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
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?
Do you consider yourself a technology entrepreneur?
What are your thoughts on the influence and power of technology in the near future?
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?
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?
What were your most challenging moments when establishing HOSTRIVER?
Can you explain the importance and significance of a reliable hosting infrastructure and its impact on the greater economy?
Did you ever consider quitting as the going got tough? What kept you soldiering on?
How much value do you place on hard work, perseverance and just never giving up?
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?
Your thoughts on the importance of broadband in aiding development on the African continent?
It has been argued that Internet access is now essentially a basic human right on par with food and shelter.
You plan to bring high-speed Internet access to townships and many other underprivileged areas. How will you achieve this?
How can we ensure rural areas gain access to the Internet? What is your plan?
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.
Where do you see yourself in the next 10 years?
30 seconds with Madoda Khuzwayo
• Favourite quote?
“Dream big and work insanely hard.” —David Beckham
• Favourite book?
The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
• Favourite destination?
• 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.”