Connecting Africa was a tech SME working with digital satellite technology in South Africa in 1995. MD Barry Schubert says that their investment partnership with Unipalm Investment Holdings ultimately changed their trajectory. They went from a tech SME to a venture on the cutting edge of digital communication.
When commercial satellite became available in 1995, Barry, then an employee of the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC), chose to join long time friend and colleague Matt Klopper at Connecting Africa. Both were familiar with the broadcasting landscape. They quickly managed to scale up their sub-Saharan Africa services, installing satellites to receive networks commercially and domestically. By 1997 Connecting Africa had diversified. They were soon hosting temporary corporate events, enabling corporates to communicate remotely with their employees.
Economic Empowerment Engaging with SMEs
Barry says Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) legislation led to them looking for the best investment partner for their business. ‘Our first were purely investors and were not contributing to the business,’ recalls Barry. He says they then decided to look for a business partner for the company. ‘We wanted a partner that could add value to the company, and that’s where the conversation with Unipalm started,’ he says.
The attitude to investment in 2000 was ‘get the partner just to stay in business,’ explains Barry, and many businesses felt they had to ‘tick the BEE boxes’ without prioritising exponential growth. Connecting Africa was able to map a different path with Unipalm, he says.
Investing skills opens doors
Barry says for start-ups entering the economic landscape today, there is much to be learned from Connecting Africa’s journey. ‘At a board < https://unipalm.co.za/about/> level, the skill set we had access to with Unipalm is what opened doors for us,’ says Barry. He notes the input of relationship building, financing, sound business principles, and a growth mindset – including creating a dedicated sales team – were strategic game-changers for the company.
‘We came from a technology background, so we were following a traditional way of doing business. The Unipalm team opened up opportunities for us in terms of mergers and acquisitions as we had the backing of a big investment company,’ says Barry. The partnership saw Connecting Africa grow from an R52 million turnover to over R72 million in the past few years.
As Connecting Africa has grown from a staff of five to over 70, Barry says they have seen how valuable having a partnership in place has helped them. Unipalm was able to guide Connecting Africa through its phases of growth. ‘We have grown from being entrepreneurs to an SME, to where we are today. Different management styles are needed to take a company through every stage. Unipalm’s understandings of board structures, decision-making, and good governance, have been invaluable,’ he says.
Spotting investment opportunities
From Unipalm’s perspective, investing in a venture that was an emerging player in digital infrastructure and adding it to their portfolio was also a strategic move that paid off. Barry says that as an entrepreneurial venture, the partnership allowed them to ‘think big’. ‘Unipalm changed the vision of Connecting Africa. We grew from focussing on installations to positioning ourselves as a leading player in the digital market,’ he says.
The Covid-19 pandemic has well placed Connecting Africa to diversify and grow with digital communication solutions. Digital signage and outdoor advertising are also showing growth opportunities, says Barry. ‘You have to evolve. Our journey with Unipalm has enabled us to do this. They bring knowledge and information about global trends to the table. We adapt this to work for the African and South African market,’ he says.
Connecting Africa is one of South Africa’s premium business communication specialists with extensive expertise in IPTV, Digital Signage, and VSAT installations. Unipalm acquired a controlling stake in Connecting Africa, which boasts major blue-chip clients such as FNB, Standard Bank, and Transnet.