Ali Resting, the pioneer of Swaziland’s internet, chuckles when he speaks of failing first-year computer science at university. As a tech entrepreneur and university drop-out he is in esteemed company. He follows a well-worn path walked by Apple’s founder Steve Jobs through to Twitter’s Jack Dorsey and the most famous drop-out of them all, Microsoft’s Bill Gates.
Resting’s parents did not quite see their son through that prism of the failed graduate set to blaze new frontiers of technological advancement. He returned from South Africa’s Rhodes University in 1996, aged 18, and got the silent treatment.
His university studies at a premature end, Resting began work at his father’s civil engineering company in Swaziland’s capital Mbabane, which shared offices with an architectural firm. At a younger age, Resting had ambitions of becoming an architect, attracted by its “visual aspect”, and drifted unconsciously to that side of the offices.
He found the architects somewhat bemused about how to network their 20-odd office computers and took on the “pet project” and successfully built an intranet system. It was a pivotal moment for Resting as he realized then that his passion was his vocation.
Resting had failed his university year through the distraction of Rhodes University being one of the earliest among South Africa’s tertiary education institutions with access to the internet and he soon went walk-about from his studies.
“I would spend a lot of time fiddling in the labs (at university) and I learned and understood about the internet, which at that stage was just known as the World Wide Web. I found out about an internet research project, which had nothing to do with the curriculum perse, and I soon became well acquainted with it.”
An only child, born in 1978 to a Welsh father and Swazi mother, he was exposed to rudimentary PCs at an early age and quickly became astute with DOS and other programs. His academic primary school progress saw him accepted as a weekly border at the Sisekelo High School, initially established by sugar milling companies to provide well-resourced education for the children of their expatriate employees.
“It was very strict. We were not allowed to hold hands with the girls, we were not even allowed to be within five foot of a female,” says Resting.
The school on the banks of Usuthu River in Swaziland’s Lowveld region, however, had a couple of computers and Resting spent leisure time writing computer programs and a 3D version of the game Minesweeper. He became so proficient he assisted in teaching computer studies to his classmates.
His maths teacher advised him: “Maybe I should think of IT as a profession and not architecture. So he got me thinking about IT as a career. But back then the only company that anyone had really heard of was Microsoft… I didn’t see it as a skill then; just a passion.”
Following Resting’s intranet installation, the “pet project” quickly established a momentum of its own. Working with Lachezar Karadjov – an architect fascinated by the concept of global connectivity and who was to become his business partner – he created a basic gateway to CompuServe, the first major US commercial online service provider. Swaziland joined the internet age.
Real Image’s formative years saw the door-to-door selling of internet dial-up email services, initially signing up five subscribers who remain on the books today. The fledgling company built the country’s first internet website portal and claimed some prime digital real estate with the ownership of the legend swazi.com. But income remained elusive and Karadjov shared some of his architect salary with him.
“We had no idea how we were going to make money at that stage,” says Resting.
His partner was 30 years senior to the teenage tech entrepreneur. Resting acknowledges, although at the time it went unrecognized, the benefits of Karadjov’s mentoring of him in the ways of business. Karadjov was to retire from Real Image a few years later in 2004 and Resting bought him out to become the company’s majority shareholder.
In the early days Real Image’s office space was a cubicle in the architect’s offices. As the business expanded, so did the computer hardware which began to spill out and display tangles of electrical wiring and connections.
“It was damn hot, and it never looked good, as we had customers walking in and seeing all these things.”
At 19 years old, Resting’s company, Real Image, became Swaziland’s first internet service provider (ISP).
The financial gravity of Johannesburg pulls the bright and the talented to it from throughout southern Africa. Resting’s lack of a degree would not have handicapped him from employment in South Africa, where the IT industry’s rapid evolution thrives on the innovative.
But he never considered it as an option.
“I want to leave a legacy behind and I want to be known as the guy who brought connectivity to this country and I continue lobbying to bringing proper connectivity.”
“To go to South Africa is about making a quick buck and a substantive living working in those markets. In Swaziland I get to experience all the challenges there are to rolling out a network, be it terrestrial or wireless. Money will come in due course, I am not worried about that. But what we are doing is building value.”
“Our (Real Image) rate of growth used to be 6 or 7 percent. Now we are hitting the 15 percent mark compounded, which is 17 to 20 percent year on year. We may be doing R30 million ($2.3 million) [annual turnover] today, but in five years we may be beyond the R50 million ($3.8 million) mark and it is an organically grown company.”
As a dominant player in connectivity, employing 40 full time staff, Real Image hosts 80% of the country’s internet content, and provides a range of services, including internet or intranet, through to website development and tailored software.
“One of the ways to quickly grow your numbers is buying up the small operators. But then what are we trying to achieve. We are very much driven by quality of service and believe that we provide a superior product.”
The geographical triangle of Mbabane, Manzini and Matsapha, about 20 kilometers apart at their furthest apex, forms Swaziland’s industrial base and hosts its manufacturing and finance industries, some of King Mswati III’s myriad palaces and the seat of government.
Swaziland’s comparatively much higher internet costs to neighboring South Africa is a consequence of a government parastatal acting as the gatekeeper for importing bandwidth and able to charge monopoly prices in an uncompetitive arena. Within this constricted operating environment, Resting is on a mission to reduce data costs and increase connectivity speeds by making the epicenter of the Swazi economy a WiFi zone.
Owing to Mbabane’s mountainous terrain five WiFi towers have been built to service the capital, each structure costing R500,000 (around $38,000) before the installation of the electronics, but fewer are required in Matsapha and Manzini as the landscape gives way to shallow undulating hills.
In October last year, communications minister Dumisani Ndlangamandla cut the ribbon to open Real Image’s Mbabane headquarters. The double–story, open-plan offices has a public internet cafe – with limited free data access – and amid the workspace’s rows of computers a tabletop football game. The architecture firm that provided him a small cubicle for his initial foray into the digital world is now a tenant at the new offices.
Resting says he has the “ear of government,” and continues to lobby for the liberalization of the sector, including the removal of the “exclusivity clause” that makes the import of bandwidth the sole preserve of a government parastatal.
“My hope is that by the end of this year (2017) the pricing of the internet is going to drop dramatically in the country. Dramatically,” Resting predicts with a smile.