BY Fast Company SA 10 MINUTE READ
It was love at first touch,” says Madoda Khuzwayo as he fondly recalls the very first time he typed his name on a computer keyboard. “I was instantly and irrevocably hooked, and it’s been a love affair that endures and has shaped my entire business life.”
When you speak to Khuzwayo, one thing’s clear: He knows exactly what he wants. In his late 30s, he’s part of a new breed of successful tech entrepreneurs redefining the future of South Africa and the continent as a whole. But the CEO of HOSTRIVER and founder of OPENTENDERS wasn’t handed success on a silver platter.
In rural KwaZulu-Natal, Khuzwayo grew up during a turbulent time in South Africa’s history. At the tender age of nine, his mother—a political figure in the village where the family lived—was killed in a faction fight, which left him and his two sisters in the care of his grandmother. Like many other families at the time, the young children’s father had left the village to seek employment on the ‘streets of gold’ and had ended up working in the gold mines in Gauteng.
Yet, life wasn’t too bad, he says. Spending his days in the fields with the family cows, Khuzwayo herded his way into his teens with little to worry about; what the future held was not a consideration. When he turned 13, however, things changed. Believing their village had become a hotspot for violence and thus too dangerous for her maturing grandson, Khuzwayo’s grandmother despatched him—disguised as a girl—along with his sisters to Gauteng to live with their father.
Arriving in Joburg in the midst of bustling urban life and discovering a whole new family (whom he knew nothing about) could’ve been overwhelming. But instead, Khuzwayo found a distraction in technology. More specifically, the television. The rectangular box held a kind of magic that could unfurl a realm of infinite possibilities—and he was smitten.
He speaks little about his years at high school, but in no means does it diminish the hardships and challenges he experienced; it’s things like the daily kilometres of cycling to and from school, come rain or shine, and the regular theft of his transport that have shaped him into the go-getter he is today. Despite all odds, he matriculated top of his class, with 100% in mathematics: a remarkable achievement that afforded him a bursary to study electrical engineering at Vaal University of Technology. Khuzwayo was exposed to even more technology, particularly computers and the myriad opportunities of the Internet, which was still in its infancy at the time.
Having tried unsuccessfully to convince the grantor of his bursary to allow him to switch to IT, he completed his electrical engineering qualification. But being sent to one of the furthest outposts of South Africa’s electrical stations after graduating proved a bridge too far for someone destined to change the world, so he handed in his calculator and headed off to the United Kingdom to seek his fortune. Having never been on a train, let alone an aeroplane, “to say it was daunting is an understatement,” he shares.
Upon arriving in the dead of night, the traveller still needed to find his way to Holbeach, a small market town in southern Lincolnshire, England, where he was to take up employment—“of some kind”. Realising very early on that all was not as it was promised in the newspaper advertisement, our intrepid hero found his way to London. “I think I had all of ₤80 and only my backpack when I finally got to the capital. But as scary as it was being alone in the big city, it was also one of the most thrilling times of my life,” he says.
Working a series of odd jobs and crashing in accommodation inhabited by a mixed bunch of South Africans also looking for fame and fortune, summer rolled on. As winter approached, drastic decisions needed to be made; answering an advert for a busboy/dishwasher in a hotel in Oxford, Khuzwayo headed off to a warm roof over his head and at least one square meal a day. And then fate stepped in.
Upon alighting at the bus stop to take up his new position, he came face to face with an employment-offer card in the window of the local job centre: “Wanted: Electrical Engineers”. “I don’t even remember walking into the place before completing the aptitude test and being offered the job. I didn’t even know what business it was for.” But the hours suited him: working Monday to Thursday in the hotel and Friday to Sunday (on the night shift) for BMW.
Earning enough money over the next few months, Khuzwayo finally got himself into the Westminster College of Computing, where he aced his first IT qualification. This was just the beginning. He soon found his way to India to further his knowledge at SQL Star College in Bangalore.
But after falling seriously ill while in India, he had to return to the UK and subsequently to South Africa, as his study visa had expired. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger—or successful, as it turns out—because coming back to his home country in 2012, Khuzwayo entered the SAB KickStart competition and won the Gauteng regional contest with his first Internet-based business idea—an email-focused company for Africa called HOSTRIVER. It was also there that he met Mnive Nhlabathi, who would become his long-time friend and business partner.
Ever the visionary, Khuzwayo predicted the rise of cloud-based computing solutions and authored the e-book Cloud Computing for Africa well ahead of his time (as he does most things), and founded several other digital businesses including the highly successful platform OPENTENDERS, which is helping small to medium enterprises navigate the world of private and public tender and procurement opportunities.
Since his initial ventures overseas, Khuzwayo has travelled the world and counts Prague and Seoul as two of his favourite cities—along with London, which will always hold a special place in his heart, if not his taste buds. Hence his latest endeavour, Recipe Network: a global portal and app in collaboration with the South
African Chefs Association, which showcases recipes and food concepts from professional chefs and food brands from around the globe. Its online shop sells cooking merchandise and packaged recipes designed by the chefs. “Working insanely long hours—I did all the coding and development work for all of my businesses in the beginning—good nutrition is important to me. I love to travel and love to eat good food, but I could never find what I was precisely looking for, so I created something. That’s what I do.”
It’s a hugely exciting time for this larger-than-life personality who’s gracing several billboards around the country and is the face of premium cognac brand Rémy Martin’s campaign that aims to encourage people to live their lives to the fullest.
Largely self-funded, like many savvy entrepreneurs, Khuzwayo Madoda starts businesses to raise others, working incredibly hard to define his success on his own terms. Given the unsettling discourse and narrative of South Africa today, whose youth appear largely disenchanted with the future, he stands as a real-life African role model.
Fast Company: You came from humble beginnings, from herding cattle in a small KZN village to being a boardroom power player today. How has this experience shaped the way you see the world and your personal goals?
Madoda Khuzwayo: I have this infinite belief that all things are possible. I’ve learnt that most life challenges are either won or lost in your mind long before the results manifest in real life. The biggest challenge for me was figuring out how to ignore all the noise around me and focus on my dreams, regardless of where I come from. In fact, starting from the bottom has helped me stay grounded and humbled throughout my entrepreneurial journey.
Do you consider yourself a technology entrepreneur? 
The simple answer is yes. Let me break it down: Technology entrepreneurship is a category within the broader realm of entrepreneurship. Any type of entrepreneur uses technologies developed by others to launch their own service or product, whatever the product may be. A technology entrepreneur, however, invents new technologies or builds upon an existing one to make it better. The technology is the product.
What are your thoughts on the influence and power of technology in the near future?

I get goose bumps just thinking about it.

Can you imagine a world where eventually all things—homes, cities, cars and office buildings—become smart and Internet-enabled? The result will be a tsunami of opportunities for entrepreneurs to build technologies that help us live in such a world.

Technologies like artificial intelligence, machine learning, robotics and nanotechnology are going to change the way we work and live—in ways we’ve never imagined.

HOSTRIVER has been in operation for about 12 years. Tell us a bit more about the company, its service offerings and some of your success stories?
We started as a small company offering cloud-hosted email and collaboration tools to small businesses. We have since grown to be a fully-fledged Internet service provider offering domains, hosting, website security and fibre Internet.
You started the company with no funding, and just a single server you purchased after winning the SAB KickStart competition. How did you manage to build up the business to its current level?
Through persistence and self-belief. I wanted to succeed, and wanted it so badly that nothing else mattered. Rarely does success happen overnight, and in most cases one will fall a few times—I have. The journey is not as glamorous as it looks on the covers of the magazines; behind the scenes it’s hard, and at times frustrating, but the desire to succeed is what keeps me going. Once you accept that it takes longer to succeed in real life than you first imagined, things actually become easier.
What were your most challenging moments when establishing HOSTRIVER?
Mostly resources. Infrastructure and human capital is expensive, and we bootstrapped our way to the top. We grew much slower, and it was frustrating. Looking back, though, I have no regrets. Growing at a slow pace helped us learn and make mistakes with less pressure. 
Can you explain the importance and significance of a reliable hosting infrastructure and its impact on the greater economy?
A reliable hosting infrastructure is the backbone from which an Internet-enabled life can be realised, and can impact economies in a way we have never seen before. One study done a few years ago found that a 10% increase in Internet penetration in a developing country is associated with a 1.7% increase in exports and a 1.1% increase in imports. Significantly, hosting as a platform for communication and commerce enables small businesses in developing countries to become part of a global economy as international traders. It enables an economy-wide opportunity for all sectors—from manufacturing to services—and that’s where the opportunity lies.
Did you ever consider quitting as the going got tough? What kept you soldiering on?
I’ve tried new things before, but not quitting. In fact, just the thought of having to wake up and work someone else’s dream drives me insane. What keeps me going is love for what I’m doing and having the big dream. Having a vision and a goal that you strongly believe in propels you forward even when times are hard. I learnt quite early in my life that my current circumstances are nothing but part of the journey. I have to keep working and believing.
How much value do you place on hard work, perseverance and just never giving up?
Life is beautiful, and the possibilities of what you can make of it are endless—but you have to dream big and work very hard and never give up. Keep moving forward. You also have to give yourself the freedom to fail and the ability to forgive yourself quickly and learn from your failures. Most successful people fail time and time again, and it’s the measure of their strength that failure merely propels them into some new attempt at success. I’m not afraid to fail, and with enough perseverance, in the end I win.
You have helped multiple SMEs through platforms like OPENTENDERS and bringing eM Client to Africa. How have these actively solved numerous challenges for small businesses?
OPENTENDERS was a portal we created to connect businesses with procurement opportunities, mostly in government, and to some extent enterprise and supplier development opportunities for large businesses. Because we interact with a lot of small and medium businesses, we get to see first-hand what their frustrations are in as far as access to information is concerned. OPENTENDERS was our response to the need for easy, accurate and fast access to procurement opportunities. And it worked superbly well—until National Treasury decided to launch its own portal and our attempts to partner with them failed.
eM Client, one of our other products, is a Windows-based desktop email management software system for sending and receiving emails, managing calendars, contacts and tasks etc., with a Mac version coming before the end of 2017. eM Client was developed as a user-friendly alternative to existing email software and calendar solutions such as Microsoft Outlook. It was originally founded and developed in 2006 in Prague, Czech Republic, and is now utilised by more than 30 000 businesses and a million users. When I first learnt about the software back in 2011, I immediately tried it and our customers liked it. I then contacted the CEO via email, and after a few Skype sessions we agreed to meet. I got on a plane to Prague, and after that trip we signed an agreement to distribute the software in Africa and founded eM Client Africa, which is a wholly owned subsidiary of HOSTRIVER. Today, eM Client has offices in London, San Francisco and Johannesburg, and has matured a lot since its inception and is now much more suitable for large companies and government departments. We’ve spent a great deal of time and effort to make it possible, and now we have several big companies on board with us—such as Toyota, Avis and McDonald’s, to name but a few. In the greater scheme of things, this gave us an opportunity to enter the desktop email software market and provide businesses in Africa with what we believe is a better alternative to Outlook and any other email software currently available.
Your thoughts on the importance of broadband in aiding development on the African continent?
The Internet is undoubtedly an undisputed force for economic growth and social change, especially for developing countries. One of the key benefits of the Internet is its ability to enable the use of new technologies to develop new businesses faster and cheaper, and these benefits have turned the Internet into a platform for commerce as well as a crucial tool for business and citizen engagement. 
It has been argued that Internet access is now essentially a basic human right on par with food and shelter.
Definitely. The Internet’s enabling environment allows citizens to access information and services that can improve their lives and increase the country’s competitiveness both domestically and internationally. In a world where technology is affecting every sphere of our lives, the Internet becomes a basic human right.
You plan to bring high-speed Internet access to townships and many other underprivileged areas. How will you achieve this?
Internet connectivity is the foundation from which great societies are built. I believe we can solve many of the world’s problems through entrepreneurship, and easy access to services and information should be at the core of transformation. I was born in a village with no electricity, running water or certainly no Internet. It’s my dream to bring about positive change in underprivileged areas and a gift of life to the new generation—a chance for them to dream and remain relevant in the new Internet-enabled world.
How can we ensure rural areas gain access to the Internet? What is your plan?
If we wish to reap the Internet’s potential for social and economic gains, we must invest in infrastructure and the broader Internet ecosystem factors that affect citizens, such as awareness, education and relevant services. Partnerships between governments and the private sector is a key factor in ensuring we fast-track connectivity and build thriving ecosystems in rural and township areas. We also need to ensure policymakers understand the social and economic benefits of broadband Internet.
Not only are you an astute and savvy businessman but you are also a strong brand on the social scene. Tell us about your collaboration with Rémy Martin.
I’m the current face of Rémy Martin’s “One Life. Live Them.” Campaign, which many have described as one of the most impactful campaigns of this decade. It’s centred around the concept of individuals using their one life to do many things, and draws on the notion that we’re all called and purposed to do and be more than one thing. It encourages people to live their lives to the fullest.
Where do you see yourself in the next 10 years?
I’m inspired and driven to be the best at what I do, and I’ll be somewhere tackling interesting social projects and trying to make the world a better place.

30 seconds with Madoda Khuzwayo

• Favourite quote?
“Dream big and work insanely hard.” —David Beckham

• Favourite book?
The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

• Favourite destination?
The Maldives

• Favourite city?

• How do you unwind and relax?
“I love to cook. As long as there’s food, then we’re alright.”

• Biggest inspiration?

• On his vision to have the number-one email hosting provider in the world:
“If Facebook and Google can do it, why can’t we? The point is to set your sights high.”