7 December 2020
Ansu Sooful is fascinated by new technologies. The CEO and founder of the award-winning digital solutions company Aizatron has over 25 years of experience in the tech sector and is determined to help Cape Town become the first smart city in Africa. We sat down with him recently for a quick Q&A.
In short, Aizatron rolls out digital solutions. Large corporations including MTN, Telkom, Vodacom, Rain and FNB depend on us to come in and help them digitalise operations. And, if you’re wondering what the name Aizatron means – the AI stands for artificial intelligence, ZA for South Africa and -tron for electronics. So in a nutshell, it’s AI solutions built in South Africa, using smart electronics.
I started this company with nothing. It all started in the lounge of my house, in University Estate (a residential suburb located at the foot of Devil’s Peak to the east of the city centre). I got in a couple of students and with a team of professionals, we started building electronics and developing digital solutions. The business was officially founded in October 2017, after selling my previous company, Cornastone Telecommunications, to EOH. Those early days were not easy, but we persevered. We eventually moved into offices in Observatory, at the Baobab Ideas Lab, which was established to help small companies like ours to set up and start off.
It was one year after the World Economic Forum (WEF) published the start if the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR). It represented a fundamental change in the way we live, work and relate to one another. I looked at it and I thought to myself that I’ve got to start a company that is 4IR focused. Although there was no business for it at the time, I knew that it was the way of the future. If we look at the beginning of the Third Industrial Revolution, which was around 1969, we saw the start of Microsoft, Apple and others. So, the idea was that if I start a company at the beginning of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and focus on new tech and the digitalisation of the world, then that itself will be successful.
When I look at the world and I look at what exactly 4IR is, a lot of people struggle with it – they think it’s more IT services, but that’s not true. 4IR is a complete digitalisation of the world as we know it. What that means is that there’s a merger between the physical world – the world that we as humans interact with – and the cyber world, the internet. And, it’s how those two worlds actually start to merge and interact with one another.
The thing about starting a business and running a successful business in Cape Town, is that you cannot have a profit-only driven strategy. You need a community-driven element. When I started this business, I identified a challenge – we are in the business of automating companies, and as a nett result of this, people will lose jobs. That’s the reality. We could stop what we were doing, but that meant that we would hold ourselves, our city and our country back from a technology perspective. So, as Aizatron, we endeavoured to take people along with us on this journey. In addition to running the day-to-day operation of our business, we are very heavily invested in the community. We have made it our duty to train people around how electronics work. We try to teach people how to install smart systems and make their homes and communities smart. When we go into corporates, we cross-train people, so that they now actually start to embrace technology, and by so doing, we start to build capabilities for the digital economy.
Interestingly, the World Economic Forum’s publications on 4IR, states that more jobs will be created in the digital economy than lost. But you need to create the right jobs in the digital economy. One of my challenges is that the government creates jobs through the Expanded Public Works Programme (EPWP), which focuses on manual labour to keep streets clean and to build infrastructure, and that’s great – it helps socially uplift families. However, the reality is that in the next decade or so, a lot of those manual jobs are going to be replaced by robots. Fundamentally, that’s the truth.
In my opinion, we need to start looking at how we create ‘digital artisans’. A digital artisan is not an engineer that works for Aizatron. We have a lot of smart electronic and megatronic engineers that work for us, that build all of these smart systems. The reality is that not everyone can do that.
A digital artisan is a person who is able to use digital technology to fulfil and do their work better.
An example of a digital artisan could be an Uber driver. They use the Uber platform, which is a technology platform, to generate work for themselves and become self-employed. I view that as a digital artisan. We are busy with a social good project, working with Microsoft to create such a platform that we think will create massive amount of jobs in the manufacturing sector in Cape Town.
We’ve developed a number of robots and smart electronic devices. Last year, I was in Norway to present one of our object avoidance robots to the Norwegian government’s education department. They were very interested and wanted to use the product to train young school children in electronics. They were also very intrigued that the robot was developed in Africa. We started discussions with them, but unfortunately they went into lockdown as result of the pandemic, and then our lockdown followed, but we will pick up on those conversations soon.
Then, we also work on digital solutions with a number of big corporates across South Africa. We use cutting edge technology to develop new age products that are redefining the norm. Our partners have access to our products and innovations, allowing them to customise, brand and integrate our products and solutions into their existing business. We have built technology to monitor and control various factors in optimising the growth of plants and vegetables in the agri-tech sector. Other products include a facial recognition bell, a doorbell with facial recognition used for access control with automatic ID verification; a smart plug, an electric socket that can be accessed remotely to monitor electricity usage, switch on/off, set timers as well as create rules based on other inputs, e.g. lighting and temperature control; and a passenger counter, which uses computer vision to count people entering and exiting the bus and automatically reconsolidates the count with the ticket validator resulting in immediate reporting of potential fraud by drivers or conductors. (See Aizatron’s full list of products here).
At the beginning, we were forced to shut our electronics lab. We took a bit of a knock in terms of our actual physical electronic products in the market place. What we did, however, was to focus more on the online side of things. The good thing is that every Aizatron employee is mobile. They’ve got data access, they’ve got laptops and can work anywhere. Our entire company, everything we do, sits in the Amazon Web Services cloud. Everyone just needs data access and a laptop, and essentially you can work. So, work on digital solutions continued. We even managed to create two new innovative products while in lockdown – one of them being our facial recognition app, called ‘Who is it?’. It’s a commercial solution to compete with Ring and a few of the other security solutions on the market. Ours is a little bit better though, because when you press the buzzer, it takes a picture of your face. It then feeds that data into our facial recognition database. We check to see if we know who the person is – it scans our database – and if we are able to match you, we inform the home owner that this person is at your door. And, the key is that it recognises you even if you are wearing a mask. From an Aizatron perspective, we try and be very future-focused and develop products and solutions accordingly.
Cape Town is the tech capital of Africa. I wouldn’t be based here if I thought it wasn’t. The city has a lot going for it. When it comes to creativity and creating technologies, Cape Town is the place to be. Firstly, the environment is enabling, for creativity and innovation. It’s the best place for out of the box thinking. Secondly, Cape Town has four top academic institutions to draw talent from. Over the holidays, we recruit students from these institutions to experiment and learn in our labs. By bringing in young talent, we get to interact with young people who see the world differently. The reality is that they are our future, so the world they see is going to become reality in the next five to 10 years. For me as a CEO of a tech front company, it’s very important for me to have that vision. I’m not going to get that vision in the boardroom. I’m also not going to get that vision talking to tech leadership gurus that claim to know what’s coming in the future. My vision comes from students and I get that here in Cape Town.
I believe that Cape Town has what it takes. I don’t think that any city can afford not to become a smart city. If we look at the scarcity of resources globally, for example, we had the water crisis in Cape Town – a lot of the tech that we are building allows you to optimise the way resources are managed. My view is that to achieve smart city status, the City of Cape Town should start collaborating with local tech companies and work together to solve problems. The municipality itself cannot become a smart city on its own. The concept of cities wanting to build everything itself, contradicts 4IR. In the 4IR, and you’ll see it as part of our value statement, it is all about collaboration and co-creation. Collaboration and co-creation is why the technology sector is moving so fast. Just look at Google and Amazon and the likes, they have opened up their platforms. They work in conjunction with thousands of entrepreneurs and they co-create and co-generate solutions. That allows things to move. To become a smart city, the City of Cape Town needs to look at how, through EPWP, it starts to train our people for a more digital future.
I’ve always found that owning a business in Cape Town is quite easy. Even when I started Cornastone, setting up was fairly easy. Though most of our customers are in Johannesburg, I started the business in Cape Town because of the creative energy here. I like the culture in Cape Town from a business perspective. The people I employ focus on getting things done – that’s Cape Town culture. People are a lot more goal driven than time driven. In our industry, there is no such thing as time or a nine-to-five job. People work anytime, anywhere. Apart from that, Cape Town is a beautiful city with a green belt. The culture is fantastic – you can go for a run during your lunch break. Cape Town provides a very good work-life balance.
Aizatron was announced the best Emerging Business at the 2020 Western Cape Entrepreneurship Awards in November. The Western Cape Entrepreneurship Recognition Awards (WCERA) is the premium entrepreneurship competition in the Western Cape that recognises the achievements and potential of some of the province’s most inspiring entrepreneurs.