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The Commodore wants to lead SA into the future

A larger-than-life character who started coding at school wants to lead the artificial intelligence revolution, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK

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The Commodore, alias Tokologo Phetla, founder and MD of Christopher Africa. Pic by Arthur Goldstuck

You can’t miss The Commodore. Dressed in black, from his hat to his shoes, he stands out in any crowd. But he is no fashion celebrity. 

His real name is Tokologo Phetla, and he is a rare breed in South Africa: an entrepreneur in the field of artificial intelligence (AI).

He has developed an artificial intelligence software system, which he named Christopher, in honour of the machine developed by legendary computer scientist Alan Turing during the Second World War to crack the German encryption machine, Enigma. Chistopher is the heart of a company called Christopher Africa, which helps brands grow through AI.

The Commodore as a character hasn’t been around for long, but its roots go back to when Tokologo was still in school, finding his way around computers.

“I was always interested in tech and I started teaching myself code when I was very young,” he says. “My first exposure to a computer was when I was seven years old and I started fiddling with it. As I went to high school, I heard this narrative that Africa is the dark continent, especially in history class, and I never liked it. 

“I started looking into why it would be called the dark continent. It was mainly issues around no connectivity and no developing technologies.  I decided that, well, I’m going to develop something that will be globally competitive and exportable.”

There was one problem: it was 2008, and he was only 14 at the time. But he was determined.

“I told myself, before I leave high school, I need to start this thing. Social media was on the rise, there was a major adoption of Facebook and all these platforms, and I saw there was a lot of content. I thought to myself, why not develop something that can analyse what these people are saying, because I never understood what they’re saying. There’s a buzz on social, but what are they doing on social media? So I started developing it, and I first trialled it on a girl I had a crush on,  to check out her interests. I was only 16 at the time!”

At the time, it was a “mere” web-scraping tool, triggered by keywords. He was able to pick up the most common keywords associated with a profile, and get a clear picture of a person’s interests. He gradually added other features, like aggregating keywords and applying it to Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.

His big breakthrough came in 2011 when he won a United Nations competition and was incited to speak at the UN General Assembly. He spoke about technology in Africa but, more importantly, he met AI specialists who shared his world view. 

He travelled to the USA several times, refining his knowledge of AI – and that was before he had even got to university in 2015. While studying, he barely attended classes, and worked full-time on his concept, continually getting feedback from his network of connections. The hard work paid off: he won a hackathon sponsored by the Department of Trade and Industry and the Department of Science and Technology, and was awarded grant funding.

His first customer was also in government: the Department of Health, signed up at the end of 2017 for a “social listening” project, monitoring what the public was saying about hospitals. Next was local government and, finally, the first commercial brand, Debonairs. It brought him to the attention of Ken Varejes, founder and CEO of the Nfinity Media communications group.

Tokologi Phetla with Ken Varejes, founder and CEO of Nfinity Media, which bought Christopher Africa. Pic by Arthur Goldstuck

Within a year of running that first project on hospitals, his business, now called Christopher Africa, was acquired by Nfinity. It now shares offices in Sandton with a group of equally cool media and marketing companies, like the Nfluential, AdColony and Whizzky.

The Commodore came later, inspired by the industrial titans who pioneered shipping, railways and oil in the United States. One of them, Cornelius Vanderbilt, known as The Commodore, was an inspiration for Tokologo.

“He was partly responsible for starting the American industrial era. So when I was when I was about to launch Christopher Africa, most of my friends saw me as a young South African who was launching a new industrial era, and they started calling me Commodore. It was just a joke.  And then I went to Cape Town with two of my friends to reflect on how far we’ve come and what are we doing. We found this hate, and again we thought we were joking and said let’s see how it sticks, and it’s sticking!”

Read more about how The Commodore was born, on the next page.

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How retailers must respond to life under lockdown

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As businesses settle into lockdown, South Africa’s largest second-hand retailer, Cash Crusaders offer other retail businesses – that have also been forced to close, some advice and recommendations on preparing for, and managing through the lockdown. The group that have been operating for over 20 years with over 220 stores nationwide, also offer advice on considerations retail store owners – and other businesses, should make as the country makes their COVID-19 economic recovery.

Follow the rules

Ensure that you follow the rules set out by our President for the lockdown. As bitter as this pill may be to swallow, the longer-term benefits for our country and our businesses far outweigh the frustration and anxiety you may be feeling now. This is not a time to break the rules. #StayAtHome. It is a time to practice human responsibility, not complain about Human Rights being compromised. Countries who initially implemented loosely managed lockdowns, have had to extend to get the pandemic under control, so strict rules from the get-go will prevail in the fight against the virus. 

Secure your stores

By now you should’ve secured your valuable goods and should have ensured all your security systems are in good working order. If you haven’t already, make sure your security companies have your correct contact information. Make sure your necessary insurance cover is up to date.

Keep your staff informed

They are and continue to be your most important asset!

By now, you may have needed to investigate UIF benefits to compensate for your employees loss of income. The Minister of Employment and Labour, T.W Nxesi has recently announced measures that the Department will put in place under the current special circumstance relating to the Corona virus (COVID-19) and its impact on UIF contributors.

The Temporary Employee/Employer Relief Scheme (TERS) has been set up under the auspices of the Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF). Employers apply for the TERS on behalf of its employees. 

The TERS has two distinct advantages over UIF 

  • All employees qualify for up to 3 months of benefits, irrespective of how long they have contributed to the UIF and 
  • TERS will not pay any employee less than the minimum wage.

You can benefit from the TERS by sending an email to covid19ters@labour.gov.za. Applicants will then receive an automated response which outlines the steps you will need to take, as well as the details surrounding them – including the requirements to claim benefits. During the lockdown period, the Department of Labour will not accept manual applications (to reduce physical contact and risk of the virus spreading), this is to reduce contact between people to curtail the spread of the pandemic. A hotline number has been created by the UIF (012-337 1997) for Covid–19 TERS Benefit enquiries during the lockdown period. 

Be sure to be calm when addressing any concerns with your team – they are anxious and nervous of what the eventuality of this outbreak may be.

Communicate with your bank

Make sure you’ve been in touch with your bank (as they are still operational) and discuss any loan repayment relief or postponement over the lockdown period (the banks have termed this a “payment holiday”). Work with them on a cash flow plan as once the lockdown has lifted, trading businesses will need liquid cash.

Contact your landlord

Ensure you’ve connected with your landlord to discuss and agree on any possible repayment or rent relief/payment holiday they may be able to offer you. Keep the channels of communications open with your landlord and bank – rather over-communicate than not communicate enough.

Keep communication open with your customers

The country may be on shutdown, but the internet isn’t. Communicate with your teams and customers by whatever necessary and relevant communication channels you have available to you – website, social media, PR/Marketing teams, newsletter dissemination etc.

Use this time wisely

Amidst all the chaos this time brings, there is also a silver lining. We all have time at this stage, but how many of us make valuable use of that time? Particularly when it comes to family.  Business is demanding most times so with a forced shutdown of business it give you the time to spend with your family, catch up on outdated maintenance around the house and a period of rest. This lockdown period will also afford you uninterrupted strategy time. Take the time to reflect on areas of your business you can improve or evolve. Strategise ways to do things better or differently. Use the resource available via your own business network as well as the countless online content that is available, to work on a plan for the way forward. Consider your financial, loan and other business administration processes you have in place and look at new ways to optimise the channels and areas you’re working with or within. A host of online learning facilities offer short courses – perhaps consider upskilling yourself or members of your team by signing up for one of these too.

“These are some of the steps we’ve taken within our own organisation,” says Sean Stegmann, CEO of Cash Crusaders. “Having been in this business for as long as we have has afforded us the wealth of experience we’re able to share with our franchisees and other retail business owners to help navigate the next few weeks and recovery period,” he says. “Take it one day at a time and know that the decisions we’re being forced to make today will mean a future for us tomorrow, both in business and in health!,” he concludes

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Vodacom cuts cost of smallest bundle by 40%

The country’s largest mobile operator has kept to a promise made last month to slash the price of entry-level data packages

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Vodacom has cut the data price of its lowest-cost bundle by 40%, reducing the price of a 50MB 30-day bundle from R20 to to R12. This follows from the operator’s promise in March, when it announced a 33% cut in the cost of 1GB bundles, to reduce prices of all smaller bundles by up to 40%.

Vodacom’s various 30-day data bundle prices will be cut across all of its channels, with the new pricing as follows:

30-day bundle size New Price Reduction
50MB R12 40%
150MB R29 33%
325MB R55 33%
500MB R79 21%
1GB R99 34%
3GB R229 23%
5GB R349 14%
10GB R469 22%
20GB R699 31%

Vodacom confirmed it will provide free data to access essential services through Vodacom’s zero-rated platform ConnectU with immediate effect. The value of these initiatives, it says, is R2.7-billion over the next year.

“Vodacom can play a critical role in supporting society during this challenging time and we’re committed to doing whatever we can to help customers stay connected,” says Jorge Mendes, Chief Officer of Vodacom’s Consumer Business Unit. “Since we started our pricing transformation strategy three years ago, our customers have benefitted from significant reductions in data prices and the cost of voice calls. Over the same period, we invested over R26 billion in infrastructure and new technologies, so our customers enjoy wider 2G, 3G and 4G coverage and vastly increased data speeds.”

The latest data reductions will complement the discounted bundle offers that will also be made available to prepaid customers in more than 2,000 less affluent suburbs and villages around the country. For qualifying communities to access further discounted voice and data deals, they need to click on the scrolling ConnectU banner on the platform via connectu.vodacom.co.za

ConnectU – which is a zero-rated platform – also went live this week. It will provide content aimed at social development and offers a variety of essential services for free. Learners and students enrolled in schools and universities can access relevant information for free, with no data costs. The ConnectU portal includes a search engine linked to open sources such as Wikipedia and Wiktionary as well as free access to job portals; free educational content on the e-School platform; free health and wellness information and free access to Facebook Flex, the low data alternative to Facebook that enables customers to stay socially connected.

Vodacom’s popular Just4You platform has been a significant contributor to the approximately 50% reduction in effective data prices over the past two years. Substantial cuts in out-of-bundle tariffs and the introduction of hourly, daily and weekly bundles with much lower effective prices have also driven increased value and affordability, resulting in R2-billion in savings for customers in 2019.

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