africa , is a very satisfying endeavour.
The Girls Connect pilot program, launched in July 2016 through an initial pilot phase, is a pioneering platform that allows girls to access information, conversations and one-to-one mentoring that is designed to enrich their lives. The pilot phase saw over 50,000 girls sign up over a two-month period and as the second phase of testing takes place this year, the target is over a million. Awtaney names this endeavour as “One Million Unheard Voices”
iSON Foundation represents the company’s vision of adding value to Africa, not only through business foundations, but through programs and initiatives with Girl Effect.
“Trying to transform the lives of marginalised people, through Girl Effect is very close to my heart and special. This is what life is really about and keeps you going. Take time, every day from your work and think about giving back” Awtaney says.
Using digital innovation to go further faster and deliver change at scale, iSON Group and Girl Effect have come together to deliver Girls Connect: a breakthrough resource for vulnerable girls.
"We're proud of our ground-breaking partnership with iSON Group,” says Farah Ramzan Golant CBE, CEO of Girl Effect.
“Working with them has given us the technical expertise and infrastructure to make our pilot a real success. Girls have already told us that they have applied their learning from Girls Connect to open a bank account, to stay in school or even to become a trade apprentice. We're challenging conventional beliefs in how effective, with the right training and support, distance role modelling can be."
As the company continues to grow and expand its footprint across Africa, Awtaney has ambitions for the company becoming synonymous with building local competence, local knowhow and bringing the efficiencies it has gained through other markets and locations and bringing them into emerging markets such as Africa.
“Our mission is to use our services competence onshore to smartly transform and benefit customers. We’re not a company with billions of dollars at our disposal, we are a young company focused on our model, our training of people and adding true value to Africa and the countries we operate in.”