Lwazi Ndlela has invented a smartphone that is on par with some of the world’s biggest brands.
But it nearly did not see the light of day due to no help from the government.
The 29-year-old, who lives in Durban, studied Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics. But his love for information technology saw him studying a few courses and setting up Flip Page.
“Back then we started by designing websites and building apps,” he told Vutivi News.
“I then linked up with my business partner, Lefa Bekwa, who had just gotten back from studying Computer Science at Stamford University in… America. I was building a music streaming app and he was too.”
They started working on an operating system for data management, data control and sovereignty, and that’s how the idea of the smartphone, Unubell, was born.
“When our operating system was finished, we knew that no large brand will host our operating system so we had to make our own smartphone,” he said.
But the government and other agencies were not keen on supporting them.
They approached many government institutions set up to help startups like the National Youth Development Agency, the Small Business Enterprise Development Agency, the Small Enterprise Finance Agency and the KwaZulu-Natal Growth Fund.
They were stunned after approaching the Trade and Industry Department for funding in 2011, and were promised R8.5-million, which did not materialise.
“We applied for other types of support including technical assistance, drawing up a business plan and the like,” Ndlela said.
“After applying consistently for seven years for funding, we were approved in 2018 to the tune of R8.5 million which was meant to be broken up in three-year instalments. We did not get a cent.”
The following year they received a letter of rejection from the department claiming that they had submitted an unsolicited bid to the government.
“We had already submitted a business plan… which included our factory design and location,” he said.
In that same year, he was shocked to find out that another company was awarded a larger amount from the department and was using his business plan and smartphone design. And he received no response on what had happened.
“It’s disappointing especially when the government always calls for new innovations, claiming that this would be for the benefit of the public. Instead, we are outright rejected because they say we proposed a product they did not ask for,” Ndlela said.
This experience has left him feeling hopeless about the government wanting to help young, black entrepreneurs. The company then turned to the overseas market for assistance.
Their phone was voted “The Best IT concept” by the ITU Telecom World Conference in Korea. They also received a nod from the World Mobile Conference in Barcelona, Spain in 2018.
He envisions his company one day providing secure communications devices on a cheaper scale for the public.