Zaio is a University of Cape Town (UCT) based start-up which assists student developers build an information technology (IT) skills profile through coding challenges and practical experience, hopefully helping them to ultimately land their dream job. At the same time, the Zaio platform provides other start-ups with access to affordable web and app development.
The team comprises seven UCT students, Mvelo Hlophe, Thando Hlongwane, Mihlali Xozwa, Harjot Singh, Akhil Boddu, Ntuthuko Mpaku and Asif Hassam, all of whom have an interest in technology and entrepreneurship.
Zaio started in October 2017, when student developer Hlongwane realised that one of the biggest issues he faced was not really having any practical experience.
“We are actually helping to shape the journey of a student developer to gain practical experience.”
“Then … guys like Mvelo, who are aspiring entrepreneurs, [were] finding it very difficult to prototype and create innovations, because it’s really expensive to build tech,” said Hlongwane.
“So out of that, the idea was born to help student developers gain practical experience whilst helping start-ups build affordable tech. From there we evolved … with the big realisation of the fact that we are actually helping to shape the journey of a student developer to gain practical experience.”
Then they began turning their attention to introducing things like coding challenges and company tours, in order to allow to broaden the experiences of developers as they try to build relevant industry skills.
“One of the biggest hindrances when it comes to innovation is the ability to rapidly prototype and to do so affordably. The reason Silicon Valley is successful is because there’s a lot of tech talent to support the innovation,” Hlongwane explained.
“In South Africa, there are a lot of pitching competitions where a lot of great ideas come out. But they can’t be brought to life, because there just isn’t the tech talent to support it.”
A development journey
Once a project has been identified, individual developers are grouped together in what Zaio calls clusters. Then, under the direction of a project manager, they build out the necessary prototypes.
Boddu explained the process.
“Someone who comes to Zaio might ask us to build out a prototype. This is normally an entrepreneur or a start-up. If that’s the case, we will deploy a team of developers … These people are now competent enough to build out a prototype for a start-up.”
There is however an alternative approach.
“Another way is that they’re simply looking for manpower – they’re looking for more developers to come on board to help them in their start-up. We are also currently working with corporates who are looking for developers to recruit.
“Because we are upskilling all of these developers, we have created this development journey and ecosystem and we can easily provide [developers] to companies,” Boddu said.
“We have created this development journey and ecosystem and we can easily provide [developers] to companies In South Africa.”
Being involved in a start-up like Zaio has taken its toll on the teamʼs university performances, however.
“The first thing I had to realise is that I’m not going to get the same marks,” said Hlophe.
“A lot of my time goes into Zaio. You do still try and keep balanced where you have a social life and interact with your friends, but school has been tough. You don’t get enough time to focus on school.”
Singh agreed he is in a similar position.
“I’m studying engineering and you know how tough that is.”
But, he said, the sacrifice is worth it.
“I want to create an impact. I want to get more experiences, and I don’t want to just study and do nothing else. I have to go the extra mile and do something.”
Trying to “make something great happen” has meant that Hassim hasnʼt been able to go home this year.
“You lose a lot of people who are close to you. It is challenging, but it’s something that builds you and makes you a better person.”
Explaining the importance of a start-up like this to the older generation is also a challenge, said Mapku.
“To explain it to your parents, [that] you have to start from the bottom – it’s always a lengthy conversation.”
Technology, and especially web and app development and coding, is often seen as a male-dominated space. The only woman on the Zaio team, Xozwa, who is the finance and community lead, is actively trying to get more women involved with the platform.
“We are trying to engage more women and bring more people of colour [into this space],” said Boddu. “We want to make this tech-driven space more inclusive ... That’s at the core of our business.”
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