Ict@innovation: Free your IT Business in Africa/2-2
Module 2.2 The case of GIS Global Image Ltd.
Registered Name: GIS Global Image (PTY) Ltd.
Staff Strength: 17
Country: South Africa
Type of business: FOSS GIS products sales and support services
GIS Global Image (PTY) Ltd is a South African based company, specializing in Geographical Information Systems (GIS). Essentially a GIS makes use of software to display database data on a map, which can help decision makers. The company focuses on clients needs and uses the most applicable software to address those needs. To achieve this, GIS Global Image adopts a hybrid model - providing software solutions and services around both open source and proprietary software. GIS Global Image renders services relating to GIS consulting; this involves system design and implementation, data capture and analysis, training workshops and capacity building. The company has two branches in South Africa: Pretoria and Stellenbosch and currently employs 17 staff, including 5 directors. This network is expanded through strategic partnerships in South and East Africa.
GIS Global Image (PTY) Ltd resulted from the merger of two companies (Urban Dynamics GIS and Plandata) in 2000, giving it the advantage of an established and existing client base and infrastructure. From its inception, GIS Global Image has been focusing on rendering services related to system design and implementation; data capture and analysis; training workshops and capacity building. These systems are typically based on Internet and Intranet platforms, making the information available to a wide user-base in organisations.
Traditionally, the services are rendered to private- and public organizations, who aim to present their organisational data on geospatial (map)-based information systems. These clients include all levels of Government (National; Provincial and Local Government); Para-statal which include the Electricity Supply Commission of South Africa (ESKOM); The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and various private companies implementing these mapping applications in order to make informed decisions.
GIS Global Image further engages in strategic partnerships with other companies and educational institutions. These partnerships enhance capacity in order to deliver services to clients. Examples include the strategic partnership with Arican eDevelopment Resource Center (AeRC) which is based in Nairobi, Kenya, to facilitate practical GIS workshops and to provide GIS training. In the same region, GIS Global Image also has an agreement with Organizational Management Systems (OMS), also based in Nairobi, Kenya, to implement Geographical Systems in the East African region. Other partnerships include Maluleke, Luthuli & Associates, and a development planning company in South Africa, who also has shareholding within GIS Global Image.
FOSS Business focus
Products and services
The primary business activity of Global Image offers a variety of Geographical Information Systems or GIS products and services to enable Local Authorities or municipalities to access and process information from GIS data.
What has worked well for GIS Global Image over the years is the use of open source tools to do training with its clients. The company often conducts 1-3 days training workshops in which they teach practical GIS skills. Participants, who may be potential clients, also learn how to use the company's open source flagship products such as Papyrus. The workshops are open to all but participants are charged fees which pay for the printing of training material; food and beverages; venue and hardware hire; instructor fee.
The Papyrus product, which is based on open source components, can be used to integrate information from various sectors within a Local Government department or district. The GIS mapping component of Papyrus is distributed as free software under the GPL license.
The GIS@School product is (currently) proprietary software as this is the software used by some schools. The company is planning to use MapWindow GIS or Quantum GIS – both open source GIS Software package - as the mapping software.
Advantages gained through FOSS
How is GIS Global Image Ltd. benefiting from open source software? The company develops its own software, which is provided as “Free for download Software”, although they retained the source code, and would customise the software according to the demand. The company does more customizing than developing new GIS software. However, software customization of most of the company's products does not involve changing the core of the software, but just the GUI to meet clients’ needs.
The company software developers are not directly involved in any one open source project, but if they customize the software they use, the company takes it upon itself to provide the customized software back to the community, as per licence agreement. As the company director puts it, the benefit of open source software is to give the company “access to software being developed and maintained by a larger developer community”. Thus, open source acts as a catalyst to lower software development and maintenance costs for a relatively small business like GIS Global Image.
GIS Global Image markets its products and services using the Internet, by word-of-mouth, articles in local publications, through workshops and training. The company also employs another strategy – marketing through tenders. GIS Global Image has to tender for many of their services, where they use their products. This means that the company accesses tender requests, and in tendering, they are able to present or market their products.
Challenges in doing FOSS business
Despite benefiting from an existing infrastructure and client base, the GIS Global Image experience has a lot to teach software SMEs doing business in open source software and operating in South Africa. The company's experience report can be categorized as follows:
- Financing: Many financial institutions are reluctant to finance SMEs. South Africa implemented the Financial Intelligence Centres Act in 2001. One of the aims of the act is to stop money laundering but at the same time placing restrictions on the provision of credit to businesses. GIS Global Image's possible solution in this climate is to finance activities through their own resources, but this may also place strains on cash-flow. Another possible solution could be entering into partnerships so that a company is able to share resources to develop applications, and thus sharing in the risks.
- Personnel: GIS Global Image has experienced that it is sometimes difficult to retain top staff, especially in markets where service sectors and companies are competing for qualified, and mostly scarce, staff. GIS Global Image implements performance appraisal system to help it retain its staff.
- Service Offering: Working with Government departments, implementing GIS solutions based on open source is often difficult, as clients are sometimes skeptical as they only know proprietary solutions such as ESRI ArcGIS. Often, some do, however, acknowledge that license fees are prohibitively expensive, which provide the opportunities for open source-based solutions. In this regard, the GIS Global Image position appears more advantageous.
- Do not focus on the solution alone, but also educate your clients. Educating the client is more than just training or delivering/displaying documentation, but education in what the open source concept is all about. For example, GIS Global Image shows that some of their clients in local government departments do not realise that South Africa adopted an open source strategy in 2007. By informing the local government departments about this, the company educates its clients as they attempt to promote their products and services.
Key factors for successfully using FOSS
GIS Global Image's experience in building business around open source software in Africa in general and South Africa in particular serves as a useful advice:
- In Africa in general, there is an issue of access. In most countries Internet access is often quite limited, if available and it is often slow and only available in selected areas like Internet Cafés, Tele-centers or hotels. However, as Africa moves towards and is posit to compete in the digital age, many governments, telecommunication companies, some projects (e.g. AfriNic) are trying to address this issue. The GIS Global Image experience finds out that “people might not have access to a PC or the Internet, but they do have mobile devises (phones, PDAs, etc.)”. This is where the managing director, Nico Elema, thinks the “market lies in providing applications to access information though these mobile devices”.
- Build a personal as well as professional business on-line and on the World Wide Web using social software. A professional personal profile can be build through social networks such LinkedIn (www.linkedin.com) and a business can be promoted though a company website, RSS feeds, staff blogs, etc.
- Get involved in open source software projects and discussions on mailing lists, forums, conferences, etc. GIS Global Image experience is that not all who are software developers can contribute to the software code, but many can get to know software and systems so well through constant use and self-learning. Such people can provide training and support in the software. This will create the market for the open source software, which can lead to better software development. If you are able to contribute in open source discussions and build a online profile which indicates that you are an expert at either coding, training or support, you might have a better chance in getting involved in projects, and expand your business and client base.
- Clients do not always care about the software being used, but about the solution, and that it is able to meet their needs. Often discussions focus too much on technicalities, and not on the solution.
- Africa is extremely diverse in terms of culture. What works in other areas of the world, might not work as a carbon-copy in Africa. Local knowledge and experience is thus of essence, in order to understand the market.
In South Africa in general, all of the above will obviously be applicable. Building solutions that are Internet-based will provide access to many, but again, GIS Global Image experience believes that the future may lie in mobile technologies. South Africa is seen by many as a leader in open source as indicated by the adoption of open source software strategy by the South African parliament. Commenting on GIS Global Image's experience, the managing director conjectures, any business or individual doing business in open source in South Africa should use this government initiative as a leverage, especially if they are doing business with Government.
Revenue generation model
The bulk of the company revenue comes from sales and support services of its flagship product, Papyrus Spatial MIS, with GIS Services (e.g. Consultancy) coming next. Currently, little revenue is being generated through workshops and training where GIS software is being used, but it is foreseen that this component would expand in future.
One of the corner stones of the business is built upon client relations and networks. Being in a position where clients trust a service provider to deliver and address user needs, is a valued asset to the organization. Building relations with customers where they are in a position to do word-of-mouth marketing is one of the most valuable marketing methods.
In order to sustain this networking relationship, existing clients have preferential access to new modules and software announcements. Existing clients also have preferential rates when GIS workshops are presented, which they want to attend.
In a market where there are predominant proprietary software vendor (ESRI ArcGIS Software) individual needs need to be assessed to determine if that specific organisation is ready to be “converted” to FOSS GIS solutions. Often the answer lies in implementing hybrid solution where elements of proprietary software and FOSS are employed, which also provides benefits to the organisations. FOSS GIS are more easily introduced where users do not have prior GIS software experience, and do not really care about the technology, but about the solution that can be provided though the software.