A top executive with one of Africa’s leading communications firms says Africa won’t make big strides forward in development unless it bridges what he calls the “digital divide” between the continent and the First World. Mteto Nyati, a former Fellow at Yale University in the United States, is the director of IBM South Africa’s Global Services Division in Johannesburg. As part of what he considers corporate responsibility, Nyati’s dedicated to ensuring that as many Africans as possible have access to computers and learn how to use them. In the final part of a series on former African Fellows at Yale, VOA’s Darren Taylor focuses on IBM’s Mteto Nyati.
He’s a high-flying executive, but he still considers himself a “simple kid” from South Africa’s rural hinterland. Mteto Nyati (42) grew up in the Umtata district, in the country’s Eastern Cape Province, the heartland of the Xhosa ethnic group. Umtata’s not very far from where Nelson Mandela and other stalwarts of South Africa’s liberation struggle first saw the light of day. It’s a world of rolling green hills, a ruggedly beautiful coastline and villages of mud huts and bleating goats.
“People basically survive through small scale farming. It’s a hard life for most, just growing crops and keeping livestock,” Nyati explains.
But despite this desperate struggle for survival, he says people in the area of his birth have always placed a premium on education.
“This region has produced quite a lot of people who are highly educated – forced by the fact that people do not have an option: it’s either education or poverty,” Nyati says.
Throughout his childhood, he says, his parents advised him to become a medical doctor. As he excelled at high school, Nyati himself became convinced that he was destined for this particular career…until he was selected, as a top achiever with a high aptitude for science, to attend an international Olympiad in London.
“There I got exposed to many different careers, and that was when I decided that engineering was the area I’d like to be in,” Nyati reflects.
After high school, he studied mechanical engineering at university, no mean feat in 1980s South Africa, when apartheid was at its height.
“For me to get to a white university…. I had to apply to the minister of education. And he had to give me permission to do that. And there was a quota of how many black people could get to those professions. Today, it is open; it is free. Everybody has got the opportunity. Today’s youngsters, the youth, have got a huge opportunity in front of them,” Nyati says.
Following his graduation as a mechanical engineer, Nyati worked for the corporation British Oxygen for seven years. Then the “business bug” bit him. He enrolled for an MBA at Wits University in his home country, and after completing the program, he became a highly respected business consultant in a South Africa that was changing rapidly.
“Through that consulting work, IBM got wind of some of the work that I was doing, and recruited me to join them,” Nyati says.
In 1996, he joined IBM Africa, one of the continent’s most successful companies, which is also listed on the New York Stock Exchange.
“It was one of the first companies in South Africa to offer black people (the opportunity) to become managers,” he says.
IBM leads in the creation, development and manufacture of the communication industry’s most advanced information technologies, including computer systems. Nyati considers it his mission to “bridge the digital divide” between the developed world and Africa.
“First of all we’ve got projects that are targeted at children, helping them to be much more proficient in Maths and Science, and those projects are making a big difference,” he says.
“We also have got projects that are linking up schools, giving them access to the Internet. One might say this is very basic, but projects like these are opening new worlds for these people.”
Nyati says it’s intensely rewarding for him to watch youngsters who’ve previously “never heard of the Internet” evolve into skilled researchers using computers as their tools.
Although he’s optimistic about the economic growth happening currently in South Africa, he says the country faces many tough challenges.
“There’s a huge shortage of skills in South Africa. Why? Because as a country, we are growing, whilst at the same time, because of the past, we do not have the people to take these new jobs (in the technical fields) that are being created. So what you see is a situation where there’s this growth, but it cannot be sustainable if we do not produce the (necessary) skills.”
For this reason, Nyati’s division at IBM has formed links with South African universities.
“We pulled them together, formed partnerships with them to try to address this gap in IT skills in our markets.”
IBM headquarters has also selected its South African operation as one of seven “global delivery centers.”
“Now we have IBM South Africa delivering services from South Africa to European countries. And that has created over 1,500 jobs to young people here who ordinarily would not be having jobs. It is things like this that have really made a huge difference in this market,” Nyati says.
He maintains that corporations, especially those in the developing world, have a responsibility to bring about social change through economic empowerment.
“Some companies choose to give shareholding to the local people. If that works for them, then fine. But my preference is for companies to focus on things like education. There are many Africans with wonderful intellects, but they do not have the means for further education. Let’s help them. It is those people who will help to drive the good things that will happen on our continent.”
In 2004, Nyati himself became a beneficiary of a leading academic institution’s drive to make the world a better place. Yale University selected him for its fellowship program, which is creating a worldwide network of decision-makers in various fields – including economics, aid, business, politics and law.
Nyati describes the numbers of Africans becoming involved in IT and other communication technologies as a “real groundswell.”
“Africans are extremely hungry. All they are looking for right now is opportunities. We’re seeing Africans of a different type today. They’re not necessarily interested in handouts. These are people who are very strong and have got a clear idea of what they want to do. They are sick and tired of wars, and most of those wars are behind us now. Their whole drive is about making their countries workable.”
The world, says Nyati, is finally noticing the “new and exciting developments” that are sweeping Africa.
“Indian companies are seeing this opportunity in Africa and are starting to form solid partnerships with many, many countries in Africa – countries like Kenya, like South Africa, like Nigeria. We are in a different era in Africa. People who still believe that Africa is (all about) wars – very soon when they wake up, I think the Indians and the Chinese would have long (ago) seized the opportunity that Africa presents.”
But, while Nyati believes international business people have an obligation to educate themselves about the “truth” about Africa, a greater responsibility, he says, lies with Africans themselves.
“We as Africans need to also make sure that we give them enough data about our continent. This is one of the areas in which we have been weak in the past. When I look at my own country, South Africa, we have really done a good job in presenting data about all of the progress that we are making as a country.”
He acknowledges, however, that black people in his homeland remain, essentially, a deprived population.
“You cannot take away the many, many years of apartheid that have fundamentally made the black people in South Africa to be inferior – either through the poor education system for blacks, or the fact that top jobs were reserved for whites.”
This brings him to another point – the South African government’s controversial Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) program, designed to address the inequities created during the country’s apartheid past.
“From an IBM perspective, BEE is just a way of doing good business, of being a good corporate citizen,” Nyati explains.
Whereas South Africa’s apartheid rulers allowed the white minority to accumulate the country’s wealth, he says BEE is simply a way to foster economic equality. In order for this to happen, he stresses, businesses owned by black people must be supported and nurtured, and corporations must employ qualified black people.
“Look at the diversity within your enterprise. Do you have people who are matching the demographics of your country? If not, then you are out of sync with the market, and you need to align yourself with that, otherwise you are not going to make good business. It’s things like that that are being driven by BEE. My view is that it (BEE) is the right thing to do for this market,” Nyati maintains.
And to the critics who say that BEE is simply creating a new elite – albeit one with a black instead of a white skin – and not improving the lives of the masses, Nyati responds: “People continue to say: ‘Now that things are free, let’s forget about the past; let us not put any intervention strategies that address the imbalances of the past.’ And that to me is the wrong strategy. It is a recipe for disaster.”
But he’s confident that the platform for economic progress in South Africa, and in many African countries, has been laid.
“It’s now up to Africans to take it further. We have to believe in ourselves; otherwise no one else will,” he says.