For our interview series “We made it!”, we share our clients’ success stories in South Africa. This month we would like to introduce you to Jan Schenk the founder and director of ikapadata, a survey research company based in Cape Town. Jan relocated from Germany to South Africa and started ikapadata which is specialized in running complex face-to-face surveys in difficult-to-access areas in Southern Africa with the help of mobile data collection technology and offers other research services. IBN had the pleasure to find out more in this interview about Jan´s relocation, business and life in South Africa.

IBN: What made you decide to relocate and why did you choose South Africa?

Jan Schenk, founder of ikapadata

Jan: I originally came to South Africa on holiday. I was meant to stay for two weeks, but after the first week I went to the University of Cape Town to see if I could study there for a semester or a year.

I had a 15-minutes chat with one of the professors there and at the end of it he said to me “Welcome to UCT!”. I took this as a positive sign and about two months later I was back for what was supposed to be only a one-year study programme. This is now more than 17 years ago.

I was fascinated by the country already before I visited it, although I cannot explain why. Some stories I picked up in newspapers, a documentary – something must have triggered this passion for South Africa before I even knew I would live here one day.

IBN: How long have you already lived in South Africa?

Jan: It’s been more than 17 years.

IBN: What do you do in South Africa?

Jan: I am the founder and director of ikapadata, a survey research company based in Cape Town. Among other research services, we specialize in running complex face-to-face surveys in difficult-to-access areas in Southern Africa with the help of mobile data collection technology. For example: if a group of researchers want to know detailed information about the socio-economic situation of subsistence farmers in the Eastern Cape then we go there with a team of enumerators and conduct the survey by going from household to household and asking eligible respondents to participate. We conduct similar surveys in all sorts of contexts – from townships and shopping malls in South Africa to tea-growing areas in Rwanda.

IBN: What makes your business idea special/what sets you apart?

Survey in Uganda

Jan: From the beginning we have heavily relied on technology, and mobile data collection technology in particular, in the way we do things. In fact, we never do pen and paper survey by principle.

Mobile data collection means that the responses of survey participants are captured on mobile devices (e.g. tablets) and sent to our server in real-time. As soon as the data comes in a series of automated processes kick in. First, the data is being checked and validated.

For example, by capturing GPS locations we can check if the interview took place where it was supposed to take place. Timestamps tell us how long an interview, or a section of the interview, took and flag it if the it was shorter than it should have been. Another example would be an interview where the respondent is 18 years old but claims to have a PhD. In the next step, automated notifications highlighting these data quality concerns are sent to team leaders in the field and quality control staff in the office, so they can follow up with the enumerators in question. We also sometimes automatically send airtime vouchers as an incentive directly to the respondents. In the meantime, our quality control staff and the clients can follow survey progress and preliminary results via live maps and dashboard.

While we usually run these surveys ourselves, we also build custom data collection and management systems for clients so they can run their own data collection tasks.

Ultimately, the motivation to always improve in our methods with the help of technology, and the readiness to apply them in areas that are not easy to access, is what sets us apart from other service providers.

IBN: What would you say are the advantages/disadvantages living in South Africa?

Jan and Sam

Jan: To me, the complexity of the country simultaneously represents its greatest attraction and its greatest challenge for living here.

There is great beauty in the stark contrasts that characterize South Africa on a social and natural level, but it always brings out the worst inequality, which is sometimes difficult to live with – and I consider myself to be on the more comfortable side of that divide.

But in the end, living here always keeps you on your toes and makes it difficult to hide from the problems faced by society on a global level; it forces you to take a position.

IBN: What was your experience in relocating/setting up a business in South Africa?

Jan: Overall, it’s been a positive one, also thanks to the help of IBN. Dealing with the Department of Home Affairs can be frustrating as there are often delays or the wrong permit is being granted. But in the end, I was allowed to study here, start a business and live my life, so I am grateful for that.

Despite the other business challenges one faces in South Africa, the bureaucracy involved in opening a business is actually not too bad, and I had the sense that my decision to do it was welcomed and supported by the authorities.

IBN: How is your life in South Africa different from your home country and what do you like most about South Africa?

Jan: My life here now and my life back in Germany are different mostly because of the time that has passed since I have lived there; for better or worse, I can say that I no longer go through the day the way I did as a 21-year old student. But more generally, I would maybe say that life has more surprises here than in Germany. There is a certain randomness in the way things sometimes unfold here, which is both an opportunity as much as it is a challenge. I would perhaps say it is more difficult to get bored here.

IBN: What do you dislike about South Africa?

Jan: The inequality in general and the state of public education in particular. South Africa faces many problems, but the lack of access to proper education for vast parts of its population is the most serious one in my opinion, as it cannot be solved quickly and robs entire generations of their opportunities, with untold damage to the economy and society as a whole. I also dislike the continuing ignorance and lack of respect exhibited by parts of the privileged section of society.

IBN: What do you miss most from home?

Jan´s Family visiting from Germany

Jan: My family and not being able to travel around Europe easily. I love travelling in South Africa but I equally enjoy the cultural diversity on offer in Europe.

IBN: What advice would you give people thinking about moving and/or setting up a business in South Africa?

Jan: One advice would be to see what works in your home country and whether it already exists or could work in South Africa – many successful local startups tend to be variations of a theme that already exists elsewhere. The other advice would be to have or gain a specific skill, become the number-one specialist in it and build a business or career around that. This could be anything from craftsmanship to software development – well trained specialists are in short supply in almost any industry here, in my experience.

IBN: What are your plans for the future?

Jan: Keep growing the company while claiming back some of the personal life that got lost during the startup years – get back to surfing!

IBN: How was the IBN Team able to assist you in reaching your goals?

Jan: IBN helped me start my business and obtain permanent residency, and they are always available if I need advice around immigration (e.g. employees), business and referrals to other specialists. I am not sure whether I would have been able to pull it off without them.

IBN: Thank you so much for sharing your story with us. We wish you all the best in all your future endeavors!!!

Jan Schenk | ikapadata


by Stephanie Duscher