From the lecture theatre to business

From the lecture theatre to business

Abel Chapatarongo

MASERU – WHEN Dr Mohlalefi Sefika swapped the lecture theatre for business in 2002 he immediately realised that he had been hardly prepared for the challenges of running a successful business venture. Armed with a PhD in Information Technology from the University of Illinois in the United States, Sefika had assumed the switch from the world of academia to business would be seamless.

It soon dawned on him that he was utterly wrong.
University education had not prepared him adequately to deal with the challenges of running a successful enterprise.
The chasm between what he thought he knew and how business operates was huge. He had to learn “on the run” to bridge that gap.
Sefika says immediately after setting up the business in 1998 he was soon to realise that he was “a computer scientist but not a businessman”.
“I was the technical guy with no business sense,” he says. After setting up Computer Business Solutions (CBS) , Sefika and his partner, Lebina Ts’epe, had to learn how to drive the project forward while at the same time learning how business functions.

He says he had to learn how to manage people and at the same complying with Lesotho’s tax and labour laws.
That was no simple task, he says. “I had to read and learn at the speed of light. I read a lot of books on business management,” he says.
Sefika says he will be forever grateful to two business management giants, Jack Welch and Jim Collins, for his “fast-track” education in business management.
Welch is the author of a celebrated book, Straight from the gut, while Collins penned the book, From Good to Great.
“These two business management books really changed my life. I realised there were gaps in my knowledge in the fields of business and managing people.”
Knowledge puffs up, says the Bible.

And it is not too often that you find individuals who have passed through the “cathedrals of knowledge” in universities acknowledging their inadequacies.
Yet, for Sefika, the realisation that he did not know it all, must have been a humbling experience.
Sefika says he realised that while “a PhD will make you a professional in a technical field, business was completely something else”.
The fact that you know how to make a plane doesn’t mean you will succeed in the airline business, he says.
Having realised there were things he did not know, Sefika says they tried to fill-in the gaps by recruiting the best brains available in IT and business, initially recruiting his former students. They also sought to forge alliances with other people in business locally, regionally and internationally.
“We had to consult from the best through and through,” he says.

Even as they were trying to find their feet, Sefika says they had to battle against negative perceptions from the market.
“People did not think that someone with a PhD would go into business. The thinking was that we are not practical and down-to-earth,” he says.
He had to work hard to smash such negativity and win the people’s trust.

Sefika says when they set up the business in 1998, the IT sector in Lesotho was not a very active industry.
To compound the situation, the nascent IT sector was characterized by lack of trust with educated people trying to get into business.
Banks were also not prepared to extend lines of credit to emerging businesses.

Yet, in spite of all these challenges, Sefika says they were determined to “deliver software solutions that were appropriate for the Lesotho market”.
He says while there were some companies that were providing IT services, they realised such companies “were not developing software”.
“There was a market demand for software that was affordable and customised to the needs of customers.”
Having identified that niche market, Sefika and his partner swiftly moved in.

And for the past 18 years, CBS (Pty) Ltd has become a household name in the IT sector providing cutting edge solutions to business needs.
In the next five years, Sefika says they hope to reach new heights in service delivery and market coverage.

“New technologies such as cell phones are opening up unimagined channels for innovation. We want to continue to drive appropriate solutions for the Lesotho market.”
The country’s hostile terrain means there is room to explore new ventures such as tele-medicines and health management through cell phones.
“Too many applications that were considered impossible 10 years ago are now possible. There is a huge niche for Lesotho.”
With 18 years’ experience in business, Sefika tells young Basotho aspiring to get into business to dare to dream and not allow anything to stand in their way.
“It is not easy to succeed in business. There will be moments of self-doubt. But when you want to quit you should just keep punching harder.”
He says youths endevouring to get into business must also be prepared “to work extremely hard”.

“They should not be too afraid to fail. They should not listen to people who say they can’t do it. They should break the rules.”
That may sound maverick but it works, according to Sefika, as long as one’s business idea is really good and one is passionate about it.
“I would advise the youths to pick a really good idea that they are passionate about and go for it. The idea must differentiate you from your competitors. It must be distinct.”
He says even when he left the National University of Lesotho (NUL) to join his business fulltime in 2002, he had to deal with such negative individuals who tried to discourage him.
“They said I would come back and teach but that did not happen.”Computer Business Solutions (Pty) Ltd currently has 48 full-time staff and eight temporary employees.
It is a large company by Lesotho standards. The danger is that such big companies often become slow and unwieldly. Everyone could easily get lost somewhere in the maze of unaccountability.
With such a structure, how does Sefika make decisions?

He says while he believes in the wisdom of consultation, he prefers to take swift decisions to get things done.
“I seek advice from subject specialists, assess the quality of the advice and tests it. I believe in the motto: trust but verify. This means I do research where I am not satisfied.”
Yet even while he is consulting, Sefika says he does not “value decisions that are delayed too much because the value is often lost in the paralysis”.
With many young Basotho entering business, they have often complained they receive very little structural support from the government.
Their small businesses, battling to establish themselves, are often nudged out of the way by larger corporations. This reality has given rise to the call for a deliberate programme to empower locals in business through affirmative action.
But Sefika says he only supports affirmative action for Basotho businesses “only to the extent that it would help build local capacity and create a vibrant economy that would deliver jobs to the people”. “In the IT industry when big projects are awarded to the total exclusion of locals, we would miss an opportunity for job creation and wealth creation for Basotho. They must be allowed to participate in the economy of their country.”

He however adds that any Basotho companies awarded contracts on the basis of affirmative action “must deliver quality and respect project conditions for timely delivery”.
Sefika admits that the crop of graduates from IT schools in Lesotho “are not industry ready” adding there is need to align the curriculum from such institutions to the needs of industry.
“We need closer collaboration between universities and industry to deliver students that are market ready. Universities must change and adapt to close that gap in a win-win situation.”
For Sefika, the IT field was not his first love. Medicine was.

Like every young Mosotho boy growing up in the early 1970’s, Sefika dream was to be a medical doctor.
“My intention was to be a medical practitioner but I realised that Biology was not suited for me because it required too much memorising and reading,” he says.
“I preferred problem-solving and decided to swing completely to Mathematics with a little bit of computer programming.”
Between 1985 and 1989, Sefika studied Mathematics at the NUL. But a year after he graduated from the NUL, he went to the University of Illinois in the United States where he studied Computer Science. He was admitted into the PhD programme at the university based on his strong passes at undergraduate level.
He says he went into IT which he saw “as a good, fashionable field which also had huge commercial prospects”.
He also obtained a Masters degree in Computer Science with the same university in the US.
Sefika completed his PhD in 1996.

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