South Africa: Being black and female in tech

Q&A Xoliswa Kakana, CEO of ICT-Works, on breaking through the racial and gender barriers in tech

As a young girl growing up in rural Eastern Cape, Xoliswa Kakana’s daily dawn-to-sunset routine included herding her grandmother’s sheep across village plains. She recounts how foreign technology used to be. I am even a little taken aback as she recalls that she used to join a chorus of children shouting after every passing airplane to “bring us something sweet” upon its return.


Fast forward a few decades... and not only has Kakana become a developer of a variety of technologies, she is also a noteworthy leader within South Africa’s ICT industry. In fact, she heads award-winning, ICT-Works as Executive Chair and group CEO, a company directed by a team of black female executives.


There is no question about the shortage of women in South African tech. Yet fewer still are black. Having succeeded in breaking down the racial-gender walls, Kakana shares her experiences with the hope of encouraging other aspiring black women in the industry.

What inspired you to choose a career in ICT?

As a high school student in the 80s I came across an article about a Japanese woman engineer who was also an astronaut. The story stuck with me and opened my eyes to the possibilities of technology and the heights a person could reach using it. Back then, I enjoyed taking things apart to see how they worked. One of my triumphs was figuring out how to make calls on a locked phone. This laid the foundation for my interest in engineering and electronics. I studied Electronic Engineering, at the cusp of the talk about the ‘information superhighway’ and how it would change the way we live, work and conduct business.  The possibilities were unlimited and I decided that I wanted to be one of the drivers of this change.

Tell us about your experiences as a black woman in the ICT sector.

During the time that I started my career, being a black woman meant that I was on the lowest rung of the ladder and had to work ten times harder to make my work appreciated and my voice heard. I knew I had to prove myself again and again, before I could be taken seriously. I did this by keeping abreast with the latest technology and learning through every opportunity afforded to me, just so that I could be seen as average compared to the men in the industry. I still experience this today in business meetings, in our boardrooms, even in our teams, where misconceptions about women in the industry are still prevalent. Being underestimated is the norm but it just makes me more determined to succeed.

Your company, ICT-Works, was established in 1999 and is now a highly distinguished business. What was the industry’s response to your black female-owned company back then?

ICT-Works was founded in the advent of BEE (Black Economic Empowerment), which afforded us a chance in the public sector. As individuals we were emboldened to step into the sector because of this opportunity - we can be considered as a BEE success story.  The start was really very difficult. The private sector being particularly hard to penetrate. We were perceived as a ‘BEE company’ rather than a technology company. 


How did you cope with such criticism?


We have persevered. We have ensured that every contract we sign gets delivered on, even when it becomes unprofitable. This is the turning point and indeed we are beginning to be taken seriously. Our brand is continuously getting stronger, every day. We take up each opportunity with zest and drive for excellence. It is our aim to be the leading systems developer and integrator in this country and continent.

Would you says Black Economic Empowerment has worked effectively for your business?

It has, indeed. We have received a lot of opportunities because of BEE. It has given us the opportunity to prove ourselves, where without BEE there would have been none. There have of course been some unintended consequences, which I believe when addressed, will get the country to achieve its transformation imperatives.

What was the startup phase like for you in terms of capital? What advice would you offer tech startups?

Cash flow was the greatest challenge so I would advise every aspiring entrepreneur to really plan diligently. That includes, planning startup capital and finding committed people who complement your skills, as you can never do it all on your own. Business is brutal and hard, so surround yourself with people who will give you lots of financial support and advice.

Are there enough avenues for mentorship within the tech industry for aspiring black females in tech?

Not as much as there should be but definitely better than 14 years ago, thanks to the existence of companies like ICT-Works. Our reputation and success has encouraged other black women to start up and seek out opportunities in the sector.  We have been able to offer mentorship and growth to some of these women. In 2002 we set up a Woman in ICT forum which was unfortunately later dissolved.

What about support from fellow black women in ICT?

Interesting that you ask that question, because I am not able to name a single woman. It is a huge let down. I wonder why this is the case as we have had some [black] women leadership and decision making positions, but I am not able to point to any support.  Actually, as I look back, I find that it is mainly black males who have given us support and encouragement.  Because of the space we currently occupy in the industry we have become the support for other fledgling, black woman-owned businesses in the sector, a role we are proud to fill.

Some people have attributed the lack of black female professionals in ICT to the group’s own lack of confidence while others believe the industry lacks confidence in their potential thus failing to afford them opportunities. What are your views on this?

This challenge begins at school level, where Math and Science are made to look difficult, especially amongst girls. We need to start by demystifying the sciences. As an engineering student, I was said to be this ‘brilliant’ one. This is discouraging for most girls.  I was amazed to find out I was one of only 5% of female engineering students at a university in Germany. Entering the work environment was even more trying as I found I would be one of very few women in teams, and usually, the only black woman.  Social interaction too becomes difficult as relationships get strengthened on the golf course, at the bar etc. Being female and having a family, further contributes to these challenges. As a black woman, you need to be deliberate and to commit to making it. [Success] cannot happen just by chance.

Has your business competition been largely across racial lines or is there a balance? How have you handled it?

This is a highly competitive sector. We’ve had to make sure that we are at least 10 times better that the next competitor in all our endeavors. In South Africa, business relies on relationships and middle managers are the decision-makers. This is one of the challenges we’ve had to address, as a majority of middle managers in this country are still white males, so we’ve had to be diverse in our recruitment process so as to be able engage with these decision makers and develop the necessary relationships.

To what do you owe ICT-Works’ success?

Our belief is that technology is an enabler, we pride ourselves in developing solutions that seek to solve the problems we are facing in South Africa and the continent, while still being internationally competitive and relevant. As an example, our e-Procure, m-Procure and Supply Chain Management products have been specifically developed to address procurement issues in our municipalities and at provincial and government levels. These address some vital African needs and have been piloted in [other] parts of the continent. We do not only innovate through products, but we continue to seek innovative ways of doing business and addressing our own challenges. We contribute to sector transformation, and always try to find ways of creating jobs and optimizing the way we work.

What’s next for ICT-Works?

Our strategy entails focused profitable growth which we are addressing through interventions such as developing more solutions that are based on our own IP as well as venturing into the private sector across the continent. We really do see ourselves as a corporate citizen, seeking to contribute to our country’s development.