We are very serious about Africa: Indian billionaire Azim Premji

by Methil Renuka 0

Hailed as ‘India’s Bill Gates’ for his Philanthropy and as India’s richest tech tycoon, Azim H. Premji, Chairman of Wipro Limited, has consistently graced annual Forbes’ global rich lists. Premji has helmed Wipro since the late 1960s, turning a $2 million hydrogenated cooking fat company in India into the $7 billion revenue IT, BPO and R&D services organization with a presence in 60 countries it is today.

In India, the company also engages heavily in social empowerment. The Azim Premji Foundation established in 2001 is focused on enhancing the public school education system, and on teaching and research programs in engineering education. Wipro hopes to do the same to develop skills and build local talent in South Africa, using the country as a base for the rest of Africa. The company has been present in South Africa for the last three years, employing over 1,200 employees with a 40% local workforce.

Methil Renuka briefly caught up with Premji, on his first-ever visit to South Africa, to speak business, philanthropy and why the country is today one of Wipro’s top five focus areas globally:

Q. What business brings you to South Africa?

A. We have been present here very successfully. This is my first trip, but I will be making more frequent trips. It’s a high-growth market for us and we will continue to expand and localize here. We are localized to the extent of 40%. We have trained about 400 interns here, out of which we have employed 70%. We are now planning to engage with the universities in South Africa, upgrade their curriculum, and re-train their teachers.

And we intend to roll out a science program for primary and secondary school teachers, [similar to what] we have done in the United States. It’s an extended program where we select the teachers and they work part-time in these programs and part-time as teachers. The whole idea is to build mathematics and physics skills in teachers as there is a dearth of talent qualified in this area. And that really is the forerunner for training technical people; and there is a huge shortage in South Africa.

Q. When compared to India in this area, how far is South Africa lagging behind?

A. As far as engineering education in India is concerned, it is the first choice of career for boys, and girls as well. There is a surplus of engineers, but not a surplus of good engineers. I think South Africa is a far cry from that. In fact [I may stand corrected], I think enrolment in engineering education is falling here despite high market demand. But once trained, we find our interns [in South Africa] turn out to be first-rate. We take college graduates with a science-math-physics background, but we find that within three months, they are technically ready to take on the jobs. We then give them a three-month rotation on the job and many of them perform as well as people [in India] in terms of output, productivity and commitment to the job.

Q. How important is innovation in the scheme of things?

A. This industry cannot survive without innovation, in terms of delivery models, automation, and technology and that’s the lifeline, and it has really accelerated.

Q. You are a well-known philanthropist. Do you think businesses are doing enough to be socially responsible?

A. I do what I think is the right thing to do vis-a-vis philanthropy. I consider my wealth a fiduciary responsibility and my family supports me on that, importantly. There is a distinction between the CSR of a company and personal philanthropy. People often get the two [mixed] up.

I think there is a trend towards companies trying to build an image with society that they care, trying to be sensitive to the environment in terms of the resources they use to increase their CSR as a percentage of their revenue and as a percentage of their profit. This is a good trend. Some people confuse the company’s CSR with individual philanthropy and say we are doing a lot in the company, we don’t need to do anything ourselves, which is unfortunate.

I have been chairing a movement in India for the last two years, similar to what Bill Gates is doing in the US, trying to encourage people to be more philanthropic. We have an event in Mumbai on September 20, for which Bill Gates is flying down.

It’s a slow process, but there is a lot of generosity particularly among the new rich professionals who have made it big in terms of start-ups. There is probably more generosity there than there is amongst the very wealthy, who have so much legacy and so many family members clamoring for [that] wealth. And somehow, [their] philosophy is we have to take care of the family first.

Q. How far is your family involved in the running of Wipro?

A. My elder son has been working with us for eight years and the younger son is with the foundation.

Q. What is the current position of Wipro in India today?

A. We will be between No 1 and No 2 in terms of services in India. We employ about 20,000 people in India. We are very focused in terms of certain verticals which have large potential. And now with the new government, we are going to reassess our focus on the government, because up to now, nothing was getting done. And there is a very large potential market in broadband and internet, which the [new] Prime Minister [Narendra Modi] is going to drive. India is a key market for us. The Indian customers are very demanding in terms of technology, quality and price; you cannot take the Indian customer for-granted.

Q. Are there any similarities in the challenges India and South Africa face?

A. One challenge is poverty, the other is education. The [South African] fought very hard for independence, [but] has he gone to sleep a little bit, after having gone through it? There should be consciousness about that.

Q. How have you been involved in education?

A. In India, we are also engaged with 30,000 professors in 800 colleges. The objective is to train the teachers, and make the curricula more industry- and technology-oriented. We coach the teachers on our premises and other campuses. We have packaged this program electronically, and there are about 20 other competitors using it. If we can upgrade the quality of the students, and make them more technology-current, then it serves the national purpose.

Q. Do you think India is doing enough business in Africa, especially in relation to China?

A. We are very serious about Africa. We [Wipro] are in a very niche area – IT services and solutions. I think the level of [overall] activity will increase. Without question, the Narendra Modi government [in India] will forge better ties with Africa. He already has forged better ties in Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, the whole of the SAARC nations, and recently, Japan. Africa has to be on his priority list. We are trying to convince him to get the Middle East, like the UAE and Saudi Arabia, too [on his priority list]; it is a big market for us, and they have a lot of money to invest in our infrastructure.    

Q. How does Wipro promote gender-equality?    

A. 34% of our talent is women, and most of our talent is in engineering or science. We have a very active women’s wing, which we have encouraged. We are now working towards having more women in our middle and senior management. 

Q. Besides the Gandhi connection, India and South Africa go a long way. What have your impressions been on this two-day trip?

A. The people are very warm and friendly here, and there are a lot of similarities in our cultures. Families are important. I will most certainly be back next year.

Methil Renuka is the Editor of FORBES WOMAN AFRICA