Thula Nkumane, CEO of the ABT Group. (Photo: Kofi Zwane)
The confidence and self-assurance of the 32-year-old head of a competitive information communication and technology (ICT) services company was palpable as he walked into his Morningside office.
“Hi, I’m Thulasizwe, but I prefer Thula,” he said.
Thula Nkumane is the chief executive officer of ABT Group and serves in the strategic business development and finance management capacity of the business.
ABT Group comprises ABT Telecoms — the telecoms infrastructure business — and ABT Connect — which provides software services and builds data centres across the country.
Involved in leadership from a young age, Nkumane was in student leadership committees throughout his time at the University of the Witwatersrand, which led him to take the helm of one of the few emerging companies in the ICT sector in South Africa.
“Leadership is just my life,” he said. “It’s being able to put yourself out there and literally lay yourself on the ground so you can be the bridge that everyone needs to get where they need to be in their respective lives.”
He explained that the company of young, skilled 90 core staff members consists of lawyers, accountants, pilots and graphic designers. He’s had the opportunity to show them that the ICT sector has space for a multiplicity of disciplines.
“Leadership is literally putting other people first and showing them how much more they can do, and what can become of their lives beyond the proverbial box,” he said.
Nkumane’s interest and passion for tech and the ICT sector started when he was just a teenager with ideas that he would communicate to his father, without really understanding that he was explaining ICT.
“It started in 2004 when I was having a conversation with my father and little brothers in the car. They were listening to me talk about this thing that I wanted to do, where I wanted to use technology to scale communication … looking back, I was explaining what would be known as social media today,” he said.
Nkumane lives by the motto “go big or go home”, evidenced by his go-getter attitude and how he has been running ABT.
“A family friend once said that if you hunt elephants you will catch elephants, but if you hunt mice you will catch mice. It was in 2016 when I decided that I am never going to do anything small again, including the role I play in the ICT sector.”
Notably, 2016 was when he became the chief executive officer of the ABT Group.
Nkumane is devoted to community development, which he regards as a “social imperative”.
“Community development, for me, started when I was in university. As a group of friends and family we went to a community in the Free State called Diyatalawa. It was a farm that burnt down and the employees had to fend for themselves in the middle of nothing … what I learned there is that there is so much you can do for people, through something as simple as providing information.”
Now Nkumane hosts huge community events such as Innovation Week, unveiled in 2021 and hosted in Mpumalanga.
“It’s literally a week talking about innovation, technology, and exposing young people to job and training opportunities in the ICT sector … the turnout was astronomical at the inaugural exhibition last year,” he said.
Innovation Week leads up to June 16, which is Youth Day in South Africa. ABT partnered with the Mpumalanga Provincial Government, companies in the private sector, and training providers for the 2021 exhibition. Divided into teams, ABT and its partners visited various communities in Mpumalanga and hosted exhibitions. More than 10 000 students visited the physical exhibitions and a further 400 000 were online daily, leading up to and on Youth Day.
The exhibition was targeted at grade 10 to grade 12 students. This year, however, the ABT team is hoping for a wider reach and wants to provide information to all nine provinces of the country so that no student is left behind.
“This year we are going to have a country-wide hackathon. Basically, how that will work is that we will reach out to about 100 schools in each province where we will set up problem statements, such as what schools are struggling with, or what schools can better provide for their students. The exercise is basically to get students to ideate.”
Nkumane explained that at the end of the hackathon, nine students with the best ideas will be picked from each province and prizes will be given to the students with the best ideas.
“We want to make it cool for people to ideate,” he said. Innovation Week is happening on the 14,15 and 16 of June 2022.
Nkumane spoke at length about the sustainability of projects. He is aware that big corporations often go into communities and inspire the youth but never return — there is no follow-through.
“Sustainability is everything; implementation is difficult, but sustainability is more important. It’s easy to do a ‘big bang’ thing; anyone can do that. Sustainability is the more challenging bit, but we have prepared for this.”
He explained that ABT is building wi-fi into schools to give students connectivity but also for ABT’s own outreach, which is how the group is being sustainable in its community projects.
Regarding legacy, Nkumane said he wants to see more women hold leadership positions through his mentoring or otherwise.
“I want to see more women take up leadership roles. It’s all good and well to have shining stars, but I want to see it become a norm,” he said.