Ironically, Thabo Malebadi was still studying for his national diploma in IT at the Tshwane University of Technology, when he founded his company after experiencing “difficulties with his tuition fees”. His initial passion for and focus on satellite technology, particularly GPS, didn`t pay off, and neither did his foray into the underserviced area licence market due to “too much politics”, but his third attempt was the charm.

On the eve of the deregulation of SA`s telecoms industry and the legalisation of voice over Internet Protocol (VOIP), when telecoms providers were heralding the start of an exciting new chapter for business, the young Pretoria businessman anticipated that many of the benefits would only accrue to established business.

“Our research told us that VOIP would only be affordable to bigger companies, and this renewed my dream to make such services affordable to small business and the informal sector,” says Malebadi. “Afterall, savings are just as significant, or perhaps even more so, for someone with a `small` phone bill of R2 500,” he adds.

Inspired by the success of Skype, Malebadi and his business partner and father Joseph, an engineer-turned-businessman himself, began developing a local alternative in late 2004, which eventually went live in November last year. The result is e-Mbizo, which is exporting voice calls for some 600 subscribers, including about a dozen small companies, and with most of the traffic going to the US, UK, Angola, the DRC and Nigeria.

“e-Mbizo is a play on the Zulu word `imbizo` which means `calling`, be it a calling to a gathering or to a career, and the term `e-biz`, because we are an e-business,” explains Malebadi.

Using intelligent voice gateways, e-Mbizo`s VOIP platform delivers voice on top of a company`s existing telephony network or landline connection. Users simply need a PC with Internet access, speakers and a microphone, and then simply download free NetphOne software from www.embizo.co.za.

Users can dial from their PC to a landline or cellphone number and pay 10c per minute of calling, or can make free calls to other e-Mbizo users anywhere in the world.

However, for the savings to kick in, users need high-speed broadband Internet access to avoid paying a per-minute connection fee. This access can either be through an ADSL fixed line or a wireless link, although the latter is known to have quality issues due to instability.

Users can also buy e-Mbizo`s plug-and-play VOIP-enabled phone. This product is currently in use at five Internet caf s in Johannesburg, oftentimes doubling up as a public phone for both local and international calls.

Users will never be short of support, with Malebadi noting that some 70 companies have signed up to its reseller network, and that this list “keeps growing daily”. It`s not all plain sailing though, with Malebadi bemoaning the fact that, since SA`s legislation still requires VOIP providers to lease `s fixed lines as their backbone, e-Mbizo`s profits are marginal. “Our business isn`t in the minutes though, but in our value-added products on the VOIP platform,” he says, referring to a small-scale interactive voice response or call centre solution, fax 2 e-mail, SMS 2 e-mail and SMS alert among other telephony and Web services.

Moreover, because few small companies appreciate the savings they could realise on phone calls with a broadband connection and peer-to-peer voice service, e-Mbizo often plays the role of educator, one it can currently ill afford.

e-Mbizo has, until now, relied on word-of-mouth testimonials to conquer its market, but of late has seen “quite a lot of hype” build up around the company, “so much so that we`re overwhelmed”. It`s even had interest from other countries, including a company in India, which is considering reselling e-Mbizo minutes, and another in the UK, which is negotiating to resell its services.

Malebadi insists that he doesn`t see e-Mbizo as a purely South African company though, as he has a number of international links, he says, referring to his network infrastructure partners.

He`s quite happy to give credit where credit is due though, citing his father, multiple investors, Pretoria-based science park The Innovation Hub, and international mentoring organisation Enablis with helping him get where he is today, which is well on his way.

And where to from there? Besides completing his BCom at Unisa and developing a closer working relationship with a mobile network operator or two, he is adamant that e-Mbizo will produce its own VOIP devices by 2007, while growing its user base significantly. In the next six months though, watch out for further VOIP devices aimed at individual users and the payphone market.

 

Thursday, 23 March 2006. Written by Laura Franz

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