Mpumalanga’s 4IR incubator to digitise small businesses

The Department of Small Business Development has established the Fourth Industrial Revolution Incubator (4IRI) in Mpumalanga.

The nationwide institution supports young tech entrepreneurs with digital solutions to help their businesses scale.

The 4IRI is a non-profit organisation dedicated to the development of innovative SMME ecosystems, by setting up incubation hubs across various parts of the country, to create favourable conditions for localisation of hi-tech companies.

It established its first incubator in Cape Town in 2018. Since then, it has opened centres in various parts of the country, and a drone academy in Secunda.

Established in partnership with public-based development funder, the Small Enterprise Development Agency (Seda), the new Nelspruit-based incubator will focus on helping small businesses develop drone technology, cyber security, advanced engineering, artificial intelligence, biotechnology and networking solutions.

The collaboration enables SMMEs in Mpumalanga to participate meaningfully in the 4IR, by helping budding inventors and entrepreneurs develop into successful leaders of industry and create an enabling environment for the youth of tomorrow to be part of the digital economy.

Speaking at the unveiling of the hub yesterday, 4IRI CEO Naomi Musi said the incubator is designed to be an accelerator that serves businesses and communities within Mpumalanga.

“The ministry and Seda have played an integral part in establishing the hub so as to bring skills to communities in the province and cultivate strong tech SMMEs that can uplift the region’s economy.”

The 4IRI has set out to enable the first cohort of 20 Mpumalanga businesses in digital learning and ICT verticals at the new hub.

It also encompasses a funding arm, which forms a key pillar of the hub, helping the young entrepreneurs develop business ideas and concepts, and take them to market, to enable digital solutions to tackle the most pressing challenges of today’s world.

Giving a keynote presentation at the event, small business development minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams said the hub is a positive step towards creating an inclusive digital economy and curbing joblessness in the province. According to Statistics South Africa, Mpumalanga has an unemployment rate of 45.4%.

“We are in the midst of building a new economy based on the ideas from the Presidential Commission on the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The 4IRI is leading this charge by helping bright entrepreneurs create innovative technologies and in developing new skills for the country’s workforce,” said the minister.

“With some of the skills that will be taught here consisting of AI and augmented reality, this means the platforms we develop for the world have to be tested here in SA first. If we fund the young entrepreneurs, we must have confidence in them. Let them make mistakes with us so that when they become experts, we can tell the world that indeed it is possible.”

For the greater good
According to the 4IRI, for businesses to be part of the incubator, they need to meet a number of criteria, the most crucial being the ability to develop technologies that uplift South African communities.

Sivuyile Zwedala, 4IRI funding manager, said when assessing an applicant, the incubator looks at how innovative a business idea is. “Our tech experts draw up a report on the merits of the applicant. They talk about whether or not their idea is ground-breaking and how the product would fit in the market.

“I sit down with our team of financial experts and evaluate the business, looking at the industry in which it exists and its competitors.”

The incubator currently works with the French Embassy, Russian Business Council, Singapore Business Council and Chinese-Africa Trade Council, to create trade links and exposure for its SMMEs.

Professor Richard Chinomona, a beneficiary of the 4IRI and creator of the South African Glue Virtual Platform (Glue VP) web-based video-conferencing tool, said the value of being a part of the incubator is that it also seeks to attain his vision of creating a South African solution for a local problem.

“They are in the process of financing Glue VP and luring investors to inject income into this project so that it becomes a national product the country can be proud of,” he noted.